By Laila Tyabji
May 8, 2018
There has been much discussion regarding
the rights and wrongs of Friday prayers being disrupted in Gurgaon as well as
the Haryana Chief Minister’s recent statement that ‘Namaz’ should be said in
mosques, not in public spaces. A lot of passion is being expressed on both
sides and some hot air as well. Citizens of other faiths coming out to protect
praying Muslims were moving. But it is important to remember that there are two
sides to this.
Of course, we must protest against any
attempt to intimidate anyone observing their religious practice. It’s easy to
see this as part of a deliberate harassment of minority communities — the
recent vandalisation of the St Stephens College chapel and Principal’s grave
being another instance.
However, disrupting traffic or unauthorised
occupation of private property cannot be allowed. I see the controversy as a
wonderful time for civil society to demand that the public observance of ANY
religion should be forbidden altogether in our already overcrowded, noisy and
volatile cities — whether these be Kavadias, Muharram processions, or the
recent assertive Ram Navmi celebrations which actually led to destruction and
loss of life.
Similarly, political leaders receiving ‘Darshan’
from various gurus, Maulanas and Sants, or visiting temples, mosques, churches
or pilgrimage sites should be their private affair; not be covered in the media
or milked for political mileage. Loudspeakers blaring from mosques, noisy
truck/motorbike parades that block roads, and ‘Satsangs’ taking over public
parks should all be prohibited. If done impartially, even-handedly, legally,
and without fear or favour, this would be an important step in confining
religion to our hearts, homes and religious places; while keeping it firmly out
of both public life and public spaces. After all a fundament of all faiths is
living in peace, not competitive self-assertion.
As for the use of a vacant plot to say
prayers, why shouldn’t it be permitted since no one is being harmed or impeded?
Let’s call a spade a spade. All over India the gathering of devotees, whether
Hindu, Muslim or tribal, in an unoccupied space is often the start of
encroachment of land. A small ‘Kachcha’ roadside shrine under a Peepal tree
mushrooms over the years into a permanent structure, then into a bigger and
bigger temple which no one dares demolish; an unknown grave is sanctified
overnight into a holy ‘Mazaar’, given a roof, and the edifice grows and grows –
sometimes in the middle of a crowded marketplace.
We all have seen and sometimes suffered
countless examples. My parents lost half an acre of land on the Banjara Hills
that way, because the judiciary and the local administration were not ready to
take a stand. People cannot be allowed to take over a space that is not theirs,
however holy their intention.
As it happens, though we are encouraged to
pray in a congregation, especially on Fridays and Eid, (as a demonstration of
the brotherhood and equality of man), Muslims can pray anywhere as long as we
are ritually clean and know the right direction! The desert sand, a corner of
your room… Even a prayer rug is not required. Though there are injunctions
regarding times, conditions, etc it is the Muslim clergy that have stratified
these over the years, in a way that was never intended.
Islam is an intensely practical religion.
If you miss a prayer, ‘Qadaa’ permits you to add it to the next one. I never
remember my father or uncles, as professional diplomats, army and Airforce
officers, lawyers, bureaucrats, heads of companies, taking a break from their
duties to pray. Or demanding leave because they were fasting! My deeply devout
grandmother would never break up a party in her home, when they were non-Muslim
guests, to announce it was time for ‘Namaz’. She would say an extra prayer
In Islamic countries, it’s possible for
social and official life to adjust itself around the prescribed religious
timings and calendar. In a secular country you should not demand special
license or make a big deal of your faith. You can always, in the time-honoured
Indian phrase, “adjust”.
I can’t remember in my youth, people using
a visit to the Gurudwara, Mandir or mosque as a justifiable excuse for coming
late to office as they do now. These days, sadly, whatever your religion, the
form and ritual have become more important than the actual meaning. An
assertion of community rather than god.
Of course, there are reasons for the
‘Namaz’ issue becoming so emotive. For many Indian Muslims the knee-jerk
stereotyping and suspicion these days, be it the food they eat or the cut of
their beard; the questioning even of their nationalism because of their faith –
all these seem symbolic of a gradual loss of their rights as citizens, a demand
by the majority for quiescent conformity. As a result they too, with other
religious communities, majority or minority, are feeling the need to
ostentatiously flex their muscles.
The current Gurgaon impasse is not so much
about a place to worship as pride. On both sides, it is a statement of identity
and who has a right to it.
All this can only deteriorate further
unless we all demand that faith becomes strictly a personal matter out of the
public domain – FOR EVERYBODY. Present and past governments are reluctant to
tackle the sensitive hornet’s nest of religion. They prefer to give small sops
and ridiculous meaningless concessions to keep everyone happy. It is far easier
to grant an extra holiday for Muslims, make Vande Mataram obligatory, or impose
a meat ban during Navratri, than take a firm unilateral secular stand.
If the Haryana government simultaneously
banned ALL religious gatherings and processions in public places, while
allotting some space where these events could happen, it would set an example
for governments all over India, and be a policy where all faiths would be equal
and no one’s “sentiments” would be “hurt”!
The Quran’s injunction, to “Be righteous
and act justly to those who worship another God” works as well for government
as it does for all of us.