For some weeks, India’s glittering hub of information technology, industry and finance near Delhi was shrouded in fear and animosity. Simmering hate threatened to erupt into a raging communal fire in Gurugram after Hindutva mobs disrupted the traditional Muslim Friday afternoon worship in several open spaces for weeks starting April-end. Reports claim that devout Muslims were finally able to offer namaaz peacefully on May 11 and May 18. The dispute has since fallen off newspaper front pages and television screens. Peace seems to have been restored.

But what appears to be peace is actually a poor camouflage for one more triumph of majoritarian politics and of the rule of the mob – that too in the country’s National Capital Region. The tried and tested template has been deployed with mounting regularity in recent years across the country. It goes like this: left to themselves, Hindus and Muslims live together peacefully. Majoritarian Hindutva organisations incite communal trouble by entering Muslim spaces with taunts and provocative slogans, sometimes brandishing weapons. If Muslims are provoked, a communal skirmish ensues. If instead they maintain restraint, this is interpreted jubilantly as evidence of their weakness and defeat. Both ways, society is split wide open and the BharatiyaJanata Party reaps rich electoral harvests.

A recent example of this was seen in West Bengal. The state has no tradition of elaborate celebrations for Lord Ram’s birth, but for the past three years, Ram Navami processions have been organised by Sangh organisations that stretch over several days and deliberately wind through Muslim-majority areas. Men display naked weapons and shout slogans demanding that Muslims must hail Jai Shri Ram or else make their way to a cemetery or to Pakistan. Most Muslims do not react – whether because they are unprovoked or muffled by submission and fear – but when a few incensed youth in Asansol fought back in March, it triggered a communal riot. Lives were lost and properties destroyed of people of both faiths.

In Gurugram, on the other hand, when a belligerent and unruly crowd on April 20 disturbed prayers in Sector 53 with slogans of Jai Shri Ram (which was captured in a video that subsequently went viral), the men who had gathered for the weekly collective worship rolled their prayer mats and quietly dispersed. Two weeks later, on May 4, vigilantes disrupted prayers in more than 10 locations. The disruptors were from several organisations, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Kranti Dal, Gorakshak Dal, Hindu JagaranManch and Shiv Sena, that gathered under the umbrella of the Hindu SanyuktSangharshSamiti. The troublemakers were backed by some panchayat members who threatened to organise religious havans at the same time and venues as the Friday prayers.

According to the Times of India, there were “unprecedented scenes of people offering namaz getting up midway and running away in the face of slogan-shouting” in many crowded spots. Reports also claimed that agitators arrived in four jeeps at a namaaz venue on MG Road and shouted abusive slogans. The police force present there did nothing to stop the sloganeering and threats and instead asked the namaazis to disperse. In Sector 40, the Imam who was leading the prayers was pushed to the ground. People who had come for the prayers folded their mats and left. There were private factories where for years, Muslim employees had been allowed to pray in the parking lot or any other open space. Even this was stopped by police or government officials, without explaining why or with what powers they were enforcing this ban. Through all of this, not one instance of Muslims resisting or retaliating has been reported. There has been anguish and confusion, but no forceful confrontation or violence.

The video of the April 20 disruption

Space crunch

Over the last decade, the boom in construction, eateries and offices in Gurgaon (renamed Gurugram in 2016) have transformed it into a powerful magnet for the most impoverished residents from India’s rural hinterlands in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, Assam and elsewhere. Many of these are Muslim. Circular migrants are not captured by census enumerators, but estimates of the numbers of Muslim workers in Gurugram are around half a million.

Islamic teachings recommend congregational prayers for Muslims on Friday afternoons: the Prophet is said to have described the Friday prayer as the Haj of the Poor, symbolic of brotherhood and equality. But Gurgaon has only about 15 mosques, many small and makeshift, which cannot accommodate more than a fraction of Friday worshippers. Muslims have therefore been congregating for namaaz in open spaces for at least 10 years now, with no opposition.

