The self-declared Millennium City of Gurgaon – Gurugram, if you prefer – is firmly in the grip of antediluvian culture wars. As has been widely reported, an outfit known as the Sanyukt Hindu Sangarsh Samiti acted to prevent the practice of namaaz in public places in Gurgaon through threats of physical violence. As has also been reported, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar joined the debate by stating that namaaz should be offered within religious buildings rather than public places. Gurgaon – the city of malls, call centres and home to several Fortune 500 companies – has for long been fertile ground for a traditional modernity. Karva Chauth festivities flourish within gated residential enclaves whose residents also practice feudal forms of labour relations with regard to their domestic workers, including the strict enforcement of rules regarding the use of lifts by such workers. It is therefore unsurprising that apart from a small group of Gurgaon’s residents, there has not been much discussion about the nature of the city that Gurgaon is to become. On April 4, around 200 Gurgaon residents wrote a letter to the district commissioner expressing their concern over the Sanyukt Hindu Sangarsh Samiti’s intention to oppose namaaz held in open spaces. But that is 200-odd people out of a population of around nine lakhs.

The culture war in Gurgaon is part of a wider national discourse that has been around for quite some time now, and expresses itself in different ways. It is seen in the trope of Muslim men propagating what is referred to as “love jihad”; the apparent minoritisation of Hindus in what is referred to as “their own land”, and the claim of the institutionalisation of Christian values through Valentine’s Day. What is peculiar about the current imbroglio is that the intent of politicised religion is couched in the language of areligious public welfare. It was variously claimed that namaaz at public spaces was a pretext to grab public land, that Muslims needed to obtain permission from the government if public spaces are used for religious purposes, and (as implied by Khattar) such a practice can invite objections from the public due to the inconvenience suffered by it.

The peculiar aspect is this: the same reasoning – that of public good – is never invoked when kanwariyas, the disciples of Shiva, march across large tracts of urban space in North India (in fact, the state, Residents Welfare Associations and businesses combine to make special arrangements for their passage); when public roads are barricaded for several days to allow for a variety of religious celebrations; when public footpaths are taken over to distribute food in the name of religious charity; and when the city’s aural space is encroached upon in complete violation of laws that define timings for public announcements and devotional music.

The logical outcome of a decision to ban the use of public spaces for religious purposes would be, ironically, that those who seek the ban would have to countenance a ban on their own activities as well. After all, there are far more activities related to the Hindu community that involve the unauthorised use of public space than activities concerning any other religion. Otherwise, non-Hindu groups would have a legitimate reason to ask why their activities are targeted whereas those of the Hindu community either go unnoticed or receive active help from private as well as state sources.

(Photo credit: IANS).

A hall of mirrors

The key issue is not really that of the unauthorised use of public property. This is hardly new or even remarkable in any of our cities in India. Delhi’s so-called farmhouses of the rich and the intimate collusion between state functionaries and private interests that lead to a variety of other structures that are later discovered to be illegal, are rich testimony to the normal politics of urban public space.

The namaaz controversy is, actually, of a different order. It is about the creation of a simulacrum – a system of representation – of a particular reality. That is, the namaaz-busters seek to create a hall of mirrors in order to invent a very particular idea of normality through institutionalising the idea of good encroachment and bad encroachment. This is also the remarkable process of simulating the notion of good illegality and bad illegality. Good illegality challenges irrational laws and regulations (that Hindu religious festivals should not encroach upon public spaces and commercial activity should not be carried out in residential areas), whereas bad illegality is presented as a crime against the order of nature – its perpetrators are beyond the ken of human reasoning. Similar actions by them are simply explicable.

In this sense, Muslims are beyond the realms of reasoning and reasonableness. Theirs is a bad illegality as it undermines public welfare. They are also not the genuine public but a debased version of it. As far as the state is concerned, it cannot support the Muslim version of publicness – which involves doing pretty much the same kinds of things that the Hindu public feels entitled to do, except on a smaller scale – because then it would have to grapple with a genuinely open version of publicness. At present, the state operates with notions of public and publicness which is, actually, limited to certain populations.

At the heart of namaaz obstructions lies the idea of what the nature of the public should be in a modern city: is it to be – as the “gram” in Gurugram suggests – a village public with its well-defined hierarchies of unequal rights? Or, do the Millennium City’s residents and its administrators have the courage to imagine an urban space where different sections of the population do not face different tests of publicness? Actual public welfare depends on understanding this difference.