Around 1.30 pm, the imam started giving the customary sermon. Before him sat over a thousand Muslim men, congregated under a makeshift tent pitched on an open ground in Gurgaon’s Sector 29 to offer the Friday namaaz. Around them, scores of police personnel stood watch. The afternoon sun was harsh and Mohammad Kausar, 22, was struggling to find a place in the shade. He had been delayed, he said, because he had first gone to another open place in a neighbouring locality where he usually offered the weekly prayers, only to realise the namaaz there had been cancelled. “I reached here following some Muslim brothers I saw walking this way,” said Kausar, a migrant from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh who works in a small factory making tin boxes in Gurgaon.

On Friday, Muslims in Gurgaon, Haryana, congregated at 47 open spaces for the namaaz. Despite heavy police presence at all venues, most worshippers were anxious that Hindutva groups could disrupt the prayers as they had at several places the previous week.

Of the 47 open spaces where namaaz was held this Friday, 24 are owned by the Haryana Waqf Board. The rest are state lands for using which the worshippers had to take permission from the district administration. There were no disruptions reported this time, said Haji Sehzad, a member of the Muslim delegation that is working with the Gurgaon administration to resolve the dispute about offering the prayers in the open.

Until last week, there were at least 106 open spaces across Gurgaon where Muslims gathered for Friday prayers. On April 20, Hindus of Wazirabad and Kanhai villages in Sector 53 disrupted the Friday namaaz on a state-owned plot, alleging that Muslims used the prayers as an excuse to encroach on public land. The villagers drew support from local chapters of several Hindutva groups, which also organised protests against Muslims praying in public.

The following Friday, April 27, the namaaz was held amid heavy police presence. But on May 4, cadres of the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti disrupted the prayers at several places. Its members claim the samiti is an umbrella body of the local units of 12 Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena, Hindu Jagran Manch and Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Kranti Dal.

Two days later, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar appeared to support the Hindutva groups, saying the namaaz should only be offered in mosques and not at public spaces. Gurgaon has 22 mosques but most of the city’s Muslims are unable to use them for the Friday prayers because they are small and often far from their homes or workplaces. They are thus compelled to offer the namaaz in the open.

Seeking a solution

Trying to keep the dispute from getting out of hand, Muslim groups approached the district administration to find an amicable solution.

Between Monday and Thursday, a delegation of Muslim groups held multiple meetings with police and district administration officials. On Thursday night, the administration issued a list of 47 open spaces where Muslims could offer the prayers without hassle, said Sehzad, whose complaint regarding the April 20 disruption had led to the arrest of six men for hurting religious sentiments.

The designated locations do not include any of the spaces where the Hindutva groups had prevented namaaz the previous week or the state-owned plot from where the controversy began.

The challenge though was to communicate the designated locations to the thousands of migrant Muslims who live in Gurgaon. Although the locations were shared through Whatsapp, hundreds of Muslims ended up going to the old locations that will no longer be used for the namaaz.

In the meantime, the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti was also engaged in talks with the district administration, demanding that Muslims must not be allowed to pray in the open outside Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods. The demand has not been met, at least so far. “We will not comment on the matter at this stage, but later issue a detailed press statement,” said Rajeev Mittal, a member of the group. They, however, videographed many congregations on Friday and circulated the videos through WhatsApp groups but without any clear message.

Senior officials in the Gurgaon police and the district administration did not comment on the matter.