For the first three nights, the prayers went smoothly.
On the fourth day, on March 26, Mohammad Inam got a call from the security officer of the Supertech Eco-village II apartment complex in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh.
“He said he had got a call from the Cherry County police post, telling him to stop namaz,” said Inam, the 46-year-old vice president of an insurance company.
A group of 30-40 Muslims, many of them residents of the Supertech Eco-village II apartment complex, had been gathering in an unused hall in a commercial building in the society for the Taraweeh namaz – special Ramzan prayers held at night during which long portions of the Quran are read by the congregation.
The call from the police station left them stumped.
Inam contacted Raj Kumar Bhati, a Samajwadi Party leader in Greater Noida, for help. Bhati called up the police officials and the prayers continued that night.
“I took up the matter with the officer in charge of the police post and he assured me that they would allow namaz in the society,” Bhati told Scroll.
But the next evening, on Monday, around 60-70 Hindu residents showed up with a microphone and loudspeaker and started reciting Hanuman Chalisa outside the building where the namaz was about to be held.
They objected to the prayers, arguing that “outsiders” praying at the society was a security risk.
“We told them let’s sit down and resolve the situation,” said Inam. “But they stuck to their stand.”
The outsiders, said Inam, were friends and relatives who had joined the special prayers. “We told them they were our guests and that I take full responsibility for their presence,” Inam said.
He added that the police, too, asked them for the names of the worshippers. “They told us we can continue namaz on the condition that we do not allow ‘outsiders’ but we did not agree because it did not make any sense,” said Inam.
A video of the residents’ argument went viral the next day. A police vehicle can also be seen in the video.
The Muslim residents called off the Taraweeh namaz at the society.
Brijnandan Rai, assistant commissioner of police, Central Noida, said the police had no role in the incident. “This was an internal matter as some people opposed the entry of outsiders,” he said, adding that no one had filed a complaint in the matter. “We did not stop anyone from holding namaz.”
A similar script
Two days earlier, on March 24, a similar story had played out less than 20 km away – at another gated community in Sector 137, Noida.
A group of around 25 Muslim residents, including children and women, had gathered for Taraweeh prayers on the first floor of a club at Ecociti Apartments.
But their neighbours called the police, objecting to namaz being held in the apartment complex.
“We showed them the permission from the society management, but they did not agree,” said Bakhtawar Chawla, a businessman who lives in the society.
A team from the Sector 142 police station arrived and stopped the prayers.
“They asked us to get permission from the police as Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure [prohibiting the assembly of five or more people] had been imposed in Noida since March 1,” said Chawla.
Uttam Kumar, the station officer at Sector 142 police station, told Scroll that “no permission had been taken for holding prayers.”
The namaz was stopped and, since then, prayers have been held in homes.
When the prayers were stopped, a few residents pointed out that Navratri celebrations were also taking place in the club.
“The police then stopped those as well,” said Chawla.
Kumar added: “The police held a meeting with all religious leaders [in Noida] and we informed them that no new meetings or prayers should be held without our prior permission.”
Around 30 Muslim families live in Ecociti, which includes 3,000 households. Since the incident, Chawla said, “there is a feeling of disappointment and helplessness among Muslims.”
‘Disturbing the peace’
This is the third such incident of namaz being stopped in Uttar Pradesh in the last week.
On March 24, a group of Bajrang Dal members had stormed the basement of a commercial building in Moradabad, where around two dozen Muslims had gathered for Taraweeh prayers. The mob was led by the group’s state president Rohan Saxena.
The Bajrang Dal filed a complaint after which the police asked the Muslims of the area to offer prayers in their homes or religious places, a police statement said.
The police also issued a notice to Zakir Hussain, who had organised the prayer meeting in his warehouse, asking why he should not be penalised with a fine of Rs 5 lakh “for disturbing the peace” in the area.
Moradabad senior superintendent of police Hemraj Meena told Scroll that the police asked Hussain to submit a written statement to avoid a similar situation in future.
In both the societies in Noida and Greater Noida, however, what has left the Muslim residents aghast is the fact that the objection to Ramzan prayers came – not from outsiders or Hindutva groups – but from their neighbours and fellow residents. “We had not expected such bigotry from educated professionals,” said Bakhtawar Chawla.
‘The outsider excuse’
The Muslim residents of Supertech Eco-village II said that the “outsider” issue was an excuse to oppose namaz.
“We did not ask for space inside the club because we knew it is Navratri and our Hindu neighbours need it for their functions,” said Syed Taufeek Alam, an advertising professional who lives in the complex.
The space that was designated for offering namaz is inside a commercial complex that faces the road and is open to the public.
Alam added: “We chose that space because it is cut off from the main residential area. When people who come there to shop do not pose any security risk, how would a gathering for namaz for two hours create any problem?”
The residents said they had organised similar prayers in the last three years without anyone raising objections.
Last year, for instance, after 10 days of Taraweeh namaz, they had organised an iftaar for their non-Muslim neighbors too. “There was brotherhood and communal harmony then,” said Alam.
This year, days before the start of Ramazan, the Muslim residents pooled in money to refurbish part of the hall with curtains and install fans and lights.
“The society management also provided us support,” said Inam. A manager of the society, who did not want to be named, confirmed this.
Not surprisingly, the opposition to namaz prayers has left behind a bitter taste. Around 50 Muslim families live in the society of 3,500 households.
“There is a decent way to raise objections,” said Alam. “But they created a ruckus, confronted us by bringing speakers and playing the Hanuman Chalisa.”
He alleged that Hindu residents invited channels like Sudarshan TV to the society.
“The channel made videos portraying namaz as some criminal act and alleged that we were setting up a mosque inside the society,” he added. “They called some Muslim maintenance staff jihadis.”
Even while namaz has been stopped, the residents alleged, Navratri events are being held and DJs have taken up space outside each building to play Hindu religious songs. “We have never raised objections to their festivals and events,” said Alam. “We believe in living together.”
The Muslim residents have been forced to make arrangements for Taraweeh namaz elsewhere – inside a building owned by a co-religionist.
However, other residents of the society denied that it was a communal dispute.
“It was not a Hindu-Muslim issue,” said Neeraj, a resident of the society who objected to the prayers. “We had no problem with namaz or Muslims. We had issues with outsiders coming in.”
The silence of the majority
At Ecociti, a lawyer who wished not to be named said that those opposed to namaz are associated with Hindu supremacist groups. “We tried to reason with them and explained that our prayers will not create any noise or disturbance but they kept saying that we cannot hold namaz in a public place,” he said.
The Muslim residents said they were disappointed by the silence of the majority of the families.
“A few residents messaged, expressing regret for what happened, but overall there is silence from even friends,” said Bakhtawar Chawla.
“Most of the residents in the society are good people and live in harmony,” said a resident of the Greater Noida apartment complex. “But a handful of people rake up controversies because they seem to be filled with hate for Muslims and our practices.”
Bhati, the Samajwadi Party leader, said the police should have taken action and arrested those who stopped Muslims from exercising their right to pray.
“It makes me sad that these people recite Hanuman Chalisa to oppose other religions and spread hatred,” he said. “But how can Muslims expect justice from the kind of government we have in Uttar Pradesh or at the Centre? Even Hindus like me are afraid.”