There has been much discussion regarding the rights and wrongs of Friday prayers being disrupted in Gurgaon as well as the Haryana Chief Minister’s recent statement that ‘namaz’ should be said in mosques, not in public spaces. A lot of passion is being expressed on both sides, and some hot air as well. Citizens of other faiths coming out to protect praying Muslims was moving. But it is important to remember that there are two sides to this.
Of course, we must protest against any attempt to intimidate anyone observing their religious practice. It’s easy to see this as part of a deliberate harassment of minority communities — the recent vandalisation of the St Stephens College chapel and Principal’s grave being another instance.
However, disrupting traffic or unauthorised occupation of private property cannot be allowed. I see the controversy as a wonderful time 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 Navmi celebrations which actually led to destruction and loss of life.
Similarly, political leaders receiving ‘darshan’ from various gurus, maulanas and sants, or visiting temples, mosques, churches or pilgrimage sites should be their private affair; not be covered in the media or milked for political mileage. 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 for the use of a vacant plot to say prayers, why shouldn’t it be permitted since no one is being harmed or impeded? Let’s call a spade a spade. All over India the gathering of devotees, whether Hindu, Muslim or tribal, in an unoccupied space is often the start of encroachment of land. A small ‘kachha’ roadside shrine under a peepal tree mushrooms over the years into a permanent structure, then into a bigger and bigger temple which no one dares demolish; an unknown grave is sanctified overnight into a holy ‘mazaar’, given a roof, and the edifice grows and grows – sometimes in the middle of a crowded marketplace.
We all have seen and sometimes suffered countless examples. My parents lost half an acre of land on the Banjara Hills that way, because the judiciary and the local administration were not ready to take a stand. People cannot be allowed to take over a space that is not theirs, however holy their intention.
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. Though there are injunctions regarding times, conditions, etc it is the Muslim clergy that have stratified these over the years, in a way that was never intended.
Islam is an intensely practical religion. If you miss a prayer, ‘Qadaa’ permits you to add it to the next one. I never remember my father or uncles, as professional diplomats, army and airforce officers, lawyers, bureaucrats, heads of companies, taking a break from their duties to pray. Or demanding leave because they were fasting! My deeply devout grandmother would never break up a party in her home, when they were non-Muslim guests, to announce it was time for ‘namaz’. She would say an extra prayer later.
In Islamic countries, it’s possible for social and official life to adjust itself around the prescribed religious timings and calendar. In a secular country you should not demand special license or make a big deal of your faith. You can always, in the time-honoured Indian phrase, “adjust”.
I can’t remember in my youth, people using a visit to the Gurudwara, mandir or mosque as a justifiable excuse for coming late to office as they do now. 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.
Of course, there are reasons for the ‘namaz’ issue becoming so emotive. For many Indian Muslims the knee-jerk stereotyping and suspicion these days, be it the food they eat or the cut of their beard; the questioning even of their nationalism because of their faith – all these seem symbolic of a gradual loss of their rights as citizens, a demand by the majority for quiescent conformity. As a result they too, with other religious communities, majority or minority, are feeling the need to ostentatiously flex their muscles.
The current Gurgaon impasse is not so much about a place to worship as pride. On both sides, it is a statement of identity and who has a right to it.
All this can only deteriorate further unless we all demand that faith becomes strictly a personal matter out of the public domain – FOR EVERYBODY. Present and past governments are reluctant to tackle the sensitive hornet’s nest of religion. They prefer to give small sops and ridiculous meaningless concessions to keep everyone happy. It is far easier to grant an extra holiday for Muslims, make Vande Mataram obligatory, or impose a meat ban during Navratri, than take a firm unilateral secular stand.
If the Haryana government simultaneously banned ALL religious gatherings and processions in public places, while allotting some space where these events could happen, it would set an example for governments all over India, and be a policy where all faiths would be equal and no one’s “sentiments” would be “hurt”!
The Quran’s injunction, to “Be righteous and act justly to those who worship another God” works as well for government as it does for all of us.