I watched and read in horror as news came in of how Friday prayers were disrupted and namazis were harassed by Hindutva vigilantes from nearby villages. This happened in my backyard, not in a remote village. It happened right here in Gurgaon, the Millennium City with tall glass buildings, a "world-class" Metro, international schools and gated communities and shopping malls.
Of course, I was aware of the presence of the huge migrant population (between two and five lakhs — no official numbers exist) from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and the Northeast, many of them Muslims, who mostly serve the city. In addition, there are office-going people at management level from across India who, too, are Muslims.
This area is known as old Gurgaon — the old city and villages. The villages are a mix of old and new inhabited by another distinct social group — referred to as the "villagers". It is a complex, heterogeneous mix, cutting across class, caste and religion.
I felt a sense of disquiet watching this theatre of aggressive Hindu majoritarianism being played out. The reason for my discomfort was simple – even if the vigilantes had problems with the Friday prayers in terms of public nuisance, who gave the young members of the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti the right to take the law into their own hands?
Image: PTI photo
After the first incident the police did take swift action, the perpetuators were quickly arrested and an FIR was lodged. Yet anticipating further trouble as news reports came in of demands being made by this vigilante group, a group of more than 150 citizens and I wrote a letter to the district authorities asking them to intervene.
We pointed out the unconstitutional demands made by the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti and the bullying and intimidation which one religious community was subjecting the other to. We asked the authorities to reassure the Muslims and offer them protection as mandated by the Constitution of India.
However, the next Friday saw a repeat performance of namaz prayers being disrupted — the few photographs which emerged captured the two groups — a quiet group of men watching helplessly standing in disarray while another far more aggressive outfit consisting mainly of young men displaying machismo and authority. The police could be seen at a distance almost watching the "drama" — almost as if it was not their job to intervene, as keepers of law and order.
Disturbing reports began coming from friends who were witnesses to incidents to say that in fact the police stood there doing nothing and waited for the vigilantes to disperse in their vehicles, and then asked the namazis to leave.
When this incident occurred again, we felt that more direct action was required. A meeting was called on Sunday when a large group of non-religious people like me, including members of the Muslim community as well as other friends from different faiths, assembled. The idea was to assess the ground situation and if we, as concerned residents, could intervene before it spiralled out of control.
The outcome of this meeting was a delegation, which went to meet with the divisional commissioner and handed over a signed memorandum from more than 100 Gurgaon residents. The memorandum clearly laid out the concerns and worries of a large cross-section of residents.
The meeting with the divisional commissioner resulted in concrete reassurances to everyone present that the authorities were already to dialogue with all the parties concerned and would not allow any interference from vigilante groups. This process is still on.
I would now like to touch upon another important point that has emerged since this incident — the issue of public display of religiosity across all faiths. Public nuisance and civic disturbances need to come to an end and perhaps this is an opportune time, as a secular citizen, to demand so. However, I feel when it comes to public nuisance because of religious devotion, only a particular community — Muslims — is being demonised.
For me, it is very simple — all communities are equally responsible, only the occasions and timing are different. We have all been stuck in traffic jams during Durga Puja, Diwali, Dhanteras, Karva Chauth, to name a few festivals. I do not see vigilante groups harassing people to stop the festivities, processions, etc.
I would have still understood had the vigilante group raised the matter with the civic authorities and pointed out their problems and asked for the matter to be resolved lawfully.
Yet today as we see, it seems to be the norm — when Muslims are involved, overt force, aggression and vigilante justice are seen as legitimate methods — gau rakshaks are a case in point.
The physical intimidation that Muslims are being subjected to in today's India is worrying to put it mildly. There are a number of tropes — beef-eaters, cow killers, Bangladeshis, Rohingyas, sexual predators (love jihad), terrorists/jihadi/ISIS — the list, frankly speaking, is endless and conveniently used to demonise and dehumanise.
Similar tropes do not emerge when we talk of the public inconveniences we face when we are caught in a traffic jam during pre-Diwali shopping or Dhanteras. Why is it now that we feel the need to put an end to public display of religion?
I have witnessed overt violence when it comes to Kanwariya processions — the hitting cars with lathis and traffic pile-ups caused on the national highway. We have to acknowledge that these are overt political moves by particular political parties, and not just a matter of competitive religion or the rise of religious practices in public spaces.
Had it been the case, we would not have witnessed the systematic silencing, intimidation and killing of Akhlaqs and Junaids.
The message being sent is clear — "do not dare to demand your rights, we are watching you." This is one of the reasons why you do not see retaliation from the Muslim community despite the provocation. They know the price they will be made to pay — with their lives.
As a citizen of India and as a resident of Gurgaon, I know my duties. I would just like to take the opportunity to remind my fellow citizens that for them too, the time has come to speak up.
It is time to say: we do not want our country to become a place where one group of citizens are bullied, insulted and terrorised and killed — made into second-class citizens purely on the basis of their religion.
This is not the India where we grew up in and wish to continue living in.