“When did it become an offence to pray in the open?” asked Hafeez Junaid before he kick-started his motorbike and zoomed off in the direction of the market in Gurgaon’s DFL Phase 5 on Tuesday. The 30-year-old was in a hurry. His friends were waiting for him and he had an urgent message for them – this week, Friday prayers were unlikely to be held at the usual spot in Sector 53.

This was because of what had happened on April 20 and after. As around 500 Muslim men had gathered for namaaz in a field owned by the Haryana government in Sector 53, several Hindu residents from the neighbouring villages of Wazirabad and Kanhai disrupted their prayers, shouting “Jai Sri Ram”. A video of the incident had later surfaced on social media, following which six persons were arrested for hurting religious sentiments. They were later released on bail.

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Then, on Monday, a Gurgaon-based Hindutva group called the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti protested outside the district collector’s office demanding that the authorities put a stop to prayers organised by Muslims in open spaces in the vicinity of Hindu-dominated neighbourhoods. The Samiti is an umbrella body of the local units of 12 Right-wing groups including the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena, Hindu Jagran Manch, Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Kranti Dal, Swadeshi Jagran Manch, Bharat Bachao Abhiyan and Gurugram Sanskritik Gaurav Samiti, according to its members.

“We have two problems here,” said Rajeev Mittal, national coordinator of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Kranti Dal. “First is that Muslims encroach government lands by this method. And second, the Hindu boys had been arrested for fighting for their religious rights.”

Subeh Singh Vohra, a former sarpanch, participated in Monday’s protest as a representative of the two villages from where the six men were arrested. All of the other protestors came from elsewhere in Gurgaon. “The boys from the village went to stop the namaaz in the open ground because they felt something wrong was happening,” said Vohra, who is in his 60s. “They did nothing wrong. It is the Muslims who are in the wrong. Why should they pray in an open ground when they have mosques for that?”

Open spaces for prayer

But according to Junaid, an Urdu teacher who organises the Friday namaaz in Sector 53 and at another ground in Gurgaon, the community cannot do without these open spaces.

There are 22 mosques in Gurgaon, the biggest one being a half-constructed structure in Sector 57 that is now tied up in a legal dispute. Gurgaon’s Muslims also gather for Friday prayers in an estimated 106 open spaces, said Junaid.

Speaking of the ground in Sector 53, he said, “There are two mosques in the vicinity – one is around 5 km away and the other around 8 km away. It becomes difficult for people who do not have vehicles to commute. But don’t they have the right to pray?” He added, “Where would people go?”

Mohammad Anwar, who runs a vegetarian eatery called Naman Vaishno Dhaba in the area, said that the Sector 53 ground was the second open space in Gurgaon at which Muslims began to conduct Friday prayers. The first spot was in Sector 29.

Junaid added that the congregation in Sector 53 earlier prayed at another ground in the neighbourhood but shifted to this one after construction started at the first plot in 2007. “The location shifting had happened with police permission,” he said. But “obviously, these are informal arrangements and there are no official records”.

On the Friday following April 20, Muslims had gathered to pray at the open ground under heavy police protection. But the situation has become rather uncertain this week. “There is a buzz that the heads of 35 Hindu-dominated villages have met senior officials in the district authority and Muslims now have to take police permission for organising prayers in the open,” said Junaid.

There has been no official word on such a condition, though.

The open space in Sector 53 was the second such spot in Gurgaon where Muslims could offer prayers. There are now 106 such spaces in the township. (Credit: Abhishek Dey)
The open space in Sector 53 was the second such spot in Gurgaon where Muslims could offer prayers. There are now 106 such spaces in the township. (Credit: Abhishek Dey)

‘All we want is peace’

The villages of Wazirabad and Kanhai are dominated by Hindus of the Yadav caste. They are land owners and many of them earned large fortunes when their plots were bought by big companies in the early days of Gurgaon’s transformation into the swanky corporate township that it is today.

The two villages also have significant Dalit populations, largely from the Jaatav sub-caste. These Dalit residents were allotted homes in a neighbouring locality under a government scheme more than 30 years ago and their main source of income now is the rent they earn from letting out rooms to mostly Muslims tenants.

The open ground in Sector 53 is surrounded by a posh residential society, a few Yadav-dominated villages and a road where several thousand Muslims run small shops, work in enterprises such as garages and iron welding shops owned by Hindus. In the vicinity, there are also several slum clusters inhabited by Muslim families who earn their living as daily wage labourers and as domestic workers in the gated colonies of Gurgaon. Most Muslims residing in the area are migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and from other parts of Haryana.

Around 500-600 men gather at the ground for prayers on Friday afternoons, said Junaid. He added that their numbers were almost double till five years ago but then many of them moved to other districts of Haryana or to neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Delhi after construction jobs in Gurgaon started drying up.

Those who remain have been left disturbed by the events of April 20. On Tuesday evening, around a dozen young Muslim men gathered at the market near Sector 53. They discussed going to the police station to enquire about obtaining official permission for the namaaz at the open ground.

“All we want is peace,” said Imran, one of the men. “Last Friday’s prayer happened under heavy police presence and so no problem was witnessed. We cannot really say if things will be the same without the police.”