Something snapped inside me when I heard that a group of Muslims at one of the Friday prayer gatherings at Gurgaon (Leisure Valley ground, Sector 29) sang ‘Sare Jahan Se Achha, Hindostan Hamara’ after offering their namaz this Friday.
Why did they have to do it? Who forced them to do it? There was no overt diktat but obviously the Muslims who had gathered thought it necessary to assure their Hindu onlookers that even though they were Muslims, and religious ones at that, their loyalty to the nation could not be questioned.
Was the majesty of India enhanced by this act? I am not a religious person but the very idea of a human-made concept interfering with the communion of humans with their god is revolting to me. I had felt a similar sense of revulsion when I saw some devotees of Shiva carrying the holy water of the Ganga to him while draping themselves in the national tricolour. To imprison spiritual experience in national boundaries is vanity.
Will things end here in this greatest of lands? Or will Muslims be expected to sing ‘Vande Mataram’ to be finally certified a part of mother India? Hasn’t this slogan – Bharat mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kahna hoga (‘If you want to remain in India, you have to say Vande Mataram) – already been raised in different parts of the country?
Nationalism was never so vulgar, so demeaning. Never before has one felt so alienated from what the country has become today.
It should be a matter of collective shame for all of us that last Friday’s namaz was performed in Gurgaon, which is a part of the national capital region, under heavy police bandobast involving 76 duty officers. That namazis had to be boxed in spots identified for them by the administration. That the community struggled with the authorities to convince them that a population of nearly 6 lakh Muslims cannot be restricted to 13 odd open and closed spaces, apart from 13 or 14 small mosques, that namaz in the open should not be seen as a threat to Hindus.
Everybody heaved a sigh of relief at the end of the day, that the prayers went off without any violence. Namaz performed peacefully, the media reported. A part of it did note the anxiety and disquiet among the worshippers who had to rush through their prayers or had to miss them as they could not find the new places designated by the administration for the purpose.
There were some buildings where namaz was to be performed with the permission of the owner. At least at one such spot, the imam rushed to finish the prayer in 90 seconds after the landlord came waving his hand to stop the session. Someone had warned him that the police were coming and that permission had not been given for namaz there. One of the namazis said that he had never before felt so insulted, it was as if he was committing a crime and had to flee before the police came. Some worshippers said that they could not complete their sunnah prayers and had to do those in their offices once they returned from namaz.
There was anxiety, nervousness and panic and yet the community leaders maintained their calm. They posted volunteers at the old spots where namaz used to take place to direct worshippers to the earmarked spots and kept themselves in constant touch with each other and with the authorities to avoid any miscommunication. They kept telling the communuity that the attitude of the authorities was positive, that the number of the prayer spots was good enough, that they could do four shifts to accommodate the numbers.
The community leaders also kept restraining non-Muslims well-wishers from reacting ‘negatively’ to the curbs put on them by the authorities. They said that accommodation and not confrontation should be the approach.
So who exactly is being accommodating? A handful of self-styled ‘Hindu leaders’, under the umbrella of the Sanyukta Hindu Sangharsh Samiti, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the new arrangement.They want only five spaces to be open for namaz. They want Muslims to be out of sight in Gurgaon. They have even said that the decreased number of Namazis proved their point that there were Rohingyas and Bangladeshis who did not appear this time due to their action. They said that they would build up pressure on the administration to further reduce the number of open spaces for the juma, or Friday, namaz.
All of this is clearly a massive fraud being played on the people of Gurgaon and India. How did namaz in open spaces become a civic issue? How was it turned into an issue of “bad encroachment”, as Sanjay Srivastava has rightly asked? Have villagers or common citizens or officegoers in Gurgaon ever complained about any discomfort from the Friday namaz? The controversy all started with a group of young men disrupting namaz and heckling worshippers at one place on April 20.
What happened was clearly a criminal act. The police did the right thing by arresting them. But soon thereafter, the familiar game started. A new outfit popped up called Sanyukta Hindu Sangharsh Samiti. Look closely at it. There is nothing new in it except it’s name. Its “leaders” are affiliated to older outfits connected in some way to the family of the RSS. It demanded a total ban on namaz in open spaces, claiming that it was a conspiracy to capture land. A new term – ‘land jihad’ – was concocted. They also claimed that the namazis consisted of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, thus implying that there were ‘illegal people’ there. They said that such a large number of unidentified people posed a threat to their sisters and daughters.
The Samiti should have been told that there had been no complaint against the namazis from any quarter and that if at all there was any criminality, it was in the assault on namazis by their activists. Instead, the authorities accepted this outfit as a legitimate party representing the Hindus of the area. It did not tell the Samiti that so long as no law and order problem is caused by the namaz, the police would not interfere. Instead, an exercise was undertaken to identify waqf properties, and legalities were invoked. Representatives of the Muslim community were told that green belt areas could not be used for namaz; the authorities also found other ‘legal’ reasons to not allow prayers at many other places where they were being offered without any objection.
Many reasonable people also started saying that public places should not be used for religious purposes. The chief minister of Haryana advised worshippers to do their namaz inside mosques and another minister echoed the Samiti when he said that “land grabbing in the name of namaz” would not be allowed. Thus the crime of attack on the namazis was completely sidelined and forgotten. The debate centred on the legitimacy, legality and desirability of Muslims praying in open spaces.
Prayer is something you do in a state of calm. In this moment, you are alone even when in the company of others. They are also alone. Nobody wants to be observed or monitored while praying. It is an encroachment on a very private, sacred moment. It is a humiliating experience to have the police keeping an eye on you and forcing you to pray quickly as the next batch is waiting.
What has this episode done to Muslims in general? A friend narrated his experience of offering namaz at the railway platform while waiting for his train. On earlier occasions, it had always been normal for him and others to pray in public. But this time, he was extra alert. A shout, a loud voice made him strain his ears. Was it for him?
We who used to make space for namazis in train, in our homes, offices and even offer a prayer mat to them have gone silent. Goondas have become our voice. This silence will drown India if we allow it spread.