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Solidarity for Muslims amid opposition to public prayer in Indian city

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Hindu residents and Sikh gurudwaras of Gurgaon offered Muslims a space for Friday prayers after far-right Hindu groups prevented the community from using public places for worship.

Altaf Ahmad, 45, a resident of Gurgaon, a town on the outskirts of India’s capital New Delhi, was shocked when members of the right-wing Hindu group Bharat Mata Vahini (BMV) came to disrupt Friday prayers in a designated space offered by the city administration.

“Namaz (prayer) is one of the pillars of our religion, and congregational prayers are important to us and our identity as Muslims,” said Altaf, who is also the co-founder of Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch. (Gurgaon Citizens’ Unity Forum).

His statement highlights the plight of Muslims living in Gurgaon, where groups like BMV and Sanyukta Hindu Sangarsh Samiti (SHSS) have called on the city administration to prevent them from praying in public spaces.

As protests escalated, the administration revoked the authorization of eight of the 37 sites initially approved.

Amid the ongoing controversy, support from Hindus and Sikhs began to pour in for the Muslim community, with many offering their private spaces for worship.

They include those like Akshay Yadav, a local resident opening his shop, to senior journalist Rahul Dev offer his home, and the Sikh community going out and initially offering space in the gurudwaras and other private places under their jurisdiction.

Yadav, who owns an auto store, had also contacted the community earlier. “During the holy month of Ramadan, Akshay opened his shop for us so that the increased number of Namazis (the faithful) could offer their prayers even late at night, ”Altaf explained.

Akshay Yadav’s store in Gurgaon. Yadav offered the premises of his store for Friday prayers. (Fateh Guram / TRTWorld)

Sherdil Singh Sidhu, the chairman of the Gurudwara Singh Sabha committee, issued a statement saying that the Muslim brothers are invited to pray inside the Gurudwara premises.

However, Singh’s decision was subsequently criticized by some members of the Sikh community and right-wing groups, and claimed his words had been misquoted by the media.

“My statement was contested by some members of the committee and so we made it clear to the Muslims that we cannot give them room. However, they said they understood and thanked us for our support, ”Singh told TRT World.

Even members of the Muslim community decided that they would not offer Friday prayers inside the gurudwara as it could create a disruption in the social fabric of the area.

“Sherdil Singh made a statement, and he came under a lot of pressure from right-wing Hindu groups, and that’s also why we went to the gurdwara on Friday, not only to thank him for his invaluable gesture, but also for reassure people that we would not offer namaz there because it would create problems for them, ”Ahmad told TRT World.

For Ahmad, the actions taken by Yadav or even the Sikh community are commendable and deserve to be commended. He believes that these people have taken a stand against oppression which is never easy, especially bearing in mind the tumultuous times.

Gurudwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, in Gurgaon, which initially offered a prayer space for Muslims.

Gurudwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, in Gurgaon, which initially offered a prayer space for Muslims. (Fateh Guram / TRTWorld)

The roots of the controversy

Given the insufficient number of mosques in the city, Friday prayers have been held for more than a decade in open areas of Gurgaon. The city itself has around 1.5 million inhabitants, 4.6 percent of whom are Muslims (72,480).

In the New Gurgaon area, the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) provided space for a single mosque in Sector 57 for the Muslim community. Old Gurgaon has a few small mosques; however, these are insufficient for those staying or working throughout Gurgaon.

This problem arose in 2018, when Muslims were prevented by a group of people from praying in open spaces. To avoid any conflict, representatives of the community approached the city administration. In the discussions that followed, the administration called for the reduction of prayer sites to 60 from the initial 100 so that adequate security could be ensured.

However, the administration did not accept the list of 60 prayer sites and further reduced it to 37 for the entire Gurgaon and Manesar region and also included three mosques (which should not have been included in the list of open places).

“We initially objected to reducing the number of prayer sites from 100 to 34, but the administration told us the sites could be increased once the dust settles. Therefore, we gave in to their demand, ”Altaf told TRT World.

While things remained calm for nearly two years, the problem resurfaced when Dinesh Bharti, who claims to be the head of BMV, began targeting and disrupting the 34 remaining prayer sites where the administration had promised to ‘Ensure the security.

Bharti managed to stop Friday prayers in areas 39, 40 and 43 in March and April of this year. A first information report was filed against Bharti on April 16, to “promote enmity between different groups for reasons of religion, race, place of birth, residence”.

After this incident, as the country was in the grip of the second wave of the pandemic and strict containment was imposed, public prayers did not take place for the next three months.

But in September, as the restrictions eased and public prayers began, Bharti again dated BMV members and began slogans against public prayer.

“On September 17, Mr. Bharti and a few others targeted Friday prayers by hurling name-calling and community slurs at those offering namaz,” Altaf said. He also considers that the action taken to date by the administration is insufficient and that the Muslim community is “pushed to the wall”.

Even for Taufiq Ahmad, who owns a store near Yadav’s house and now uses Yadav’s store to pray, the idea of ​​the government revoking access to sites it previously approved is absurd.

“Doesn’t that mean the government is partisan? he asks.

Taufiq Ahmad runs an auto repair shop in Gurgaon.

Taufiq Ahmad runs an auto repair shop in Gurgaon. (Fateh Guram / TRTWorld)

Ahmad also told TRT World that the Waqf board owned a lot of land in Gurgaon, but it is currently largely encroached, making it more difficult for Muslims to build a mosque on it.

“Even if we want to build a mosque, we cannot do it. Therefore, the land given to us has been taken away from us, and the land that we can ideally use is also beyond our reach. What nonsense is this? he added again.

Faced with the onslaught of hate politics unleashed by right-wing fringe groups like BMV and SHSS, in an already Safranised climate, stories of people like Akshay Yadav and Sherdil Sidhu opening their doors to Muslim worshipers signal the urgent need to reject false barriers and ensure the maintenance of community harmony.

Source: TRT World