Over the past year, prayer – that universal act common to all religions – has been criminalised like never before.
Twitter is full of schools posting festive images of special assemblies (see here and here) and our elected representatives touring temples. It’s Diwali and many families across the country are congregating with their loved ones to pray to the goddess Laxmi in their homes. The thought that they might need the permission of some local authority to do this would never cross their mind. They know they won’t face the same fate 26 Muslims did when they offered namaz at someone’s home.
Majority community Indians have prayer privileges that many of our fellow citizens (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits) can only dream of. In the year gone by, prayer – that universal act common to all religions – has been criminalised like never before.
On Hindu festivals, processions now invariably pass outside mosques, often chanting taunting, hateful slogans. Cases have been filed against Muslims for offering prayers in a marketplace, a mall, outside a ward at a government hospital, under a tree in a school, on a lawn, at the mosque inside the Taj Mahal. One room used for namaz was even called “a threat to national security”. This Diwali, it’s time to acknowledge the disturbing pattern: humiliating a community by demanding they seek permission to pray is increasingly the norm in India.
This year of criminalising prayer began when Hindu hardline group Bharat Mata Vahini started terming public namaz in Gurugram as “land jihad” and repeatedly disrupted the Friday congregational prayer. “Those people opposing namaz do not represent the rest of us Hindus,” Gurugram resident Akshay Yadav had said then, adding that he was used to a life of co-existence. Yadav volunteered his garage premises for the prayer.
Despite Yadav’s and other residents’ efforts to fight this bigotry, the hardliners won. Public namaz spots in Gurugram have fallen to six, from 150 in 2018, according to some estimates. Many of these were government-designated spots.
What is it that upsets us about watching a community join in prayer and touch their heads to the earth? “Ye namaz nahi fasad hai,” a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader said earlier this month. Wo namaz nahi padna chahte, aatank failana chaahte hain.” (This isn’t namaz, it’s terrorism. They don’t want to offer namaz, they want to spread terror). You may roll your eyes but this ‘wisdom’ is being perpetrated far and wide through WhatsApp University.
A few years ago I exited a WhatsApp group of childhood friends most of whom despite (or because of) their posh education and privilege were either bigoted or stayed silent when others revealed their bigotry. I finally left the group when one of them posted covertly-clicked photographs of two Muslims offering namaz in the parking lot of a rest area on the Agra expressway.
“Commitment. This is what I really appreciate about this community,” he texted on the group. “I sometimes feel like I live in a Muslim country, have to hear their prayers five times a day sitting in my room.” The historic dargah overlooking the Arabian Sea was built 65 years before the adjoining skyscraper where my former friend stays. Then again, Hindu victimhood and the idea that India’s minorities have enjoyed a free run and must be shown their place is also older than his building.
The bloodiest and longest history of denying a community the right to prayer, of course, belongs to Dalits. Even today, people are assaulted, murdered or fined just for trying to enter a temple. When they do manage to enter, they need police protection. Recently, around 100 Dalits said they were renouncing Hinduism and adopting Buddhism for this very reason. One of them told a news website: “If practicing Hindus do not see Dalits as equal, if Hinduism does not call us equal, then why should we practice it anymore?”
Santa on fire
Our prime minister photographs himself in the sanctum santorum of the country’s most popular temples, but some elected representatives don’t have similar access because of their identity. “I have done a PhD, have gone to foreign countries, was a deputy chief minister and a sitting MLA but I was not allowed inside the temple,” former deputy chief minister and Congress party politician G Parameshwara, a Dalit, said earlier this year.
“They tell me to be at the entrance, saying that they will bring the mangal aarti. They never allow me to enter the sanctum sanctorum. Despite all the talks of development and equality, such a system exists even today in the society.”
After Diwali will be time for Christmas. It should be the season to be jolly, but last year Santa Claus was accused of converting Hindus to Christianity. One group set his effigy on fire, while chanting: “Santa Claus Murdabad”. So this Diwali, know that prayer is a privilege – and say one for Santa.