ON November 5, the Sanyukta Hindu Sangharsh Samiti, a body of 21 Hindu outfits claiming to uphold the interests of local Hindus, held Govardhan puja in Gurugram, the satellite township on the outskirts of Delhi, at the exact spot in Sector 12 where members of the Muslim community had offered Friday prayers a week earlier. The puja was attended among others by Kapil Mishra, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader better known for issuing an ultimatum to the Delhi Police to remove the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters from Jafrabad in Delhi, and barely hours later north-east Delhi went up in flames in the last week of February 2020.
Yati Narsinghanand, who had made a series of provocative statements against the Muslim community, including upholding an attack on a 10-year-old boy who had entered a temple in Dasna in western Uttar Pradesh for drinking water, was supposed to keep him company. Narsinghanand could not make it owing to a prior engagement, but that did not dissuade Kapil Mishra and others, including senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Surendra Jain, from organising an elaborate puja at the site designated by the local administration for Friday prayers. The puja concluded with the chanting of provocative slogans.
Surendra Jain felicitated the 26 people who had been arrested a week earlier for disturbing Friday prayers. In his address, he hailed them as crusaders and equated public namaz with terrorism. “Due to the struggle of these crusaders, the administration cowed down. This will not become a second Pakistan. Those who want to offer namaz in public places can go to Pakistan. Blocking roads to offer namaz is jehad. It is jehad against Hindus, against law and order, against humanity…. It is terrorism,” he said. It was an unabashed expression of majority triumphalism, with many members of the right-wing outfits reading in the Friday prayers “a jehad against the Hindu community”. Several people were heard warning Muslims that Gurgaon (as Gurugram is known locally) was merely a trailer.
Elsewhere, Home Minister Amit Shah carried forward the message. Speaking in Uttarakhand, Amit Shah said: “Earlier, when I came here during the time of the Congress government, some people came to meet me. My convoy was stopped. I asked, what happened? They said, Sir, don’t you know today is Friday. I asked what happens on Friday? They informed me that on Friday there is permission to block the National Highway to perform namaz. Highways are closed….”
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It gave a new twist to the Friday prayer controversy. For weeks on end, Muslim worshippers had struggled to offer the mandatory weekly prayers at the site allocated for the purpose as Samiti volunteers would come to the venue with drums, microphones and a rumbustious crowd shouting slogans to disturb the prayer. The administration provided police protection for the worshippers to prevent untoward incidents.
Dearth of mosques
Incidentally, Gurugram has a dearth of mosques, with only 13 mosques functioning for a population of five lakh Muslims, forcing many Muslims to offer Friday prayers in public parks and barren stretches of land. Some private offices offer their parking lots for the purpose. After speaking to representatives of Muslim and Hindu communities, the State government in 2018 earmarked 37 sites for the weekly congregation. A truce was arrived at. It held until February this year when the Samiti volunteers started arriving at one of the sites and started mobilising resident welfare associations and local residents to object to Muslim prayer. On the last Friday of October, the police arrested 26 protesters for attempting to block Friday prayers. A day after the Govardhan puja, Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij in a statement reinforced the argument of prayers to be offered at religious places only. “Everybody should hold their religious functions at their religious places only. Without the administration’s permission, such events should be avoided.”
A couple of days before the Govardhan puja, the district administration withdrew permission for Friday prayers from eight sites, including the spot where the puja was held. It was claimed that it was done in consultation with members of both communities. “Permission to offer prayers at eight previously identified sites has been cancelled,” the Gurugram police said. With reference to other prayer spots, they said “permission to offer prayers will be cancelled there as well” if residents at those places raised objections.
The claim of cancellation following mutual consultation was met with suspicion by members of the minority community. They claimed that members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) Rashtriya Muslim Manch were used as representatives of Muslim worshippers; thousands of them do not stay in Gurugram but work in the corporate sector in the area. Many of them drive down from Delhi every day; some even come from as far as Faridabad and Noida. They contended that they had to pray in the open, under the scorching sun in summer and brave the cold of the National Capital Region (NCR) in winter, only because waqf properties were encroached upon in the State. If the properties could be thrown open to the community, the instances of offering prayer in public places would reduce significantly, and the administration would not have to designate prayer spots every so often.
