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Policing Prayer

Policing Prayer

Few people know that Noida stood once for the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority. Today it’s not an acronym but the name of a place bustling with universities, institutes, ultra-modern highways and state-of-the-art facilities for car racing. It also has the single largest factory producing mobile phones sold all over the world. Since the name Noida has no Islamic connection, there is no immediate threat of a change of name, either.

I did not know that the Noida Police was a very imaginative lot who would implement all the Supreme Court orders with alacrity. I do not know whether it was an order or an obiter dictum that religious prayers should not be held in public places. The Constitution enjoins upon everyone, especially those in authority, the duty to promote the scientific temper at all times. Yet, that did not prevent as powerful a person as Prime Minister Narendra Modi from telling a distinguished gathering of scientists that the Indians knew plastic surgery as manifested in the creation of a God with the grafted head of an elephant.

Again, that does not prevent Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath from sending his ministers to every country to invite people to the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, which has a new name. The ever-alert Noida Police warned the Muslims congregating at a public park for their Friday prayers that the facility was no longer available to them. They had to obey the Supreme Court order!

As I said, they are an imaginative lot. They found out that the Muslims using the park for the Friday prayers were young men working in the factories there. They are not like the graduates from the IIMs who get up to Rs 1 crore a year. They are people who consider themselves lucky if they are paid minimum wages for the skilled and unskilled labour, as notified by the government from time to time. The police warned the employers employing them that action would be taken against them if any of their workers was found praying at the park.

Look at the audacity! The management would be punished if its employees prayed! Would anyone in the world have issued such an order? The subtle message given was not to employ people who pray. After Yogi Adityanath came to power, tens of thousands of Muslims lost their jobs as slaughterhouses were closed in the name of hygiene. A majority of the people employed in the tanneries were Muslims.  Many of them lost their jobs. 

The Muslims are so scared of the gau rakshaks that they do not take their cows for grazing. You never knew when the gau rakshaks would take the animals away. They consider themselves lucky if their animals are taken away and they are spared of lynching. The Noida Police knew how to stop the prayer at a public place. The message has already reached the factory owners — it is trouble employing the prayerful. Of course, when the factory owners protested against the move to punish them, the Police made some excuses to wriggle out of the embarrassment but they had already succeeded in notifying the employers of the risk of employing those who are likely to use the park to pray.

That is when the Noida Police hit upon a great idea! A few hours before the Friday prayer was to happen, water tankers were used to pour water on the ground. They should be rewarded for the original idea. It was like the Shiv Sena cadres destroying the pitch a few hours before the Pakistani team was to play on that ground. It was as brilliant an idea as tying a poor Kashmiri Muslim to the bonnet of a military jeep on the pretext of fighting stone-pelters. While the Army bosses approved of the action and praised the officer’s presence of mind, the Noida Police were not ready to accept the paternity of their idea.

They say someone else had sprinkled water in the park. How could the Muslims use the wet park to pray, particularly during the peak winter period? Eventually, no Muslim worker turned up for the prayer. The Noida Police can indeed pat themselves on their own back for stopping a prayer.  By the way, the Army officer who used a human being to shield himself from “stone-pelters” was caught for moral turpitude and has been facing disciplinary action at the time of writing. That was, perhaps, divine justice!

The Muslims have to pray five times a day at particular times. It is known as the salat prayers or obligatory prayers. These are individual prayers. They can pray wherever they are, be it an airport or a bedroom or a hospital. The Friday prayer at the mosque is considered the most important. It is said that a heavenly account is made of those who attend the prayer and it would be checked once the person comes face to face with his Creator. It is almost impossible for them to build a new mosque or expand their existing ones. No official permission will come their way.

A couple of months ago, while attending a church service at Gurgaon, I saw policemen guarding a tiny mosque, sealed earlier by the administration. This being the condition, prayer in public places becomes a necessity. Such prayers do not last long, just a few minutes.  One day, I saw Muslims assembling at a park for their prayer. They assembled there as quickly as they dispersed. They did not leave the area dirty, unlike the rich picnickers for whom picnic means eating and drinking in public places and throwing the garbage all around. 

But for the Noida Police, those who pray are more dangerous than those who pollute. In targeting the Muslims, whom are they following? What benefit will the police get if a few thousands of people are not able to pray? Has India been like this before? There is a world-famous Christian convention called the Maramon convention, held in February every year. Thousands of people attend the convention. A Hindu family at Kozhencherry would supply free of cost buttermilk, spiced up with ginger, salt, chillies etc, to everyone who needed it. It was prepared in a boat-like vessel. One could have as many glasses of buttermilk as one needed. When a vessel-full is finished, another vessel-full is created.

