Namaz row: Criminalising minorities for everything

Namaz row: Criminalising minorities in everything they do

Hindus need to understand the argument by the violent groups disrupting namaz that they want to make public spaces accessible is bogus

Muslims conduct 'Namaz' at an open site amid heavy police presence, following protests by residents and members of various pro-Hindu organisations, at Sector 12, in Gurugram. Credit: PTI File Photo

A new debate on the use and misuse of public spaces has started after some Hindu groups, aided by the local administration and patronised by political powers, succeeded in forcing out Muslims from many spots in Haryana's Gurgaon, where they had been offering their Juma namaz, or Friday prayers, for a long time.

The issue has been framed thus: are Muslims justified in using public spaces for their religious practices? Is it reasonable on their part to demand it as a right to be allowed to use a space not owned by them and is a public space? Why do not they go to mosques to perform their religious rituals? Before we look into this argument, we need to ask if Muslims are free to build mosques according to their need? For example, in Gurgaon, they have been asking the government to allocate land and grant permission to build mosques, but their requests are lying pending with the government.

Inherent in this suggestion is the idea that the religious activities of a particular group, Hindu or Muslim, should not interfere with the site and sight of those who do not belong to that specific group. It assumes that religious activities are exclusive to that group. What is purifying for one pollutes the other, or so is the understanding. What soothes me will offend you is the assumption behind it.

Also read: Everyone should hold religious events inside places of worship: Anil Vij on namaz row

This framing also assumes that public space belongs to all, but none can lay a claim over it. Or, as we saw in Gurgaon, Muslims were barred from using the spot at sector 12A for their prayers, but Hindus at that very spot and that exact time performed a puja there.

Hence, the argument used to make the space unavailable to Muslims that public spaces should not be used for religious purposes was abandoned when Hindus came into the picture. Or, are we arguing that since Hindus do it occasionally, they can be allowed, but Muslims cannot enjoy the same right as they congregate every Friday? Public spaces are generally thought to be community spaces. In a country like India, they are maintained by State bodies with the money raised from the taxes all of us pay. People from all religions. If that earns me a right, I, a taxpayer, have a right over the common space. It is common to all. 

In Gurgaon, for the past three years, Muslims have been pushed out of those common or public spaces where they used to gather on Fridays for their customary collective namaz. Their number in Gurgaon is approximately five lakh, and nearly a lakh of them, men, to be exact, are out in the day for their work on different locations. There are only 13 mosques in Gurgaon. Muslims have an obligation to offer this collective, congregational prayer on Fridays, and it is mostly a half an hour affair.

They prefer the mosque, but if not available closer to their workplace, they look for a space where this obligatory congregational prayer can be offered. For namaz, you do not need a structure. You clean yourself and the spot where you have to perform namaz, which becomes fit for your prayer. So, on Fridays, we see gatherings of Muslims, which disperse after some time.

Why should it be a problem for others? Why should they say that Muslims do not have a right to use public space even for an hour if they do not disrupt the everyday life of others? In a country that gives all its people the right to observe their religion their way, is it not the State's duty to ensure that Muslims are not inconvenienced in performing their religious duty?

Also read: Time to reframe the 'Hindu vs Muslim' problem

Hindus find it difficult to appreciate this. There is a reason behind it. In Hinduism, a collective prayer before God is not obligatory. There is no fixed day or time. However, Muslims do it on Fridays. Christians gather in the Church for their Sunday mass. But Hindus are not obliged to congregate for any religious practice. It is natural for them to think that it is not essential to perform your prayers collectively. Therefore, we hear objections from them and suggestions that Muslims do not need to demonstrate it publicly, and why don't they do it in the confines of their homes or mosques. But have we seen a collective Muslim prayer on any other weekday? Other than the Friday afternoon prayers, Muslims are not seen offering namaz together.

Secondly, they would prefer a mosque for who wants to do it in the open, braving the bitter cold or the scorching sun? That is not their choice. Hindus need to understand and help Muslims not fail their sacred duty. Apart from this, they need to understand that the argument being made by the violent groups disrupting namaz that they want to make public spaces accessible is bogus. Their idea is to criminalise everything that has a Muslim touch. They want to push Muslims out of public sight.

Moreover, we need to think about another use of public space which is really dangerous. All mornings in thousands of fields, parks, schools, college grounds, an activity takes place across India in which hatred against Muslims and Christians is sowed slowly. It is called the shakha. These spaces are maintained and created using public money, which includes taxes paid by Muslims. To allow a facility run by my money to spread hatred against me is something I should not allow. If there is one activity for which public spaces must be barred, it is this. Not the Friday namaz.

(The writer teaches at Delhi University)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.