Every Friday, Najis Mohammad would offer his afternoon prayers at a public ground near his barber shop in Gurugram, still popular by its old name Gurgaon – a satellite city on the outskirts of the Indian capital, New Delhi.
This Friday, however, he has no place to go. “Today, I am not sure if I can offer namaz anywhere,” he told Al Jazeera.
Reason: right-wing Hindu groups had erected large tents to perform a religious function at the same ground in the city’s Sector 12A area Nazim prayed at every Friday.
The event was attended by a number of politicians and Hindu priests, including Kapil Mishra, who belongs to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Mishra, 40, is accused of instigating religious violence in New Delhi last year – the worst the city had seen in decades – in which 53 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.
Permission for Muslim prayers revoked
Friday’s event came days after officials in the northern Indian state of Haryana revoked permission to offer Friday congregational prayers at eight of the 37 public grounds in Gurugram.
“Permission to offer prayers at eight previously-identified sites has been cancelled,” Gurugram police said in a statement on Tuesday. It added that if objections were raised by the residents at other places, “permission to offer prayers will be cancelled there as well”.
The police move followed a weeks-long campaign by Hindu groups and local residents who had been disrupting the Friday prayers at those sites by playing religious songs on loudspeakers and raising hate slogans.
An umbrella group of Hindu groups, called the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti (Joint Hindu Struggle Committee), even issued an “ultimatum” to the authorities, saying they would stop Muslim prayers themselves if the Gurugram administration fails to do so.
“We are giving a polite warning. We won’t submit more memorandums. It will then be the responsibility of the administration to maintain peace, not ours,” the Indian Express newspaper quoted Mahavir Bhardwaj, Haryana state president of the group, as saying last week.
“We are ready for lathis [sticks], we are ready to go to jail. We won’t run if we are shot at, but this will not be tolerated.”
— Pavneet Singh Chadha 🚜 🌾 (@pub_neat) November 5, 2021
A 2018 report by Scroll.in news website said there are 22 mosques in Gurugram, home to 1.1 million people, according to the 2011 census. Less than 5 percent of them are Muslims.
“There is no mosque nearby where we can go and offer our Jumah [Friday] prayer. The nearby mosque is almost 4 kilometres away,” Najis told Al Jazeera.
In a press statement shared with Al Jazeera, a group called the Muslim Community of Gurgaon said it has “decided not to offer” Friday prayers at the ground in Sector 12A “only for this week” as “vigilante groups” are organising “Govardhan Puja [prayers]” at the same spot.
“[Muslim prayers] will happen at rest of the 36 places as they were happening before. It is the duty of the administration and police to ensure law and order is maintained,” it said.
The statement urged Muslims “who are forced [to go] to these open sites due to lack of mosques in Gurgaon” to show “restraint and walk away in case troublemakers try to provoke or disrupt namaz at the remaining 36 sites”.
“The Muslim community of Gurgaon stands for peace and amity and will do everything in its might to ensure that communal harmony prevails in the city.”
Parliamentarian Asaduddin Owaisi said the Gurugram administration’s decision to ban Friday prayers at some sites was a violation of Article 25 of the Indian constitution that guarantees Indian citizens the freedom to profess, practise and propagate religion.
“How is it that practising my religion or offering my Jumah namaz [Friday prayers] once in a week for 15 to 20 minutes is hurting anyone?” he told Al Jazeera.
“This is a clear example of how radicalised these so-called protesters have become. This is a clear example of their hatred for Muslims.”
Amit Shah’s statement
Last week, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, while launching the BJP’s election campaign in the northern state of Uttarakhand, said the main opposition party had practised “appeasement politics” by allowing Muslim prayers on roads.
“Earlier, when I came here during the Congress government, some people told me that the government had permitted the highways for namaz on Fridays. Congress does only appeasement and can’t do any welfare work for the people of Uttarakhand,” he said.
But Gurugram resident Shehzad Khan, member of a local group called the Muslim Ekta Manch (Muslim Unity Forum), told Al Jazeera they prayed in the open “out of compulsion”.
“There is a very limited number of mosques in Gurgaon. That is why we have to offer namaz in the open,” he said.
Khan said a majority of the city’s Hindu community was not against Muslims offering prayers at these sites. “It’s just a handful of people who are creating communal disharmony.”
Lawyer Kulbhushan Bhardwaj, one of the organisers of Friday’s event, when asked about Hindu rituals being held on the day Muslims usually prayed, said: “We learnt this from Muslims.”
“They [Muslims], instead of offering namaz in their mosques, pray in open spaces without caring about law or the government,” he told Al Jazeera.
Gurgaon's protests against #namaz in open spaces get political backing.#BJP leaders @KapilMishra_IND , @amu_pal along with senior VHP leader Surendra Jain attended the #Govardhan pooja at #Gurugram
Sector 12 at the same spot where Muslims offer #namaz every Friday.@TheQuint pic.twitter.com/WUrQAh8eoI
— Eshwar (@hey_eshwar) November 5, 2021
Rajiv Mittal, spokesman of the Hindu group behind the event, told Al Jazeera they are not against “Muslims offering namaz” but against “namaz being held in open spaces without permission”. He claimed the permission granted at 37 places in Gurugram was for the holy month of Ramadan only.
Activist and professor of Hindi at Delhi University, Apoorvanand, said India’s Muslims have been offering namaz on Fridays in the open for decades.
“It never offended Hindu sensibilities,” he told Al Jazeera. “I see it as criminal elements gaining ground and the administration succumbing to their pressure.”
Parliamentarian Owaisi said “conditions are [being] imposed for construction of mosques” by the authorities.
“Why do they put this condition that only if x percentage of Muslims are [living in a particular area], only then you can construct a mosque?” he asked.
“You are denying me my fundamental right by imposing such conditions.”