At 11 am every Friday, Abdul Wajid, 27, leaves his single room in Lane No. 5 of Gurgaon’s Basai village, and walks to a group of shanties located less than 500 metres down the road. As he looks on, the settlement’s occupants, numbering over 300, set about unfolding mats and sheets. A tempo arrives and drums filled with water are unloaded and placed in a corner for use.
Around 12.30 pm, the worshippers begin arriving — a mix of people reflecting the melting pot that Gurgaon has grown to become. Among them are labourers, autorickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, and employees of the private sector, the latter standing out in their crisp shirts and neatly ironed trousers.
Wajid has been leading the Jumu’ah (Friday prayers) here for the last four years, as the imam of the congregation. While it’s usually only the Jumu’ah prayers — for which an imam is required — that are held in the open, Wajid does so every day for the benefit of the slumdwellers.
However, this Ramzan is different. It is the first Muslim holy month since members of radical Hindu outfits protested in May against Friday prayers being held in the open in Gurgaon. The spot where Wajid conducts prayers is among the 23 open spaces in the city, down from 100 earlier, where Friday prayers have been officially allowed by the administration since May 10.
Although the Jumu’ah is usually over by 2 pm, Wajid is back in his room by only an hour later, waiting till the mats and sheets have been folded up and the area cleared. Most Fridays, he eats his lunch with the residents of the shanties, many of them migrants from UP. There will, however, be no food this Friday, this being the month of fasting.
The youngest of a labourer’s three sons, Wajid, who is from Bareilly in UP, completed his madrasa education in 2009, after which he conducted prayers at a masjid. In 2014, he moved to Gurgaon. Turning on the desert cooler in his room, Wajid says, “I was always clear that I wanted to help people, help them gain an understanding of what is right and what is wrong.”
Wajid is paid Rs 10,000 by a Muslim committee for conducting the prayers. Of this, he spends Rs 1,000 on monthly rent for the 8×8 ft room, which has two single beds and two small tables. The remaining space is almost entirely taken up by books, kept in piles on the tables or lined along shelves.
Wajid, who reads the namaz five times a day in the shanties, says Ramzan days are the busiest. “The Jumu’ah usually sees hundreds of people, but the number reaches over a thousand during Ramzan,” he says. Wajid gets up at 3 am and leaves for the first namaz of the day at 4 am, returning two hours later. At 11 am, he leaves for the afternoon prayers, and repeats the walk to the shanties at 5 pm. “It is between 3 pm and 5 pm that I catch up on my studies,” he says.
“After the evening prayers, around 6 pm, I usually take Urdu and Arabic classes for children for two hours, with a break to read the namaz. I teach around 35 students in two batches,” he says. He returns home around 9 pm, after reading the fifth and final namaz of the day, and joining the slumdwellers as they break their fast with a meal of mixed vegetables and rice.
Wajid says his congregration wasn’t among those in Gurgaon that faced protests over namaz at open places. Officials had then said further negotiations on the 23 sanctioned places would take place after Ramzan. “Both groups have been cooperating with administration so far. We are open to discussions but will not compromise on peace and order in the city,” says Gurgaon Deputy Commissioner Vinay Pratap Singh.
However, Wajid says, the tension has had an impact on his congregation, leaving people with “a certain amount of uncertainty”. A month later, prayers continue to be held under police security. Says Wajid, “The biggest issue in Gurgaon is lack of masjids. The ones that exist are either not maintained well or are far away. There is no option but to conduct Friday prayers in the open.”
Waqf Board officials confirm this, saying there are “two-three lakh Muslims” in Gurgaon, and “less than 30 places of worship”. Wajid says, “I have never seen this kind of discord in Gurgaon over something as peaceful as prayers. We are not doing anything wrong, and people should understand that. Hamara mazhab bhi hamein desh ki hifazat karne ko kehta hai, watan se mohabbat karna sikhata hai (Our religion too asks us to protect our country, love our country).”
A couple of hours later, as he addresses the congregation ahead of the afternoon prayers, held under a makeshift canopy, Wajid talks to them about the prices of various foodgrains. Soon, he advises everyone to get their Aadhaar cards made. “If we don’t get proper identification documents, it not only complicates our lives but also gives people a chance to disgrace Islam needlessly. It is our responsibility to make sure we do not give people that opportunity,” Wajid says into a microphone.
Just as he is about to start the prayers, a person gets up from the audience to voice a concern that many of them have: whether prayers will be conducted at the same spot after Ramzan. “We are not breaking any laws, we have taken permission to read the namaz here. As long as people know that we are not doing anything wrong, we will continue to pray here as we always have,” reassures Wajid.