According to the families of the four youth arrested for reading namaz in Lucknow’s Lulu Mall, they asked security guards for permission before they prayed on July 14.

A communally charged row broke out over videos of eight men offering namaz at the mall, inaugurated just days earlier by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. As Hindutva groups protested, the local administration imposed Section 144, introducing curbs on movement and public gatherings.

After days of tension, the police arrested four youth on July 19 and sent them to judicial remand. They were booked for offences such as promoting between religious groups and outraging religious feelings. Brothers Rehan and Atif Khan are 17 and 18, respectively, their relatives said.

“We are hearing he was taken to jail, he is not an adult yet,” said their uncle, Ibrahim Khan, said about Rehan Khan. The police did not confirm whether Rehan Khan was treated as a minor or taken to prison.

The other two arrested are also brothers – Mohammad Lukman and Mohammad Nomaan, both in their 20s. Lawyers moved the Lucknow district court for bail for all four youth on July 22. The bail hearing is scheduled for July 25.

“They were close to each other and would meet often to hang out,” said Ibrahim Khan, adding that he did not know the four others in the video. He said that Atif Khan was a first-year student at a pharmaceutical college in Lucknow while Rehan Khan studied at a madrasa. All four live in Lucknow’s Abrar Nagar. visited the madrasa where Rehan Khan studies, and which Lukmaan and Nomaan had previously attended. “All of them are basically students,” said one of the teachers at the madrasa, who did not want to be identified.

According to him, the mall visit was part of post-Eid celebrations. “They had a day off and wanted to see what the new mall was like,” the teacher said. “That was it. They have made a big deal out of nothing.”

Left to right: Mohammad Nomaan, Mohammad Lukmaan, Atif Khan, Rehan Khan (Police photo)

‘No one had a problem’

After the video of the men praying went viral, several rumours started floating around – they were staff employed at the mall, they were Hindu men reading namaz at the mall to create a controversy, they had not really read namaz at all.

According to the LuLu Mall management, CCTV footage showed the eight men praying on the first floor for about 18 seconds before they are interrupted, and then for about 52 seconds on the second floor, where someone films them on a mobile phone.

On July 19, Adityanath said, “The Lucknow administration must take the matter very seriously. Miscreants attempting to create such nuisance should be dealt with strictly.” The four youth were arrested the same day.

Atif and Rehan Khan’s relatives said most of the rumours had no truth to them. “First, people are saying they did not offer complete namaz,” said Ibrahim Khan. “I do not know who has seen the full footage to make such a claim. It seems to me that the video is only of the dua – the prayers that are recited after the namaz. Who knows who took the video and at which point they started filming?”

Many have pointed out that one of the men was not looking west as is customary – a sign, they claim, that the namaz was not genuine. Ibrahim Khan said it was not unusual for worshippers to turn their heads in another direction in the middle of prayer. “All I am saying is let the court look at the evidence and let us not rely on what is being said. If the court thinks they are wrong, we will understand,” he said.

He added that Rehan and Atif Khan were not aware of who filmed the video in the mall – it had been shot from behind them. “If someone is standing in front of you and taking a video, you will know,” he said. “But when someone is standing behind you then how will you know?”

Ibrahim Khan insisted that the security at the mall had given permission to pray. “No one had a problem,” he said. “The guard was okay with it. The video has made everything political and that is the fact. Please understand we are not blaming the guard or the mall. The fact is we live in an odd time. All we want is that there is no injustice done to our boys.”

After the controversy broke out, Sameer Verma, general manager of the mall, issued a video in which he said no religious worship was allowed inside its premises. “We train our staff and security personnel to take care of such activities,” he said.

Sebtain Husain, public relations officer of LuLu Mall, denies permission for namaz was asked for and granted by the mall security.

Ibrahim Khan and Mohammad Shuaib, relatives and neighbours of the four boys. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

‘India’s culture’

The families of the four youth are poor. Rehan and Atif Khan’s father drives a battery van. Lukmaan and Nomaan’s family are even poorer; their father does odd jobs for a living, said Ibrahim Khan. “He is very scared to speak to the media,” he said.

Both sets of parents have left it to Rehan and Atif Khan’s uncles, Ibrahim Khan and Mohammad Shuaib, to secure bail. Shuaib said the youth did not know they would be arrested till they were picked up by the police.

Both uncles said that it was common for Muslims to find a quiet corner and offer prayers if it was time for namaz and they were not at a mosque. “This is India’s culture,” Shuaib said.

Additional Superintendent of Police Lucknow Rajesh Kumar Srivastava did not comment further on the arrests. “I have 60 days to submit my charge sheet and the investigating officer will do that. All this is a matter of investigation,” he said.

Ibrahim Khan said he agreed with Adityanath’s recent statement – those creating a “nuisance” must face strict action. “I do not agree with everything he say but on this I do,” he said.

Ever since the controversy, there are placards across LuLu Mall, prohibiting religious prayers. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)