This practice continued throughout the seven-day long convention, year after year. I met the person concerned and asked him why he did so. This was many years after I had his buttermilk. He said he did not have the resources to feed all. He could only give buttermilk. 

He was called Annachi, respectfully, by the people who attended the Maramon convention. In Kozhencherry and Maramon, every family — Hindu or Christian — would prepare some extra food to feed the unexpected friend or relative who came to attend the convention.  It is considered a sacred duty to facilitate prayer. At The Tribune in Chandigarh, I had a colleague — a Hindu from Kashmir — who fasted throughout the period the Muslims fasted.

Few in the newspaper knew that he was on fast. He wanted to express his solidarity with his neighbours. That was his rationale. I wrote in these columns how a mosque at Ranny in Pathanamthitta district fed thousands of people during the recent floods in Kerala. I also wrote about a temple which was thrown open to the Muslims to say their Friday prayer. This is the Indian tradition. Why is the Noida Police behaving differently? The trend was started in Gurgaon when a group of “Hindu” radicals began attacking Muslims praying in public on Fridays.

Instead of taking action against the disruptors, the police took action against such congregations. Prayers in public happen only for a few minutes. I find it a beautiful sight, people worshipping together. Otherwise, newspapers and television channels would not send their ace photographers to take pictures of Muslims praying in the open on the day of Id. Some such pictures have stayed in my mind. For instance, I remember a child wearing a red rose on his lapel standing in a sea of white in the forecourt of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. It was one of the most memorable Press photographs I have seen.

A public park like the one at Noida would not become theirs just because they hold prayers there on Fridays. Of course, it is reasonable to say that prayers should be held in closed places like a mosque. In the whole Gurgaon, there are only 22 mosques. Can it accommodate 3,00,000 or more Muslims who stay there? Will the government give them land to build mosques even if the Muslims are ready to contribute money and buy?

No, that is not possible. Then, why not allow them to pray for a few minutes at a park? At no time did the UP government spend so much money to invite people to take part in the Kumbh Mela, as it is doing now. The UP government has been forcing private companies to spend their CSR money on the Kumbh Mela. Where is the Mela held? It’s not held in a temple. It is held at a public place like the bank of the Ganga. Unlike the Muslims who pray and disperse, those who attend the Kumbh Mela stay there for days and pollute the river and its environs.

This, again, has been the tradition. So why has an exception been made in Noida? I am sure this has been done to please someone in power. Pray, who is that someone? There was a hilarious Malayalam movie titled Nair Pidicha Pulivalu (The Nair who caught a tiger by its tail). If he leaves the tail, he will be finished by the tiger and if he holds on to it, he will be in constant danger. The condition of Yogi is like the condition of that Nair, played by SP Pillai if I remember correctly. The Yogi thought that closing down slaughterhouses in the state was a great decision. The abandoned cattle have been destroying crops so much so that on January 3, 2019, he was forced to ask all the district magistrates to shift stray cattle to the cow shelters. Where are the cow shelters that can accommodate so many cows?

In one place, the farmers drove about 100 cows to a school and locked them inside. This is what happens when foolish decisions are taken. And in a tragic case, a couple committed suicide when they found that their crop had been destroyed by the stray cattle.

Be that as it may, if anybody has any suspicion about a Friday prayer happening anywhere, he just has to visit the place where it happens. He can see it for himself whether there is any danger inherent in the act of public prayer. The people who assemble are the poorest of the poor. They take time from their busy schedule to spend the time to follow what they believe is their God’s command. Does it cause any security threat to the nation?

Are they like the so-called faithful who sought to create anarchy in Kerala just because, on the strength of the Supreme Court order, two middle-aged women prayed at a temple in Kerala? They believe that the women polluted the temple by their mere entry. And they are the ones who feel uncomfortable when Muslims pray. As someone is fond of saying, India is the only big country ruled by an NGO. This NGO, also called the RSS, has the largest number of units in the country. Do they have covered space to hold their Shakhas? Yes, they have their own land in Nagpur. Elsewhere in the country, they hold their unit programmes in public places like the parks, schools, temple land etc.

The swayamsevaks take part in the Shakhas holding lathis. They learn how to use it. I have seen such Shakhas and I have felt threatened. Why is that use permitted when prayer is seen as a threat?  What a tragedy it is if people are not even allowed to pray, as in Noida. The Sangh Parivar targeted a bishop in Gujarat because he exhorted his parishioners to pray for a government that respected the Constitution and fair play. He did not ask them to pray against any party. A God that answers wicked prayers is no God because God can only be benevolent and merciful.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 7th January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 02)