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Sacred Rituals, Sacred Spaces

Sacred Rituals, Sacred Spaces

The recent controversial order issued in Noida and earlier on in Gurugram prohibiting Muslims offering Namaz at public places has created a controversy and generated a national debate on its legal validity and social propriety.  The order was issued purportedly for the sake of maintaining law and order and to avoid any inconvenience caused to the general public. The intention of the order seems quite noble and notable for the simple reason that more often than not under the guise of organizing religious functions public spaces are encroached almost with total impunity causing huge inconvenience to the public especially to the motorists. This has to be controlled and even corrected; no one would have any objection to that.

But the question here is the intent behind banning from the public places the religious rituals of a particular community. Does it smack of bias and even malice? This question assumes a greater significance against the current socio-political atmosphere which, to say the least, is vitiated against that community. For there have been calibrated efforts from certain ideological groups and political establishment to create a wedge between communities that have been professing different faiths and living peacefully for centuries in this country. Additionally there have also been attempts to sow seeds of suspicion about their allegiance to this country by repeatedly calling them as less loyal citizens if not outright renegades.

The problem with such partisan orders is that they are patently violative of the principle of equality enshrined in the constitution of India. For the constitution of India has clearly spelt out in its Article 14 which guarantees equality before the law and protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. And it is the sacred duty of the state to protect these rights of all its citizens without fear or favor. But these rights remain as mere platitudes in a context where the ruling dispensation itself becomes their violator. While issuing an order banning members of a particular religious community from holding prayers in open spaces, it appears that they are being selectively targeted.

If the orders were to include other religious groups holding similar religious rituals in public spaces then it would have been more credible in the eyes of the public. What is paradoxical even in the case of an inclusive order covering all groups, implementation has often been selective targeting the small and vulnerable groups while leaving the majority community groups to go scot free. Such trends tend to give an impression – I wish I am wrong in this – that if you belong to a right wing group of the majority community in India you enjoy certain liberties in flouting norms and getting away with it.

This tendency is most visible in India during festivities.   Public spaces are easily occupied to erect huge pavilions to install statues of various deities, public prayers and other rituals are performed. Loud music is often played well beyond the prescribed duration and indulging even in revelry is common sight in our towns and cities across the country. Although there are norms that regulate such activities in public spaces, they often go for a toss when it comes to religious functions in India. Consequently one can witness traffic jams during religious festivals causing huge losses to the public not only in terms of their precious time but also to their economy. It seems in India people invoke religion to legitimize their activities even when they are detrimental to the public convenience; and the public at large has imbibed this social practice as normal, something very strange to those living in, say in Europe or in the United States of America.

The difference lies in the fact that in those countries the public value their time and are devoted to their work. And therefore the administration ensures that the public is least inconvenienced by any such functions taking place in public spaces. Besides they also place a great premium on public properties as the common heritage which is to be protected and preserved for posterity. But unfortunately, at each and every public agitation in India one finds a grimy harvest of public properties. Take for instance the Jat agitation in Haryana and Rajasthan some time ago, the all India agitation both by the SC and ST groups and the forward castes, and the latest Sabarimala temple centered agitations, in each of these one can see an unacceptable level of vandalism and destruction of the public  and even private property .  

Given the fact that encroachment and even at times destruction of public property is so ubiquitous in India it is high time that our country frames laws that regulate their use or rather misuse. Not only frame laws but what is critical is their impartial implementation by the powers that be. The practice of performing religious rituals in public spaces should be discouraged as much as possible as they have the potential to not only create law and order problems but more serious social frictions between communities. In such a volatile situation what is most desirable is to conduct all religious rituals at their designated sacred spaces.   For a Christian the best place to pray is her Church, so also for a Hindu and Muslim prayers are rituals are best done at temples and mosques respectively. And to facilitate this either the Government can create adequate infrastructure or permit the respective communities to develop their own. And under no circumstances it must be permitted that people irrespective of religious affiliation, occupy public spaces or Government land to build such centers for prayers and rituals.

A laudable example of this effort from the part of the Government is the common prayer rooms built in some of the airports in India. The same could be extended to the railway stations and bus terminals across the country which to a great extent will solve the problem of people using public spaces for their religious rituals. Another example is Indian defense forces: at each cantonment in India one finds dedicated sacred spaces for each religious group so that they can carry out their religious obligations in a proper and dignified manner.  

Roadside places of worship, memorials, tombs and the like dot our urban landscape. In some cases they may have been existing even before the towns and cities developed, while others may have come up along with the growth of these urban centers. And in course of time people have developed a religious affinity with these sacred spaces. Any attempt therefore to relocate them will be daunting task for the civic authorities, as we have witnessed in several cases. What therefore is required is to enlarge the scope of the order issued banning one particular religious community from performing religious rituals in public spaces by including all other religious communities that also encroach on public spaces. Such an inclusive approach in administration alone can obliterate feeling of victimization of any one community in India. Besides, this will also ensure justice to all sections of society in our country.

(Published on 14th January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 03)