When the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was pulled down on 6 December, 1992, a Delhi politician contemplated the Muslim community’s response. He was Hindu. Yet, his proximity to the city’s Muslim elite often had him play a significant role in backroom negotiations over the Ayodhya issue. Typical of those whom no catastrophe can shake, the politician, rather cryptically, cited a proverb, “When you kick even your pet dog 20 times in a row, it is likely to bite you on the 21st kick”.
The word bite, in the context of the Babri Masjid demolition, symbolised violence, an act aimed to hurt the perpetrators of injustice. “This is exactly what the Muslims should not do”, the politician said. “The Hindutva brigade wants Muslims to retaliate so that a chain of action-reaction can be created. They want the Hindu-Muslim chasm to widen”. He paused, then added thoughtfully, “But silence is not an option either. It encourages the assailants. What therefore should they do?”
Certainly, the disruption of congregational prayers of Muslims on two successive Fridays in Gurugram, often cited as a shining example of India’s growth story, certainly seems like the proverbial 21st kick that the Delhi politician spoke of. Too many kicks have been delivered to Muslims over the last four years, but the lumpen Hindutva brigade’s concerted attempts to prevent Muslims from offering prayers in public places smacks of majoritarianism that is on the verge of going berserk.
Ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister in May 2014, a segment of Indian citizens has come to believe that Hindu rule must leave its bloody marks all around. Muslims have been lynched on the suspicion of carrying or consuming beef, as have transporters ferrying cattle. Interfaith marriages have become a pretext to torment families and couples. Markers of Muslim identity invite taunts and even stabbings, as was the fate of teenager Hafiz Junaid who died during an assault in a train last year.
National leaders, including the prime minister, have spawned the myth that past regimes have pampered Muslims to the detriment of Hindus in India, oblivious to the fact that the community lags behind most social groups on development indices. The presence of Muslim candidates in the election has triggered communal polarisation. Which led quite a few to suggest that Muslims should not contest elections to preempt Hindu consolidation.
The backdrop of past four years, indeed, helps to distinguish the nature of 20 kicks from the 21st: The one at which the dog bites. Essentially, the bite follows from the instinctive realisation that the master has become pathological and would not tire of kicking. The hope of mercy dissipates; inaction does not end the trauma. If it is the portrait of Jinnah in one place, then it has to be namaz in another.
Indeed, the 21st kick provides no guarantee that the 22nd will not follow, for no less than Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar decreed that namaz should be offered at mosques, idgahs and designated places. On the face of it, it seems like a rational decision. Yet, his remark is designed to create a Catch-22 situation: Designate few public places for prayers, don’t permit mosques to be built which can serve a growing population in a city that attracts migrants looking for jobs, don’t free waqf properties from illegal occupation, and Muslims will have no option but to pray in private places.
In fact, this is what Muslims do on days other than Friday and on Eid and Bakri Eid, their religious festivals.
Khattar doesn’t know that the Friday prayer is to be performed in a congregation, no doubt to build a sense of community that, theoretically, recognises equality of all. In spiffy parts of Gurugram, MNC executives and retired government officials stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslim migrant labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It is something the savarna Hindus, with their ideas of segregation based on the principle of purity and pollution, ought to imbibe.
Khattar’s remark echoes the intent of a Hindu group, Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti. Its demands have been incorporated in a memorandum that Gurugram’s citizens have been circulating for endorsement before submitting it to the district authorities to allow Friday prayers. Two of its four demands listed in the memorandum are: “Permission should not be given for namaz in Hindu colonies, sectors and neighbourhoods; permission should only be given in those places where the strength of this population [Muslims] is more than 50 percent.”
The ideas underlying these demands are easy to parse. One, majoritarianism should manifest in neighbourhoods where the majority’s decision, right or wrong, has to be implemented. It is altogether a different matter that no colonies have reportedly taken such a collective decision. Two, those Muslims living in Hindu-dominated colonies must migrate out in case they are keen to adhere to their faith. Three, the only place for them is to reside in a Muslim ghetto, away from the sight of Hindus.
The bar on practicing religious rituals at public places would have been acceptable had it been applied uniformly. Quite hypocritically, it isn’t. For instance, in the monsoon months, the National Capital Region, of which Gurugram is a part, witnesses Kanwariyas trek from Haridwar to their homes. They walk down highways; makeshift resting places spring up by roadsides. According to the Hindustan Times, an estimated 20 million of these Shiv devotees walked to or through Delhi over weeks. Traffic snarls are notoriously frequent during those days.
People burst firecrackers on roads on Diwali; pandals spring up in parks and vacant government plots during the Durga Puja all around India. Gurugram is no exception. Why wouldn’t they be granted permission and the public bear traffic jams? Walk around government offices in Delhi and Haryana, a good many will have idols. Coconuts are broken at public functions; sacred hymns are read regardless of the diversity of the audience at a function.
Many neighbourhoods in Delhi and Gurugram have seen small temples spring up on the commons or government plots overnight.
Undoubtedly, it is a method of appropriation of prime real estate, a technique Hindutva groups endorse. No wonder they fear that sites of Friday prayers could eventually lead to construction of mosques. They don’t know that Islam is a monotheistic religion and does not require a structure to house a deity.
It seems traffic snarls for secular reasons do not agitate people. Gurugram should be the last place to crib about jams, a daily feature in the city during peak-hour traffic. A shower lasting 30 minutes leads to water-logging of roads and vehicles crawling. A downpour brings the city to a standstill, as it did in July 2016, when people spent a night in cars or simply abandoned them to return home. Schools in residential areas are another source of irritating jams.
For all these reasons, the objection of Hindutva groups to Muslims offering Friday prayers at public places, and their tacit endorsement by Khattar is the 21th kick. Regardless of their forbearance and silence, born either out of civility, political maturity or fear, Muslims will receive the 22nd kick. It returns us to the question the Delhi politician asked 25 years ago: What should be the response of Muslims?
The other day, the academician Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd called to wonder at the absence of protest among Muslims against the flagrant injustices done to them. “Look at the Dalits”, he said, “They have been protesting all over India.
The Bharat Bandh they called turned the dilution of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) into a national issue. Why don’t Muslim organise a protect march on Parliament Street?”
Muslims believe a State over which the Sangh has control will have no qualm in beating, even firing on them to make them disperse.
They also think Hindutva groups will use the protest as a pretext to indulge in violence. “Let the State open fire. How many will the State kill?” Ilaiah responded.
What Ilaiah is implying is that when Muslims themselves start to believe that they are unequal citizens, nobody is likely to treat them otherwise. Dissent and protest are the hallmarks of democracy. From this perspective, Muslims need to adopt the Gandhian philosophy of ahimsa or non-violence to demand the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution; to also express their opposition to the Indian State which crushes secessionism and terrorism, as it must, but condones the inherently provocative and violent majoritarian communalism, which it also should.
That the Khattar government should turn Gururgam into a site where citizens are treated unequally should not surprise. His government renamed Gurgaon as Gurugram, which was supposedly the village where Dronacharya resided in the mythical past. Dronacharya is said to have infamously asked as a gift the thumb of the lower-caste Eklavya to ensure Arjuna’s dominance in archery.
It is through these foul methods that Khattar seeks to turn the public sphere into a site of inequality, which, in the 21st Century, must be opposed democratically and peacefully, not just by Muslims alone, but by all those who believe in liberty, equality and fraternity.