Members of Hindutva organisations under the banner of the Sanyukt Hindu SangharshSamiti have justified their protests on several grounds. Traffic troubles were the least of these. They described the disruptors as “patriotic” and the men who offered prayers in communal tropes that are standard in Sangh propaganda. They called them criminal-minded, conflated them with Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees and described them as a threat to Hindu women and girls in the area, as people who shout slogans against the country in the guise of prayers and men eager to illegally occupy open government lands.

Some observers suggest that resistance to usurping public spaces for worship is legitimate. One of India’s most respected craft activists, Laila Tyabji, also an observant Muslim, wrote a Facebook post opposing public displays of religiosity. She maintained robustly that “disrupting traffic or unauthorised occupation of private property cannot be allowed”. She said:

“I see the controversy as a wonderful opportunity for civil society to demand that the public observance of ANY religion should be forbidden altogether in our already overcrowded, noisy and volatile cities – whether these be Kavadias, Muharram processions, or the recent assertive Ram Naumi celebrations which actually led to destruction and loss of life.

...Loudspeakers blaring from mosques, noisy truck/motorbike parades that block roads, and Satsangs taking over public parks should all be prohibited.  If done impartially, even-handedly, legally, and without fear or favour, this would be an important step in confining religion to our hearts, homes and religious places; while keeping it firmly out of both public life and public spaces.  After all a fundament of all faiths is living in peace, not competitive self-assertion. 

...As it happens, though we are encouraged to pray in a congregation, especially on Fridays and Eid,  (as a demonstration of the brotherhood and equality of man), Muslims can pray anywhere as long as we are ritually clean and know the right direction! The desert sand, a corner of your room...... Even a prayer rug is not required…Islam is an intensely practical religion’. 

These days, sadly, whatever your religion, the form and ritual have become more important than the actual meaning.  An assertion of community rather than god.”

Few among us would disagree in principle with Tyabji’s measured plea for restraining public displays of religious worship, which on many occasions has less to do with religious faith and more with communal assertion. But this is a complete misreading of the contestations in Gurugram. The Gurugram incidents were a provocation by belligerent Hindutva mobs, protected by a sympathetic administration, against weekly prayers by mostly working-class migrant Muslims who have no other covered spaces for worship.

It is noteworthy that before the mobs set out to violently disperse the prayers, the satellite city’s residents had not protested against these. The six men who disrupted the prayers on April 20 were reportedly residents of a nearby village but also members of Hindutva groups. If residents in any part of the city did or do face problems because of the weekly prayers, they would be entirely within their rights to alert the state administration about obstructions or nuisance that prayer congregations may cause at any location and these grievances could be dealt with fairly under the law. By all means, we also do need a public debate about the blocking of roads, often for several days, for festivities (mostly Hindu), the building of shrines in public lands (I have seen in my South Delhi colony a temple on public land grow from a stone to a grand structure), the use of public offices for festivals of only one religion and indeed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh drills in public parks. But selectively attacking one practice is only feeding a toxic communal agenda.

A public notice at the HUDA ground in Gurugram on May 4. Credit: IANS

Administrative response

The namaaz row is a mischievous and dangerous ploy to divide communities in Gurugram and the larger National Capital Region. The state administration should have dealt firmly with the troublemakers bent on fomenting communal hatred. It did arrest six men identified in the video of the first disruption, but took no action against the mobsters that followed or those who incited them with provocative slogans. The administration then put up boards on disputed spaces where vigilantes had disrupted the prayers, declaring that these were government lands in which the status quo should be maintained. Chief Minister ManoharLalKhattar signalled his sympathy with the demands of those who disrupted the prayers when he said that namaaz should be read in mosques or Idgahs rather than public spaces. What he failed to acknowledge was that Muslim migrants who build, clean and run the city are too poor to be able to build mosques and also lack the political clout for land allocations and official permissions.

Taking a cue from Khattar’s stance, the district administration called for negotiations between Hindu and Muslim residents of the city. The problem with these negotiations is that the Hindus were represented by hotheads from communal formations, not the large numbers of peaceable residents of the city who believe in goodwill between communities. Muslims, on the other hand, came to the table acutely conscious of their political, economic and social powerlessness. I met several of these negotiators. These are mostly well-meaning young, educated Muslim professionals and entrepreneurs. They believed that their educational capital gives them both the right and the responsibility to represent the working class members of their community.

