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New Delhi: The right-wing extremists received a shot in their arm on Friday when Haryana chief minister M.L. Khattar announced the withdrawal of an earlier agreement which permitted Muslims to offer Friday prayers on government-allocated land. While announcing the decision, Khattar said that Muslims should not offer Friday prayers in open spaces in Gurugram.
Over the last few weeks, Hindutva activists backed by extremist organisations have been protesting against Muslims praying in designated spaces in Gurugram, fuelling a discussion around the convention that has been going on for years. On several occasions, Muslims had to face threats and bigoted slogans against their faith and community.
Following some low-intensity communal clashes in 2018, the Gurugram administration had allocated government land for Muslims in parts of the city to offer Friday prayers. The government’s move was held as a truce between the two communities. However, in the recent months, right-wing organisations began opposing such a practice and triggered a social media debate on the issue that was soon followed by some Hindutva extremists protesting at various prayer sites.
To be fair, while announcing the annulment of the previous agreement, Khattar said that the Gurugram administration would renegotiate with all involved parties to work out an “amicable” resolution to the problem. Until then, he announced, Muslims should offer prayers only in their homes or mosques.
“I have spoken to the police and this issue must be resolved. We don’t have problems with anyone praying at places of worship. Those places have been built for this purpose,” the chief minister told reporters. In the same vein, he asserted, “but these should not be done in the open. We won’t tolerate the custom of offering namaz in the open.”
The chief minister’s move to support the extremists even as most of those who raised bigoted slogans and gave threats to namazis remain scot-free would most arguably embolden such an intolerant majoritarian campaign not only in Haryana but across India where Hindutva extremists have been seeking to alienate Muslims from the mainstream polity and economy.
Khattar also added that the district administration will identify free areas belonging to the Waqf board that may have been encroached upon to help the Muslim community offer prayers, making it clear that the government land will not be available for such public namaz.
In such a religiously polarised backdrop, Khattar’s move is being seen as pandering to the extremist sentiments, especially when no such strictures or diktat have been issued by his government against frequent religious congregations of other faiths. For ages, Hindus have organised jagrans, Ram Navami, Dussehra and Kanwaria rallies while Sikhs have been organising daily morning kirtans and prabhat pheris. In recent times, public displays of Hindu religious practices have been encouraged by Hindutva groups, often to serve political ends of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In sharp contrast, Muslims were prevented from offering prayers in Gurugram, by all means to trigger communal animosity. Right-wing influencers have argued against any public display of religious practices while criticising the public offering of namaz in Gurugram. In reality, however, the Hindutva extremists in their protests shouted slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” and threw cow dung at a prayer site – a clear means to appropriate spaces designated for Muslims and polarise a conventional practice along communal lines.
Ever since the first such protest began in October, tensions between communities have flared up. Such was the impact that the Gurugram administration last month admitted that Muslims could not pray at at least eight of the 37 designated sites. Since then, the district administration has prevented Muslims from praying in other sites too on the pretext that it received complaints and objections from “locals”.
NDTV reported that among the series of such newly raised “objections”, one was also a claim that Rohingya refugees use the prayer site to commit crime in the area. Neither the police nor the administration could muster any evidence to back such claims. Even Khattar in a veiled support to the Hindutva activists had said earlier that “those offering prayers should not block road traffic” although there was no evidence of such a blockage at the government-appointed prayer sites.
Khattar’s move has also come at a time when the BJP’s time-tested electoral formula of pitching the dominant Jats against more than 30 caste groups has been weakening in the state. The BJP had won the last few elections by consolidating more than 30 caste groups against dominant Jats. However, the farmers’ movement has relatively defused such a polarisation in Haryana that witnessed some of the most determined agitations against farm laws over the last one year. In such circumstances, Khattar’s support to the saffron extremists appears to be a playbook tactic to redirect social polarisation along religious lines.