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The community formed a 21-member committee under the chairmanship of former Rajya Sabha member Mohammed Adeeb to interact with the local administration and the State government about Friday prayers. It got a shot in the arm in the form of support from members of the Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch, a citizens’ forum, which demanded legal action against the right-wing groups that were disrupting Friday prayers. The manch said that Hindu extremist groups showed up at namaz locations and intimidated the imams and other worshippers. They pointed out that the prayers had been frequently disturbed since March 2020.
Zafarul Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, tweeted about the disturbance and sought reopening of closed mosques. He wrote: “Return 19 closed mosques plus the one built in 2016, sealed by the administration. Earlier, Friday prayers offered at 125 places, the admin reduced it to 37, and now to 29 under goons’ pressure. No open prayer if closed mosques are returned, construction of new mosques and additional floors allowed.”
The noted academic-activist Apoorvanand lent his weight to those offering prayers at designated places and blamed the administration for cutting down on the number of prayer places. In a series of tweets, Apoorvanand said: “The Chief Minister said that namaz should not be in the open. Another Minister said it was a ploy to capture land. The administration started squeezing the spaces available to Muslims. Earlier, they used to gather at more than 100 spots. For years there was never any problem to the local non-Muslims. They used to be there for hardly an hour. After the namaz, they dispersed to their respective work spaces. After repeated attacks by goons, the administration tried to give security to the praying Muslims.” According to him, the problem started in 2018 when the Sanyukta Hindu Sangharsh Samiti emerged and started attacking Muslims offering namaz. “This was how the Jumma namaz was turned into a law-and-order issue.”
Representatives of the Muslim community feel the issue can be resolved if the waqf properties are returned to the community and mosques are allowed to be built on the waqf land. Back in May 2018, the Haryana Waqf Board had submitted a list of 19 mosques/properties lying unused because of local opposition or encroachments. Its Estate Officer, Jamaluddin, had then demanded the removal of encroachments at the waqf properties and expressed readiness to build mosques at these places to handle the increased volume of worshippers on Fridays. He had also referred to an over two-acre plot acquired by the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) in Palam Vihar where the Punjab and Haryana High Court had directed the Authority to provide land to the Board in lieu of the plot.
According to the list submitted by the Board, seven mosques have been allegedly encroached upon in Dhankot, Wazirabad, Jharsa, Badshahpur and other places, while six mosques in places such as Khurrampur, Dhankot and Bhondsi were not used for Friday prayers because of opposition by local elements. Jamaluddin claimed, “Our attempts to build a mosque on Waqf Board plots in Jharsa, Jharsa-Fazilpur, Naurangpur and Meoka have been thwarted by the locals”, leaving only a handful of mosques and the Eidgah for Friday prayers in Gurugram.
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The National Waqf Academy, a unit of the Zakat Foundation of India, has collected data on the subject. Says Syed Zafar Mahmood, president of the foundation: “The Justice Sachar Committee Report made a list of mosques and tombs that are waqf properties but are in the control of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which does not allow namaz there whereas such a ban is against the law. The purpose of entrusting a heritage property in the custody of the ASI is to have the property protected and preserved, but the level of the ASI’s neglect is to be seen to be believed. Such waqf properties under the ASI’s control are widely encroached, and these mosques and tombs are desecrated.”
According to Mahmood, a monument must retain its original character under the ASI. Section 5 (6) of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, says that “nothing shall affect the use of any protected monument for customary religious observances”. Section 16 of the Act provides that “a protected monument maintained under this Act, which is a place of worship or shrine, shall not be used for any purpose inconsistent with its character”.
He characterised as understandable the Haryana Chief Minister’s statement that if some people have an objection to people offering prayers by the roadside that must be given serious consideration. He added: “But waqf properties belong solely to Muslims. They may offer their prayers there and if someone creates trouble against offering namaz at these properties, then the Chief Minister must simultaneously take action against those who create such disturbance.”
Meanwhile, every Friday comes with the foreboding of social tension and conflict in Gurugram.