Targeting mosques

Print edition : July 17, 2020

People arriving for Friday prayers under police vigil at a mosque in North East Delhi on February 28. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Attacks on mosques, which began during the violence in North East Delhi in late February, have continued even during the lockdown.

A little over 18 years ago, hundreds of Islamic monuments and Muslim places of worship were targeted in Gujarat as part of the organised violence in February-March 2002. While much of the Indian media confined itself to reports of the destruction of the nearly 300-year-old shrine of Vali Gujrati, The Guardian did not hold its punches as it reported: “Two hundred and thirty unique Islamic monuments, including an exquisite 400-year-old mosque, were destroyed or vandalised during the recent anti-Muslim riots in the Indian State of Gujarat, according to a local survey. Experts say the damage is so extensive that it rivals the better publicised destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the wrecking of Tibet’s monasteries by the Red Guards. Several monuments have been reduced to rubble in the course of the riot, in which 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, have died. In other disturbances, Hindu gangs have smashed delicate mosque screens, thrown bricks at Persian inscriptions, and set fire to old Korans.”

In 2020, the Gujarat model is sought to be replicated in India’s capital. The attacks on the Muslim places of worship have not stopped during the lockdown. A mosque in Dwarka was repeatedly attacked. Another in Bijaswan met the same fate. A little earlier, a mosque in Alipur had been attacked. These assaults came on the heels of the February violence in North East Delhi in which 19 mosques and dargahs were either burned down or defiled. Twenty-four such attacks have taken place on Delhi’s Muslim houses of worship this year, spreading fear among the minority community. Some of them are too afraid to even register a formal complaint with the police, preferring to settle for negotiations under duress with the vandals.

Take, for instance, the Dwarka mosque, located near Shahjahanabad Apartments in Sector 11, which has been repeatedly targeted. When miscreants attacked the mosque in February, the police defused the situation and brought about an amicable solution with local Hindu residents expressing regret. In fact, many members of the majority community went out of their way to instil confidence among Muslims by leaving messages of communal amity at the mosque’s gateway. The mosque authorities installed a CCTV (closed-circuit television) in the front portion of the building to prevent further violence. Prayer services continued.

A repeat attack took place on June 14, with Hindutva vigilante groups allegedly throwing stones at the mosque in the wee hours. No one was injured as the only person present on the premises was the imam, who immediately alerted local residents. A police complaint was filed when it was discovered that this time the attackers did not use the front portion of the mosque where the CCTV was installed, and instead threw stones from across the road running parallel to the mosque, causing minor damage to the building.

The media in Delhi underplayed the attack, just as local media had downplayed attacks on mosques in Gujarat in 2002. A few days later, the Jama Masjid Bijaswan in South West Delhi was targeted. This mosque had been attacked in 2018, too, and an attempt was made to put curbs on prayers. Back then, the Delhi Minorities Commission had intervened. Its Chairman, Dr Zafarul Islam Khan, said: “It is an old issue. Back in 2018 we sent a notice. Then under local and police pressure peace was arrived at, but it was detrimental to the community.” In October 2018, the commission took suo motu cognisance of the incident. The minorities panel wrote to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, South West Delhi, urging him to take corrective measures. “Some miscreants are creating trouble at the time of namaz, specially during the noon prayers on Friday. They have forcibly removed the loudspeaker of the mosque and are preventing outsiders from praying in the mosque,” it wrote.

A few days later, the police informed the commission that the issue had been amicably resolved. The imam, Maulvi Lal Muhammad, had informed the police that no one was being prevented from offering prayers now.

The truce ended in the last week of June 2020, when some hooligans objected to azaan (prayer call) on the loudspeaker and to the number of worshippers at the mosque. They again insisted on not allowing any “outsiders” to pray there. Local Muslims initially resisted, pointing out that there were not many mosques in the region and any trader or student passing through the area on a Friday was likely to stop over for prayers. Later, however, they buckled to pressure yet again. When Jamaat-e-Islami Hind functionaries tried to tap avenues for judicial recourse, local residents failed to come forward. Nobody was willing to put things on record out of fear. “They said, we have to live here only. And they met most of the demands of the miscreants,” rued Salim Engineer, vice president of the Jamaat.

