Open season on religion

Manohar Lal Khattar, Haryana chief minister and self-appointed arbiter of social mores from how women should dress to prescribed religious practices, has spoken. Namaz should be read not on open public spaces but in mosques or idgahs, he said, after sundry goons chased migrant Muslims off some of the dusty open air spaces in Gurgaon where they had congregated for Friday prayers. If there were not enough mosques, he added, they should pray at home, he prescribed.

What was the problem with these congregations? Nothing much, really. But clearly, some people see something disturbing in the sight of undernourished young men bowing in orderly row upon row, taking a break from their Dickensian lives in the transitory comfort of their faith. Most of these worshippers inhabit the city’s unforgiving slums; ironically, they are the ones who build the glitzy towers that symbolise the thrusting new India.

From the slogans that were shouted, the objections appeared to centre on the fact that these worshippers were (a) Muslims and (b) Bangladeshi. It is hard to determine what weight the protestors ascribed to each factor. Or, indeed, why they were so exercised by this open practice of faith, when Hindus are enthusiastic practitioners of mass expressions of religious faith too.  

These migrants are, in a sense, our Windrush generation. They stream into the national capital region to do the kind of work increasingly prosperous Indians no longer want to do: as household help, construction workers and so on. Without them, labour costs would be prohibitive. Their presence hardly alters the demographics of this district where Hindus account for 93 per cent of the population. They pray in the open because this Hindu-dominated city does not have enough mosques to accommodate them.

But then, bhakts rarely let the facts get in the way of a good communal protest, especially when they have a champion in the shape of the chief minister, whose zeal for renaming Gurgaon Gurugram has not been matched by any significant improvement in civic amenities. Thus, his pronouncement about where Muslims should pray. Taxed on the issue, though, he walked back the statement a bit, positing it as a law and order problem. This is rich coming from a chief minister whose law-and-order record barely passes scrutiny; recall the riots by Jats and followers of Dera Sacha Sauda when their guru was given a life sentence for rape.

His followers helpfully suggested that this open-air Friday worship business posed the threat of a land grab (land jihad, they imaginatively called it) by these people to build mosques. Had Khattar spent more time in a city that delivers the bulk of Haryana’s revenues, he may have been able to check the facts for himself: That most of the open spaces on which Friday prayers are held are common lands, where trucks park, nightly eateries open, fairs are held occasionally and kids play cricket. Funny, he doesn’t seem to have a view on trees on public property that sprout idols below them one day, those trademark white bathroom tiles a few months later and morph into temples in no time at all.

Later, his office issued a press release that clarified that the administration should be informed if any group wanted to offer prayers in public, and suitable sites would be designated for them. Fair enough.  This is standard practice for Muharram processions countrywide, puja pandals in Bengal, even the Kumbh mela.

But if it’s law and order that Khattar is worried about, then he must be similarly energetic on other occasions too. For example, the state’s administration should be mobilised to handle the kawariyas whose unruly journeys bring the National Capital Region to a virtual halt for three or four days each year or when jagrans keep residents awake all night with ear-splitting devotional music on loudspeakers.  Does the fact that Hindu Indians are involved in these disruptive activities make them exceptions to the rule of law? 

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