In April, as hundreds of Muslim men gathered to say their namaaz in an open field owned by the Haryana government, Hindu extremists descended upon them, shouting “Jai Sri Ram”. In a video that went viral, young men clad in colourful T-shirts can be seen laughing as Muslims leave their prayer mats and begin to disperse. Shouting “Masjid kis liye bana hai, masjid kis liye bana hai”, they tell the Muslims to go to their mosques to pray. A Hindutva group in the state, the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti, has also demanded that Muslims be stopped from praying in public spaces in Hindu-dominated neighbourhoods. They allege that through these collective prayers in open spaces, Muslims encroach upon government-owned land, equating this to “land jihad”. According to Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, “Incidents of namaaz being offered in the open have increased. Namaaz should be read in a masjid or an idgah, and if short of space, they [Muslims] should read it in their private spaces.”
This announcement comes at a time when the same Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has decided to build gymnasiums across the state, which some claim may be used as Rashtrtiya Swayamsevak Sangh units, inevitably allowing a private organisation to use public property to further its religious ideology.
In 2010, a committee in Belgium voted to implement a ban against wearing the burqa and niqab in public. In 2011, the French government also outlawed full-face veils in any public space. Similar movements followed in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. The rationale offered behind these laws is often that religion is a private affair and adorning religious symbols in public should be barred in open, liberal and tolerant societies. At the heart of these policies is also a belief that the burqa and niqab symbolise oppressive Muslim traditions that must be done away with through state enforced “empowerment” that forces women to discard these “regressive” customs. In 2016, it was reported that the French police had forced a woman to remove clothing at a beach in Nice as part of the ban on burkinis (a swimsuit worn by some Muslim women that covers the arms, legs and hair), claiming that such religious clothing had to be outlawed in the face of rising extremism and terrorism-related incidents in the country.
These policies have received much criticism over the years, particularly among the Muslim community. I have had several conversations with friends and colleagues in Pakistan, discussing how intolerance is on the rise globally with Muslims being stereotyped and targeted with discriminatory practices. Respecting the religious traditions of others and being tolerant of their beliefs and practices should be at the heart of any progressive society. The crackdown on public prayer in India is also being viewed as an attempt by the Indian state to Hinduise collective spaces, pushing other religious communities to the margins. “Bangladesh wapis jao”, “Pakistan wapis jao” (Go back to Bangladesh, Go back to Pakistan) and “ghar wapsi” sloganeering shows an explicit attempt to remove Muslims from these spaces and “purify” the land. Efforts in the last few years to rewrite school textbooks with a “Hindu-first” ideology also align with this phenomenon.
Intellectuals and analysts in Pakistan are increasingly discussing how India is becoming a reflection of Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan. Ordinary Pakistanis have also come forward to denounce these policies. Some reason that today’s India further reinforces why Pakistan had to be created. Had Partition not happened, this violation of rights and prejudice against Muslims would have been too much to bear. Thank god for Pakistan, they say, at least here, Muslims can practise their faith freely.
Ramzan and the law
It is odd, however, that this realisation of rising intolerance begins and ends with discrimination against Muslims. Tolerance seems to be understood only in terms of non-Muslims being respectful of Muslim traditions. The Ehtram-e-Ramzan (Amendment) Bill stands witness to this. Barring anyone from eating or drinking publicly or selling eatables during fasting hours, with up to three months imprisonment, the Bill finds its origins in Zia-ul-Haq’s Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance of 1981 and only seeks to make the penalties harsher. Unanimously approved by The Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs in 2017, the amendment increases the fine for hotel owners from Rs 500 to Rs 25,000. Meanwhile, people who smoke or eat in public can be fined Rs 500 alongside serving a prison sentence.
While Islam has several provisions for Muslims to not fast – pregnancy, ill-health and old age being some of the reasons that permit them to eat and drink during this month – the Pakistani state has decided that even if Islam licenses it, the state cannot because apparently the state is the true guardian of religion. Of course, the ordinance also assumes that Pakistan only exists for Muslims. Non-Muslims are frequently dismissed as not Pakistani enough, their patriotism challenged at whim. In 2016, an old Hindu man was beaten by a police constable for eating in public. This Ramzan, others may fall victim. Vigilantism after all, has its own laws.
A number of Pakistanis I have come across are endorsing the Bill, believing that it induces respect for the holy month. One woman remarked, “I think it promotes tolerance. It asks people to respect Muslim traditions by not eating in public.” Isn’t the purpose of Ramzan to make us realise our privileges? To make us understand what it feels like to not be able to eat or drink as and when one desires? Wouldn’t the month teach us more tolerance if we were able to sit with others who may choose to eat and drink, while observing our fast? Can we not respect their traditions and beliefs?
Others claim that such laws can bring Muslims closer to their religion once more; too many have gone astray, choosing not to fast or giving worldly desires more priority than their faith. This argument assumes that a) by enforcing this Bill, the state can force people to fast, and b) that anyone who is not fasting is necessarily a disbeliever or not a “good enough Muslim”. It might be pertinent to remember that Pakistan has approximately 101,314,780 women, which would mean that with a normal menstrual flow of anywhere between two to seven days, millions of women are not fasting in different periods of the month, and by doing so, they are only following religious instructions. The number of religious minorities, ill, pregnant, young or old would inflate this figure to several more million. Do they all have to perish in the scorching heat – in a heatwave that has already taken 65 lives in Karachi in just three days this month – because one who fasts cannot bear the sight of another eating or drinking?
I wonder how men, women and children living in poverty feel as they knock on the windows of big cars begging for money, watching people eat in the comfort of their air-conditioned vehicles throughout the year. I wonder how the less privileged and homeless feel out on the streets, watching the billboards displaying advertisements of juicy burgers, chilled drinks and ice-cream that cost far more than their daily wages. By allowing people to eat and drink around us and by empowering them to exercise their choice, we will perhaps only grow more tolerant, which is what this month is meant to teach.
By enforcing respect for one religion in the public space, the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance and the Amendment Bill inadvertently discourage tolerance for other belief systems in the same public space. Just as Hindu extremists do not want Muslims to pray in open spaces so that Hindus can have more claim over these lands and properties, thereby Hinduising collective spaces, by forcing people to not eat or drink in public, the state wishes to Islamise these public spaces and eradicate any alternative beliefs by threatening them with fines and punishments. The attempts to ban public prayer in India and the prohibition of burqa and niqab in public spaces in the West has parallels to the outlawing of eating and drinking in open during Ramzan in Pakistan. It shows our intolerance towards anyone who we see as the other. After all, if we expect India or the West to be more respectful of Muslim beliefs and allow them to practise their faith freely, then Pakistanis too must be tolerant of non-Muslims and those who cannot or choose not to fast. The self-righteousness exercised in one part of the world will only invite more self-righteousness in the other.
Anam Zakaria is the author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians