OVER THE LAST couple of weeks in Gurgaon, there have been multiple provocations from Hindu fundamentalists to namaaz being offered in public places. First, residents of a couple of villages harassed Muslims who had gathered to pray and had it cancelled. And then, seeing the publicity that it got, a number of outfits like the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal began to make further disruptions. To make a sensitive issue worse, Haryana’s Chief Minister ML Khattar said that in his opinion, public places should not be used for namaaz. A PTI report quoted him saying at a press conference, “Our point of view is that namaz should be offered in the precincts of religious places like mosques and Eidgahs, and if there is shortage of place for offering namaz, it should be done at private places.” Khattar later told the news agency ANI that he hadn’t “spoken about stopping anyone. Maintaining law and order is the duty of the police and the administration…There has been an increase in offering namaz in the open. Namaz should be read in mosques or idgahs rather than in public spaces.”
Khattar’s view is sensible and would be appropriate if only it had not come from him at this moment of time. That namaaz, especially on Fridays, takes over public spaces is common to many cities in areas where there is a substantial Muslim population. It is an inconvenience to the rest, but the proper body to ensure that public spaces are not encroached upon is the government itself. When a crowd driven by religious bigotry takes over this responsibility and is allowed to, then it is as good as turning the authority of the state over to them, a recipe for a communal conflagration. It will not happen at once, but anger builds up over time until it explodes.
To maintain law and order, which Khattar says is the administration’s duty, the first step would have been to take exemplary action against those mobs going around disrupting namaaz in Gurgaon, and having thus established the fairness of his intent, prevented namaaz being held in public spaces. Instead, by swinging immediately to the side of Hindus targeting Muslims, he reaffirms suspicion of bias.
What makes the situation hopeless is that public spaces in India have long lost any sanctity. It takes just a small critical mass of people for members of any religious community to take over roads and public grounds for free. In Mumbai, for example, Ganesh Chathurthi is a Hindu festival in which every neighbourhood group feels it is their right to erect a pandal on a street. And this tradition goes back at least 100 years. Indian cities, despite their burgeoning sizes, have never outgrown being villages when it comes to unauthorised land use.
No one really has a right to assemble in a public place every day forever in the garb of religion. But it is not the doing of one community. And so the answer is not to target just Muslims. Stop it all. Let everyone be unhappy. At least that will be just.