Vigilantism is back

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Friday prayers in progress with police presence in Gurugram on April 27. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Anil Vij, State Health Minister. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Civil society members leave after a meeting with Divisional Commissioner D. Suresh seeking a solution to the trouble over Friday prayers, on May 8. Photo: PTI

The way in which the Haryana government has handled the attacks on namaz congregations, asking Muslims to desist from holding public prayers instead of reining in the attackers, has thrown into doubt the administration’s commitment to impartial governance.

IN the third week of April, in Haryana’s Gurugram district, members of right-wing groups claiming to represent the majority community, disrupted a namaz congregation in an open space, abused those offering prayers, and forced them to disperse. The State government responded to the incident by saying that the minority community should offer Friday prayers in places specifically designated by the administration. The directive, endorsed by even the Chief Minister, did not follow any objective assessment of the situation and simply capitulated to the demands made by the right-wing groups. It did not, however, come as a surprise, given the attacks on minorities ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power in the State. Haryana has been among the States leading in incidents of vigilantism in the name of cattle protection.

In the afternoon of April 20, people who had congregated to offer prayers in Sector 53, near an area designated as Millenium City, were confronted by a group from the two nearby villages, Kanhai and Wazirabad, shouting “Jai Shri Ram” and “Radhey Radhey”. They were literally compelled to stop their prayers and leave the place. The members of the congregation were taken aback because the public space had been used to offer Friday prayers for the last 10 years and no untoward incident had ever occurred. The attackers circulated a video of the incident as a mark of their bravado. When the contents of the video became public, members of the minority community took up the issue, and one person got a first information report (FIR) registered. Six men were rounded up and remanded to judicial custody for 14 days.

On April 27, the incident was repeated at a different location. People offering Friday prayers near a private hospital were disturbed and compelled to leave amid heavy police presence. On April 29, the men arrested for the April 20 incident were released on bail. On May 4, an outfit calling itself the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti and claiming to represent the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena, the Hindu Kranti Dal, the Dharam Jagran Manch, the Hindu Kranti Sena and the Bharat Bachao Manch declared that it would not allow public prayers by minority groups and that collective prayers could only be held in mosques and idgahs. The Samiti released a list of its demands through the media. The list specified that namaz in the open could not be offered without permission in any part of the city; Muslims needed explicit permission to use government and open land for namaz; permission should not be given in Hindu colonies, sectors and neighbourhoods; and permission should be given only in places where Muslims account for over 50 per cent of the population.

Vigilantism was clearly back, in a new form. The gau rakshaks had been replaced by self-appointed custodians of public order. The government not only remained a mute spectator but even indirectly abetted the vigilantism. Additionally, public prayers were forcibly stopped in at least 10 places by the police. Chief Minister M.L. Khattar said there had been an increase in instances of prayers being offered in public places and that namaz should be offered in idgahs and mosques.

Later, he said that he did not want anyone to be stopped from offering prayers but that maintaining law and order was the duty of the police and the administration. (The irony, of course, was that there had never been any law and order problem surrounding Friday prayers until right-wing groups started persecuting these congregations.) Khattar’s Health Minister, Anil Vij, went a step further with his comment that “one can’t read namaz anywhere in the open with the intention of grabbing land”.

A section of Gurugram residents did not take this vigilantism lying down. More than a hundred citizens from various walks of life wrote to the Divisional Commissioner expressing anguish at the disruption of Friday prayers in the city. Significantly, the signatories to the memorandum included members of the majority community. They pointed out how people offering prayers were terrorised by a small group of men on May 4 in the presence of the police and asserted that the “demands were unconstitutional and went against basic constitutional values and rights”, that they violated Article 14 (equality before the law), Article 15 (prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) and Article 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) of the Constitution.

The memorandum stressed the need for the administration to be impartial in the application of any rule or policy in matters concerning religious congregations. It was also pointed out that jumma namaz, or Friday prayers, were being offered in public spaces over the last 25 years without any rancour from any section. Public spaces were used for prayers because there were not enough mosques to accommodate all of those who offered prayers. Waqf Board lands, the memorandum pointed out, were also encroached upon while no separate space had been provided to build mosques.

The Left parties also submitted a joint memorandum to the Commissioner seeking the administration’s intervention to protect members of the minority community and rein in the vigilante groups.

The industrial hub of Gurugram apparently employs a good number of Muslims. It is not unusual for some of them, including factory workers, to offer prayers in public spaces such as parks because the nearest mosque in many cases is located kilometres away. The prayers do not last long as people slip out during lunch breaks to pray and then roll up their mats to go back to work or head home. Incidentally, these parks and public spaces are also reportedly used by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) for its shakhas.

Muslim labourers, most of whom work in the unorganised sector as construction workers, mechanics, plumbers and carpenters, live in rented accommodation. Shankar Prajapati, Gurugram district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “The activities by these vigilante groups have made the landlords apprehensive that the migrants may head back to their State of origin.” Rahul Roy, an independent film-maker and a Gurugram resident, told Frontline that any policy to regulate such issues cannot be ad hoc or community-specific. “The approach is not to regulate but to control. The administration ideally should facilitate and be impartial,” he said. Altaf, a professional employed in the hospitality industry in Gurugram, said that it was impossible for working-class Muslims to commute to the mosque located in Sector 57, the only one in the area, to offer prayers.

“The majority are daily wagers. They don’t have the luxury of taking time off. Hence, they go to the nearest public park with their mats and do the needful without creating any disturbance. There has been no intention ever to create any disturbance,” he said.

Prajapati, Rahul Roy and others Frontline spoke to dismissed the claim that people offered namaz on the roads and disrupted traffic. Meanwhile, the convener of the Hindu Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti maintained that Muslims could offer namaz in their offices or in the factory. It is another matter that most employers are unlikely to allow this.

Haji Shehzaad Khan, who filed a police complaint after the April 20 incident, said: “Doesn’t this country belong to all of us? These fringe groups are striking terror in the hearts of people. The majority of Muslims in Gurugram belong to the working class. Where will they go? The Chief Minister’s statement was issued in a hurry.”

Haryana’s record of ill-treating its minorities has gone from bad to worse. According to data compiled by IndiaSpend on cow vigilantism and the targeting of minorities, Haryana ranks second after Uttar Pradesh in the matter of atrocities committed against minorities following the installation of the BJP government at the Centre in 2014, the year in which Haryana also elected a BJP government. Instead of reining in the miscreants who went about disrupting public prayers, the administration busied itself in drawing up a list of authorised places where prayers could be offered. This is seen as blatantly discriminatory in a country where State governments, especially in northern India, are known to facilitate certain pilgrimages and where tents for pilgrims are sometimes pitched on highways, causing inconvenience to the public.

The Chief Minister’s statements have only reinforced the biases against particular communities. By not taking a hard line against the self-appointed custodians of public order, the BJP-led government in Haryana has put in doubt its own commitment to impartial governance.