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Tension rising in India over Muslims praying in open spaces

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Fresh trouble is brewing after a hardline Hindutva group prevented Muslims in Delhi from offering prayers on Friday in public spaces in Gurgaon, a suburb in the capital, reported Asia Times (Thailand).

Videos of the incident were uploaded on social media, leading to a fresh round of polarized debate, which has become the norm since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in May 2014.

Three weeks after a group of youths blocked Muslims from performing Friday namaaz (prayer) in an open space in Gurgaon, the situation had seemed to be returning to normal. However, the affected Muslim community offered prayers in 47 places in the city on May 11 under police protection and expressed anguish over damage the previous incident had done to the city’s social fabric.

Ever since the BJP government came to power and won elections in 21 states, their strategy to win votes has largely involved polarizing the majority community against the minorities, leading to unintended consequences.

“I wonder how long the police are going to protect us? In how many places the police can be deployed? In about 120 places in Gurgaon the namaaz is offered in the open. Their main worry is about our rising numbers and they can’t see us together at a place,” one Muslim man said after finishing his prayer in an open spot. “I fear what would happen in Ramazan [Ramadan], which is just around the corner, when the number of people at Friday prayer swells considerably.”

‘Trouble started after BJP got power’
Usman, a house painter by profession, came to Gurgaon from his home in Bihar about 18 years ago in search of a job. He blames the arrival of the BJP in power, both nationally and in the state, for the present situation.

“I never saw these kinds of issues in Gurgaon before 2014. Ever since the BJP came to government, we have been facing problems for one reason or the other. I remember a couple of months ago one of my neighbors was stopped by a few men while returning from the market carrying buffalo meat in a packet. They suspected that he was carrying cow’s meat and handed him over to the police,” Usman said.

Muslim community leaders have expressed satisfaction with security arrangements made by the administration and said they hope that things will improve to the point where police protection isn’t needed.

But there were many who were less impressed and despite showing a stoic face, they were, in reality, deeply scarred by the turbulence that has unfolded over the past three weeks.

“For 10 minutes, as long as we are offering prayer, we can’t react to anything that goes on around us. My concern is if, God forbid, they attack us during that time, we would not be in a position to save ourselves,” Usman said.

The issue flared on April 20, when six men from a local village stopped a few hundred Muslims from offering Friday prayers in the open and made threats to get them to leave the place. After the video of the incident went viral on social media the accused were arrested. But the arrests caused the issue to snowball into a major controversy with right-wing Hindu groups holding protest marches throughout the city, vowing to not let Muslims pray in open areas anywhere in Gurgaon.

For a couple of weeks, Hindu groups obstructed Muslims from holding Friday prayers in several places in Gurgaon, which forced officials to get involved. After several rounds of meetings with representatives from both communities, district administrators announced a list on May 10 of 47 places, including 23 open spaces, where namaaz could be done.

In Wazirabad village, a few hundred meters away from where the initial incident occurred on April 20, elders tried to justify their community’s position by explaining ancient thinking. This is the same village where the six accused hail from.

Gandhi blamed for starting problem
India has been plagued by sporadic outbursts of religious violence since the country won independence. The division of the country in August 1947 spurred horrific communal violence amid mass movement of millions of people, with Muslims fleeing to live in Pakistan or Hindus seeking to live in India. Hundreds of thousands were killed. The legacy has been underlying tension between those communities and other faiths in both countries.

“The Partition [of the country] happened for a reason. All the Muslims went to Pakistan but Mahatma Gandhi stopped half of them and begged them to stay in India. So Gandhi was the main problem. Look, they are different from us. For them their religion is above everything else, they can go to any length for their religion, so why would they respect us?” asked Kishen, a village elder amid a round of hookah with his colleagues.

From stealing cows, to their [Muslims] involvement in burglaries, the villagers have a litany of complaints against “the others”. But, scratch a bit further and they reveal their biggest fear — being outnumbered.

“A few years back, hardly any Muslims could be seen in Gurgaon. But as the construction boom started at the turn of the century, Muslims from all over the country started pouring in here. They marry three to four women and produce dozens of children. They can’t compete with us in terms of education, in terms of money, so to achieve a parity they are growing faster in numbers,” says another elder, without revealing his name.

“By voting they exert pressure on political parties. Thank god the BJP is in power, if it was a Congress government they would have created a bigger issue out of it and we would be in the backfoot,” the villager says. After a nod from another colleague, the elders tempered their views and said that every person has the right to follow his or her religion but the Muslims should be sensitive to others’ feelings also.

Why can’t they pray indoors like others?
“We have no problem if they pray inside their homes or in the mosque – how the Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis who come here pray do. You will never see them praying in the open, so why can’t Indian Muslims also pray inside their houses?” Kishen asks.

In a phone-call, Arun and Manish, two of the men accused of disrupting Friday prayers on April 20, said their actions were aimed at saving local women from being leered at and molested by Muslims. “They gather here and pass vulgar comments on our womenfolk. We have even saved a minor Muslim girl from the clutches of a Maulvi [Muslim preacher] who was trying to marry her off,” the duo said.

Mahavir Bhardwaj, the convener of Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti, an umbrella organization of right-wing Hindu outfits which came into existence following the incident, said some local Muslim leaders were helping Muslims to settle in the city, as they wanted to gain political mileage out of their actions.

“The person who is representing the Muslims here is basically not from this area. He lives 15 kilometers away in Palam Vihar and could be bringing Muslims here to create his constituency and fight elections. People from Bangladesh, Bihar, and Rohingyas have been coming here and voter identification cards have been created for them,” Bhardwaj said.

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Tags: India, Muslims, Delhi
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