Rising above hate, a Hindu businessman and a Sikh gurdwara offer prayer space to Muslims

In a country known for its traditional inter-faith tolerance and harmony, one of the headline news for the last few months has been how groups of right-wing Hindus, supported by local leaders of India's ruling BJP of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been obstructing and protesting against the offering of namaz in public places by Muslim citizens in Gurugram, a satellite city of capital New Delhi

Nov 18, 2021
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A Hindu businessman and a Sikh gurdwara offer prayer space to hounded Muslims (Photo: Scroll)

In a country known for its traditional inter-faith tolerance and harmony, one of the headline news for the last few months has been how groups of right-wing Hindus, supported by local leaders of India's ruling BJP of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been obstructing and protesting against the offering of namaz in public places by Muslim citizens in Gurugram, a satellite city of capital New Delhi.

The conflict began on September 17 when Hindu right-wing groups led by Dinesh Bharti, the founder of a local outfit called Bharat Mata Vahini, held up protest banners and shouted down Muslims who had gathered to pray in Sector 47. Over the next few weeks, the agitation spread to Sector 12 and other areas, according to scroll.in, a well-regarded digital news publication. 

On October 26, members of the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti, a consortium of 22 right-wing groups, submitted an application to the Gurugram Deputy Commissioner, asking the administration to stop all reading of namaz in public spaces. A week later, they organised a Hindu religious service at the spot in Sector 12 where Muslim gathered for prayers. The next Friday morning, November 12, they reassembled there, declaring their intent to build a volleyball court. By evening, they had left cow dung cakes behind. 

The recent confrontation has brought into public view a long-running campaign by Hindutva groups to deny public space to Muslim worshippers, not just in Gurugram, but in other places in a country that has one of the world's largest Muslim population of about 200 million.

But, slowly, liberal and secular segments of Indian civil society started asserting itself. 

First, a businessman from the Hindu community opened his shop to Muslims who did not have space to offer Friday prayers in Gurugram. Now, a gurudwara has decided to provide its basement to them.

“We won’t be mute spectators to what has been happening,” said Sherdil Singh Sindhu, the president of the Sona Chowk gurudwara, built in 1934 and believed to be the oldest Sikh place of worship in the Haryana district adjoining Delhi.

Last Friday, November 12, as Hindutva groups took over the ground where Muslims used to read namaz, Akshay Yadav, who runs a wildlife tourism business and rents out commercial space in Sector 12 where he lives with his family, told a small group of Muslims in his neighbourhood that they could use his property – his home, the roof of a children’s hospital and a shop that is currently lying vacant – for afternoon namaz. Since they did not want to invade his personal space, and access to the roof of the hospital was not direct, the group gathered for prayers in his shop.

“I offered the place in a heartbeat,” Yadav told Scroll, “and I will continue to do so today and tomorrow, again and again.”

Explaining what motivated him, he said, “I read about what was happening in the news and wanted to do anything I could to reduce the ongoing conflict between right-wing groups and Muslims.”

On November 16, when Scroll.in visited Yadav’s house, he was preparing to leave the city for a family vacation – but not before he handed over the keys of the vacant shop to 41-year old Taufiq Ahmed, who runs an automobile repair business in a shop owned by Yadav. The men said they have known each other for 16 years and consider each other part of their families.

Yadav told Ahmed that he could even open the main door of his bungalow if the Muslim prayer gathering needed additional space on Friday. “I may not be here but the namaz must continue,” he said.

For Yadav, ensuring that his son grows up in an atmosphere of tolerance and does not form prejudices against Muslims, was important. “My son is used to seeing me sitting with Muslims, inviting them home. This is his normal,” he said. 

“Similarly, when Taufiq (Ahmed) goes home, I don’t want his children to hear him talk to people on the phone and say that this Hindu group or that Hindu group didn’t allow him to offer namaz. I don’t want his children to grow up disliking Hindus.”

Barely 3 km from the Sector 12 ground where Hindutva mobilisation has been most intense, a gurudwara has decided to offer Muslim worshippers both safety and space.
“The Muslims were provided space by the administration to pray. Now, they are hurt and angry that they can’t offer prayers. That is understandable,” said 49-year-old Sherdil Singh Sindhu, president of the gurudwara at Sohna Chowk.

“The doors of our gurudwara are open to them,” he emphasised, speaking in measured tones in his modest one-room office. “There has to be an end to this hounding.”

‘Local Muslims, who have felt helpless in the face of the Hindutva mobilisation, welcomed such expressions of solidarity by Hindus and Sikhs.

Mufti Mohammad Saleem, president of the local chapter of the Jamiat Ulema E-Hind, a leading organisation of Islamic scholars, said, “This means everything to us. This isn’t only about giving us a place to pray, it is the way this help is being offered – in defiance of the hate.”

 Altaf Ahmad, co-founder of Gurugram Nagrik Ekta Manch, an organisation that is part of local peace-building efforts, described these initiatives as an example of India’s “composite culture”. “Muslims truly appreciate the gesture. These actions are what India stands for,” he said.

The Modi government has maintained silence - as it usually does - over these hate incidents, which have the potential of boiling over into a larger conflagration. No minister or party functionary has gone on record condemning the denial of public prayer space to Muslims, or call for religious harmony in a country that secularism and freedom of religion enshrined in its Constitution, and has been long known for its inter-faith tolerance and brotherhood that has been an exemplar to the world. 

(SAM)