In Gurgaon, the Generosity of a Few Must Not Distract From the Hateful Politics of Many

Events over the past few days have shown that the task of confronting the violence of Hindutva cannot be replaced by humanistic gestures.

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The euphoria created by the offer of the Sikhs to the Muslims of Gurgaon to use the premises of their gurudwara to offer their regular, customary congregational Jumma prayer proved to be short-lived in the face of sharp opposition to the initiative.

Media reports tell us that “Namaz was not offered at Gurdwara Singh Sabha here on Friday, November 19, as some members of the Sikh community protested the management committee’s initiative. It was also reported that “members of a radical Hindu group, Sanyukta Hindu Sangharsh Samiti, reached the gurdwara around 12 noon, distributed books titled Guru Tegh Bahadur-Hind ki Chadar and stayed there till 2 pm.”

On their part, representatives of the Muslim community in Gurgaon had obviously heard about the pressure being brought on those who had offered them the use of the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha’s premises. They had decided on Thursday night itself that they would go to the gurudwara to express their heartfelt appreciation of the gesture but would not avail themselves of the offer as there were threats that Hindutva groups would demand the gurudwara premises for conducting kirtans and some rituals.

Muslim residents of Gurgaon offer namaz under police presence (unseen). Photo: PTI/File

The real task

When Sherdil Singh Sidhu, president of the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Gurgaon made the offer, those who are opposed to the Hindutva groups’ demands celebrated it as a sign of the courage of humanism ultimately triumphing over the forces of exclusion and hatred. It was heart-warming because it showed that humanity and religion are not necessarily contradictory. Your religion can, in fact, help you expand your heart to accommodate others and enlarge your conception of the sacred simultaneously. Also, the notions of sacred that are intrinsic to two different religions need not set up a clash; they, in fact, reinforce each other. The offer made by the gurudwara representative encouraged us to hold on to the idea that religions need not be competitive, they can co-exist.

While reading about the offer, I recalled an essay on religion and sacredness by the Hindi author Jainendra. He wrote that it is a blessing for Hindus to have Muslims and Christians as their neighbours, for they bring with them elements of sacredness from a source that is not available to them. If the source lies outside the country, it is through the practitioners of these religions that Hindus can be touched by that sacredness.

Also Read: In Gurgaon, the Gods Have Fled as Hindutva Leaders Turn Puja Into Anti-Muslim Politics

Seen in that context, if some gurudwaras were opening up to members of another community, it boded well for them too. However, listening to the words of the person in charge of the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, we come to know that it is for a worldly reason that he feels it necessary to open the doors of the gurudwara for another community. He says that it has to be done to save the country and for the sake of fraternity.

The country or nation, in his opinion, can be safe only if all its people feel secure enough to live with their religious orientation and practices, without feeling the pressure to compromise with them. Not only that, they also should feel welcome anywhere and everywhere.

The background of this gesture is now known to the world. The use of open spaces by Muslims in Gurgaon, who had been offering their Jumma namaz for years, is being disallowed after some Hindutva groups started attacking them. It was then that the Jumma namaz became a matter of public discussion. Before these attacks, the practice of Jumma namaz was  almost invisible, of concern only to Muslims. Now suddenly it had been magnified, leached of its ordinariness. Seeing the plight of Muslims, the gurudwara made this offer.

One can be misunderstood but one needs to say this. Those who make a generous gesture deserve our acknowledgement. But we also need to be aware that by eulogising a gesture like this, we are actually pushing the real issue to the background.

The problem to be confronted is the increasing ability of violent Hindutva groups to dictate terms regarding the conduct of our public life and the use of our public spaces. We are conceding ground to them and taking comfort in noble gestures such as the offer made to the Muslim community in Gurgaon.

For the last three years, Muslims in Gurgaon have been told repeatedly and violently that they are not welcome in public spaces. Some Hindutva organisations have been disrupting the customary Friday namaz which is congregational. At the appointed time members of these groups reach the spot and disrupt the namaz with their bhajans and slogans. Members of the Muslim community feel humiliated and cornered. Their namaz has now been turned into a spectacle and a problem for which an amicable solution has to be found.

The narrative is that the namaz is a nuisance and it is the Muslims who are obstinate. The administration knows that namaz is not the issue. It is the violent opposition to the namaz that is the real problem. But that problem is not being confronted.

A group of residents protesting namaz being offered in the open in Sector 47 of Gurugram. Photo: Twitter

The administration has surrendered before the violence of Hindutva groups. Instead of disciplining or restraining them, it has been pushing Muslims into a corner, asking them to withdraw each time their namaz is aggressively disrupted. So much so that the Friday namaz in Gurgaon has become international news and Gurgaon’s Muslims find themselves in the position of having to offer namaz in the presence of policemen, steeling themselves for possible attacks – all this in the full glare of the TV cameras. They have to feel thankful to the administration for making namaz possible for them, while the actual aggressors who are disturbing the social fabric gain more and more space.

Then we witness empathetic gestures such as those made by a section of Sikhs or one Hindu shopkeeper. The Muslims feel grateful. Our hearts swell and our eyes well up. We applaud. Not that there is anything wrong with it. But the real issue lies unaddressed. We forget that namaz was never a problem and that the hooligans who were the real problem continue to be there.

Secondly, conceding ground to their goondaism establishes a principle and precedence: that these “Hindu” groups would have the first right over public spaces and it is only after securing their permission that others would be able to use them.

While lauding the humanity of Sikhs and some Hindus we allow ourselves to forget that criminality is being given a free pass. We cannot, must not, let people feel that it is the goodwill of others which makes life possible for them. Their life, with all its dignity, is their right, which flows from the constitution. Their lives should not have to depend on the gestures of good Samaritans.

When I started writing this article, I feared that friends would see it as an expression of negativity. But I do feel it is important to stress the following point – do not tell me that I have to live by your dictates.

While inviting Muslims to use their sacred space, members of the Sikh community must have felt elevated. But they too should tell the administration to enforce the law and stop the goons who act in the name of or on behalf of the Hindus from dictating the use of public space. My fear is that the euphoria created by the offer of good-hearted Sikhs will take our attention away from the real crime: the capture of all public spaces in India by majoritarian politics.

But as it turned out, even Sikhs are not free to decide for themselves. The power of what Hindus euphemistically describe as a ‘fringe’ group is so enormous that Gurgaon’s Muslims themselves understood the danger that the offer might have put Sikhs in. So the Muslims themselves withdrew. This was to save the Sikhs any potential embarrassment or harm.

The message for us is clear: We need to take back our lives and our public spaces before it is too late.

Note: This piece was edited to include additional details after it was published.