The administration brokered with them an agreement to bring down the numbers of sites of Friday worship from 106 open spaces to reportedly only some 23 open spots and 13 mosques. On May 12, prayers were allowed only in these select locations, under the shadow of the police. Those with cars or bikes drove confusedly from site to site, and there were sometimes four shifts of prayers because of the surge of worshippers. But many were too poor to pay for public transport to distant prayer locations during their short lunch breaks. One imam began his prayer with the song SareJahan Se Achha to prove his loyalty to his country. The next week has seen the number of sites swell only a little, but the numbers of worshippers increase further because of the holy month of Ramzan. Many of the sites that have been ceded are open spaces with no tree cover, making it physically very demanding for the worshippers. Mosques are now running several shifts for the Friday prayer.

“All we want is peace”, the worshipers often pleaded through these weeks of communalised aggression. This is what they got in its place.

Muslims pray under a makeshift tent in Gurgaon Sector 29 on May 11. Credit: Abhishek Dey

Poor trade-off

The administration claims that the reduction of prayer sites to a fraction of the original number is voluntary. This claim is disingenuous in many ways. The drastic reduction has been accomplished on the one hand under the pressure of Right-Wing Hindutva formations, and on the other with the consent of middle-class Muslims who wish to avoid confrontation with mobs of Hindu men and a partisan administration. They fear that violence will wreak havoc in the lives of highly vulnerable migrant Muslim workers. If the administration wanted to reduce the sites of worship, they should have done so of their own volition, or after legal representations by residents, not after namaaz sites were overrun by inciting mobs. They should then have passed legal orders after due process for each of the sites that they wished to see closed, giving reasons, after giving a notice to worshippers and a chance to present their points of view. The administration is actually helping secure one more victory for the majoritarian mob.

It is for this reason that I joined a group of around a dozen retired officers to write to the Chief Secretary of Haryana on May 7 and express dismay over many Friday namaaz attacks which were “coordinated, violent and clearly designed to terrorise and intimidate and are taking place across the district”. We spoke of “a gradual intensification of hate-mongering and allegations against the Muslim community in supposedly upmarket colonies”. We added, “If Hindus can organise their Bhagavati Jagaran, Navratra gatherings and Durga Pujas freely in public spaces, where is the rationale for preventing Muslims from offering prayers in open fields?” We were firmly of the view that this is not a problem of law and order as characterised by the chief minister. On the contrary, his “government and the administration also has the responsibility to ensure the right of all citizens to practise their religion – a right guaranteed by the Constitution”, the letter read.

The only silver lining is the push-back from all classes and communities in Gururgram. Many more people are opening up their homes, basements or work-spaces for the Friday namaaz. Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy, filmmakers and conveners of the stirring Not in My Name protests in July last year, are residents of Gurugram. They called a meeting of concerned citizens in their living room and were overwhelmed when 90 people turned up, ranging from corporate heads and professionals to home-makers, NGO workers and artists. This group has formally constituted itself into a platform called the Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch, the name a tribute to the Nagrik Ekta Manch constituted in Delhi in the wake of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre. They plan a massive iftar during Ramzan with residents of every religion and class joining the celebration. They are determined to communicate the social message to all that they – we – will not be divided.

The past years have witnessed growing vigilante attacks, targeted police encounters and routine hate speech by ministers and elected representatives, all calibrated at high pitch to teach Muslim residents their status in new India – that they no longer are equal citizens as assured by the constitution, but second-class citizens of a Hindu nation. That mobs from communal organisations will mediate and decide their rights.

It is no secret that only one political party gains when the country gets divided by hate and majoritarian belligerence. As we brace ourselves for the year ahead leading to the next general elections, with little else to offer people reeling under jobless growth, the farmers’ crisis and crony capitalism, it is sobering to think that Gurugram may well be the model for the ruling establishment for all of India.