September 23, 2023

Moon Desk: The message is clear, Muslim identity and Islamic faith have no place in the public space.

Throughout the pandemic and in its aftermath, India has seen a steady rise in Islamophobic targeting of the Muslim community. From the prevalent cow-vigilantism-related lynching in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka’s Hijab controversy to Gurugram’s Namaz row, Muslim religious practises have become a subject of disdain to the Hindutva majoritarian forces in power.

The worrying trend of targeting Muslim religious practices and invisibilizing the Muslim identity from the public sphere is an attempt to isolate the minority religious community. Being at the receiving end of constant hate speeches delivered by mainstream Hindu leaders, the community stands on dangerous grounds, inches away from persecution and genocide. With Hindutva majoritarianism thriving in the country, India’s global index has dropped down to 46th place in 2021. As per the EIU’s 2021 Democracy Index report, the Indian administration’s failure to crack down on the maltreatment of religious and other minorities by Hindu nationalists in recent years has largely affected the country’s democracy score. The country which was globally renowned for having diverse cultures and traditions has now become the world’s centre for Islamophobic hate crimes.  During his visit to Uttarakhand in 2021, India’s Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed a rally in Dehradun as part of the BJP’s election campaign and stated, “people had permission to block a national highway for namaz”. This single erroneous, damaging statement uttered in public by a Union Minister has inadvertently emboldened the Hindu supremacist’s anti-Namaz campaign.

What the right-wing groups began in Gurugram over Friday namaz in public spaces before this, later spread to other parts of the country. The forced leave imposed on a Muslim college professor from a university in Aligarh, and the suspension of the headmistress at a school in Kolar School at the behest of Hindutva organizations are all effects of criminalizing Namaz – the Islamic prayer.   Even the recent arrests made by the Lucknow police in the Lulu Shopping Mall incident are indicators of what passes as illegal in the public sphere at present. The veiled messaging is clear, Muslim identity and Islamic faith practises must be curbed and have no place in the public space. Whether it is the Muslim woman student wearing the Hijab in education spaces, or a Muslim man praying in an accessible patch of ground away from the public, both are to be frowned upon and reprimanded according to the unofficial edict of the pro-Hindutva ruling powers.

Penalizing prayer, incorrect application of the law: While laws in India clearly state that erecting places of worship without due process can result in legal action, no law has explicitly prohibited acts of worship in public. The many religious processions and grand festival celebrations that occur annually in the country are proof that worshipping in public is intrinsic to India’s diverse culture.  In the background of police actions against Muslim worshippers who offered namaz in public at Lucknow’s Lulu Mall and as with the case in Haridwar, the accused in the former were booked under four sections of the Indian Penal Code and the latter was booked under Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.  The worshippers in Lulu Mall were booked under Section 153A (promoting enmity between groups), Section 295A (outraging the religious feelings of a group), Section 341 (wrongfully restraining a person), and Section 505 (statements causing public mischief).  In the context of the sections imposed on the worshippers who prayed in the public place in the aforementioned cases, various legal experts have opined that holding the worshipper criminally liable for expressing their faith has limited grounds in the law.  According to Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution, all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and (b) are guaranteed the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.

As per Article 25, ‘everyone is entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely practice and propagate religion, subject to the limitations of public order, morality, and health’. Article 26 states ‘every religious denomination to manage its own affairs in matters of religion, but this right is also subject to public order, morality and health’. Since India is a nation where religion and religious symbols are openly displayed in public, taking partisan action against instances of an individual’s expression of faith is counterproductive to the notions of equality enshrined in the constitution. Isolating and targeting specific types of prayer in public spaces can amount to discrimination on the part of policy-makers and law enforcement.

Does all this sound very familiar?

If so, that is because popular Hindutva leaders like Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati have gone on record and stated, “China has declared Islam as a Mental illness & we need to learn from them”. Referring to China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, the militant monk invoked their methods and asked for them to be replicated in India. Despite openly making genocide calls against the Muslim community and playing a crucial role in the Delhi pogrom which occurred in 2020, the man has been left to spread violent hate speech by the administration.  In its publication dated March 1, 2022, the Genocide Watch organization stated, “Islamophobia is no longer a fringe sentiment in India. It has become a state-manufactured ideology”.

Professor Gregory Stanton, the president of the Genocide Watch, who had earlier warned about the Rwandan genocide five years before it happened, has expressed concerns stating, “Early warning signs are visible in India and genocide could well happen here. Democracy is not insurance against genocide. We don’t say that the next stage — that is extermination — has begun yet. Our view is that it is a huge danger in India because it won’t be the State that carries out any genocide, it will be mobs. It will be the same kind of mobs that carried out double genocide at the time of Partition,” Professor Stanton said.

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