Zafarul Islam Khan said: “It is a common problem that local Muslims fall to local and police pressure and do not pursue the cases. Compromise under police pressure is common.” He was speaking from experience, having witnessed numerous complaints about local strongmen, often in collusion with local policemen, objecting to azaan on loudspeaker during the lockdown.

On April 3, about 200 people reportedly ransacked the premises of a mosque in Delhi’s Alipur area. Zafarul Islam Khan wrote to the Police Commissioner stating that the panel had received a report, and a video, of an attack on the mosque in Mukhmelpur village under the Alipur police station in North West Delhi around 8 p.m. There were two or three people inside the mosque, while the assailants numbered around 200. The notice said the mob ransacked the mosque and partially burnt and demolished parts of it, including the roof. Zafarul Islam Khan said it was unbelievable that this could happen in the national capital. “The issue cannot be patched up artificially by arranging a compromise where a religious place has been ransacked and partially burnt and demolished. If no proper legal action is taken, this lawlessness will become common.”

Around the same time, many mosques came under pressure to shun the use of loudspeakers for azaan. While some were told that azaan was not necessary during the lockdown (mosques were closed during the first three phases of the lockdown), others were told to discard them for good. Even local policemen in some cases apparently took a role in thwarting the use of loudspeakers. The minorities panel intervened and insisted that the azaan was necessary to alert people about prayer timings during the lockdown. Yet again, police officers and station house officers had to intervene to safeguard the minority community’s right to worship.

Salim Engineer said the way ahead was to build bonds with other communities. “These instances have gained frequency in recent times. At one place, there is objection to azaan, at another to people spilling out of the masjid. At another still, to some other issue, like the media came up with the story of children hiding in a madrasa. The reality is, in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana such instances are occurring with increasing frequency. The police seldom find a lasting solution. The only solution is to speak to reasonable people from other communities and build a social bond against such miscreants to isolate them,” he said.

Nineteen mosques came under attack during the violence in North East Delhi in late February. Not only did the rampaging mobs vandalise the mosques, they set them on fire with cylinder blasts. Entire shelves of the Quran were reduced to ashes. Prayer mats were smoked, and Islamic calligraphy on the walls was wilfully and brazenly defiled. In four places, saffron flags were hoisted atop the mosques’ minarets. Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind leaders were able to get the flags removed only about a week later, and prayers began to be resumed in mosques. During that tense week, as Muslims waited for prayer services to resume, there were mobs shouting provocative slogans. Even when the prayer services resumed, mosques in some areas, notably in Ashok Nagar, Shiv Vihar and Mustafabad, were found to have been impacted too badly to resume even token daily prayers. In Farooqia Masjid, where prayers were offered on the rooftop on the first Friday after the attack, Delhi Police did not allow the prayers to continue as the site was under investigation.

Fortunately, prayer services have now been restored. Mohammed Rashid, whose house, located adjacent to the mosque’s rear wall, was burnt down, said: “Now normal prayers have resumed. I also go there. Things are also gradually coming back to normal in other mosques that had been impacted by the violence in February.”

However, attacks on mosques have not entirely died down, just shifted location. There is a perception that the attacks have gained in frequency since the Babri Masjid-Ramjnambhoomi verdict was pronounced by the Supreme Court. Hooligans apparently taunt the community with provocative slogans such as “Babri Masjid yaad karo” (Remember Babri Masjid).

Zafarul Islam Khan said he did not see a link with the verdict. But he said: “There is an atmosphere of fear. The compromise arrived at is done under pressure from local bigwigs and policemen. It does not last as it does no justice.”