Twenty-one-year old Shah Rukh Khan was not sure whether the namaaz he participated in every week in Gurgaon, Haryana, would take place last Friday. It is held in a vacant plot near the Sahara Mall on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road, and has been conducted there for the past three years. On May 4, he reached the spot at around 1 pm, and found 300 other Muslim men there, as unsure as he was. “A large posse of police officials was deployed in the open space,” said Khan.

As some men started to lay their plastic prayer mats on the ground in anticipation of the prayers, three cars packed with men pulled in at the spot. These were Hindu vigilantes who then attempted to storm the area, said Khan, a final-year polytechnic student who helps his older brother at his iron welding shop in Chakkarpur, Gurgaon. They were stopped by the police, said Khan, a migrant from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.

The namaaz was eventually not held there, and the congregation had to disperse. That day, Hindutva groups in Gurgaon prevented Muslims from offering prayers in several open spaces. This came two weeks after Hindu residents of two villages in Gurgaon’s Sector 53 prevented Muslims from offering namaaz on a government-owned plot on April 20. At least 700 men regularly gather for prayers at this plot every Friday afternoon. The villagers alleged that Muslims used the prayers as an excuse to encroach on government land. The villagers soon got the support of local units of several Hindutva groups, which also organised protests against Muslims praying in public.

On Sunday, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar appeared to back the Hindutva groups saying that namaaz should be offered in mosques and not public spaces. “I believe namaaz should indeed be offered – but in mosques, at Eidgah, and other designated places,” said Khattar, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But that is easier said than done.

There are 22 mosques in Gurgaon, the largest of which is a half-constructed structure in Sector 57 that is entangled in a legal dispute. Several Muslim residents of Gurgaon said that they fail to go to mosques for namaaz primarily because of three reasons – the lack of space, time and transport facilities.

Only a few mosques in Gurgaon can accommodate more than 300 persons, said Hafiz Junaid, 30, who organises weekly prayers in two open spaces in the satellite town. “Only Muslims who work in areas close to the mosques consider it feasible to pray there on Fridays,” said Junaid, a migrant from Palwal in Haryana. “Those who work far away and do not have any vehicle of their own cannot afford it [to travel to mosques].”

There is also the time constraint, said Naushad Alam, 42, who works in an iron welding shop. “Most Muslims work in shops owned by Hindus,” said Alam, a migrant from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh. Travelling to a mosque and back means that employees have to take longer breaks. “Which employer would allow his employees to take a three-hour break for the Friday namaaz?” asked Alam. This, according to Alam, is why Muslims tend to gather for Friday prayers in several public spaces spread across Gurgaon.

Namaaz is held in an estimated 106 open spaces in the satellite town, according to Junaid. These open spaces can accommodate between 500 and 1,500 persons each. According to locals, the first open space in which Muslims started holding Friday prayers, about 15 years ago, was the Sector 29 ground. The Sector 53 plot became the second such space. Friday namaaz started being conducted here about 13 years ago.

While the namaaz in Sector 53 was cancelled on May 4 after fears of attacks by Hindutva groups, it went ahead as scheduled in Sector 29. “There is a reason why,” said Alam. “Unlike Sector 53, Sector 29 is a largely commercial area without many villages in the vicinity. Secondly, the namaaz there is an old arrangement and the Hindu villagers are much more cooperative.”

But Alam said that the Sector 29 namaaz was conducted under heavy police protection, and Muslims fear that it will not be permitted next week.

Praying with fear

There was a heavy police presence in Faridabad Chowk too, where Mohammad Gulshad, 40, a migrant from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh who works in a welding shop in Gurgaon’s Sikanderpur, offered an anxious namaaz on Friday. “There were around 300 of us in the open space where we usually gather on Fridays, but there was no peace. There was a constant fear that the namaaz could be stopped any moment.”

On May 4, there was heavy police deployment at Atul Katariya Chowk too, said Yaseen Ahmed, 42, who owns a garage. He had reached the spot for the weekly namaaz, only to find that it had been cancelled. He said that the decision was taken by its organisers who were unable to communicate the news to everyone. The policemen present there suggested that Ahmed and the others pray at a mosque in the vicinity instead.

“But there were around 300 of us that day and the mosque premises could hardly accommodate 100 persons,” said Ahmed, a migrant from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. “We saw the rest of the Muslims leave. We are not sure whether they could pray at all.”

Methods of obstruction

The vigilante group responsible for preventing namaaz from being conducted in several open spaces in Gurgaon on May 4 is called the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti. According to its members, it is an umbrella body of the local units of 12 Hindutva groups, including the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena, Hindu Jagran Manch and the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Kranti Dal. It was formed after six men from Wazirabad and Kanhai villages in Gurugram were arrested in connection with the April 20 incident in Sector 53.

Unlike on April 20, members of the vigilante Hindutva group did not directly confront Muslims on May 4. Instead, they chose at least 10 open spaces in Gurgaon where Muslims have been offering namaaz on Fridays and let it be known that they would not let the prayers go ahead as scheduled unless the community first obtained permission from the police or district authorities.

Haji Sehzad, who works with a non-government organisation, said that the Hindutva groups intimidated organisers to cancel Friday namaaz on their own in at least three locations – Sector 53, Atul Katariya Chowk and an open space near the Sikanderpur metro station. He said there was confusion in other places, such as Cyber Park, near Sahara Mall, near IFFCO Chowk and near Guru Dronacharya metro station. Muslims had gathered in these areas in large numbers on Friday but had to leave without offering prayers.

Other people this reporter spoke to said that members of Hindutva groups made attempts to confront Muslims in two areas – Sikanderpur and near Sahara Mall.

Ravinder Kumar, spokesperson of the Gurgaon Police said that the police have not received any complaints in connection with any of the May 4 incidents.

Local authorities silent

Members of the Muslim community are baffled by the demand that they should seek official permission to hold namaaz in open spaces. Junaid said that the prayers have always taken place with the consent of the police, though permission was never given in writing.

While senior police officials told that it was the district administration that would indicate the way forward, divisional commissioner Vinay Pratap Singh did not not respond to phone calls and text messages asking for his comments.

Islamuddin Ansari, who is part of a peace-keeping committee that has been engaging with the district administration on the matter, said things are unclear at this point, and the district authority must take a decision soon. “Muslims are too intimidated to pray in open spaces,” said Ansari. “It is time to come out in large numbers and show that if there are people like them [Hindutva groups] who propagate hate, there are us too, people who want peace and harmony.”