Monday, November 8 2021

Dive In


When the Nobel award was announced I saw it as a personal triumph… But when I sat in that crowded hall and I saw the sea of western faces surrounding me, and I, the only Indian, in my turban and closed coat, it dawned on me that I was really representing my people and my country... Then I turned round and saw the British Union Jack under which I had been sitting and it was then that I realised that my poor country, India, did not even have a flag of her own—and it was this that triggered off my complete breakdown. 

That’s Sir CV Raman on the moment when he won the Nobel prize for Physics in 1930. It was his birth anniversary on Sunday—which is as good a time as any to remember how hard previous generations have fought for a free nation we take for granted today.

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Big Story

The battle over namaz in Gurgaon

The TLDR: For many weeks, Hindutva groups and some resident associations have waged a war against Muslims praying in public spaces. The hostility reached an ugly peak on Friday at a Govardhan puja—staged primarily as a victory lap. Meanwhile, in Tripura, the police slapped anti-terror charges on those documenting the recent attacks on mosques. Are these the new rules of worship in new India?


Wait, hasn’t this happened before?

Yup, back in 2018, there were identical protests staged by a newly formed group called the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti (SHSS)—an alliance of 21 Hindutva organisations—formed with the support of some BJP leaders. At the time, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar said, "There has been an increase in offering namaz in the open. Namaz should be read in mosques or idgahs rather than in public spaces."


The compromise: The police stepped in when the confrontations became ugly—and Gurgaon authorities brokered a deal. They reduced the number of public spaces permitted for namaz from around 100 to 30-odd—which clearly has not satisfied these rightwing groups.


The underlying problem: remains the same. Gurgaon attracts migrant labour from around the country—including West Bengal. And many of them are Muslims—who now number around 500,000. And there are only two mosques in new Gurgaon for them to offer Friday prayers. Applications to build new mosques have been rejected. As a local businessman told Huffington Post back in 2018: 


"These prayers have been taking place for years. Why this attack now? Most of these namaz readers are poor people, labourers. They cannot afford to spend Rs 30-40 to go to a far away place to offer prayers. So they should just stop praying?"


Ok, so what happened now?

Rising rage: All through this year, Hindutva groups have become increasingly active in Gurgaon—targeting Friday prayers in various sectors. The protests built up to a crescendo—escalating from chanting slogans to blaring bhajans from speakers. The local police finally arrested 30 people in late October for trying to disrupt the namaz. But it did little to stem the tide of rage. 


Point to note: These Friday prayers are being held in locations included in the 37 public spaces designated by authorities.


The Govardhan puja: The protests finally culminated in the Govardhan puja—which fell on the day after Diwali on Friday. They were held on designated namaz sites in three sectors—and local Muslims decided not to hold their Friday prayers to avoid confrontation. One of the pujas was attended by none other than Kapil Mishra—the BJP leader implicated in inciting the Delhi violence in 2020. And his presence also marked a new level of aggression, with attendees chanting, “Goli maro saalon ko, Hindu ke gadaaron ko” (Shoot the traitors to Hinduism).


Point to note: As Apoorvanand notes in The Wire, the puja itself was unusual since the occasion is typically celebrated by women—not men—and never in public. And the chants of ‘Ram Siya Ram’ were an odd choice given that the puja celebrates Krishna.


The fallout: The police already cancelled permission given to eight designated sites last week—based on complaints by local residents. And they indicated that other places may lose their permit, as well. Authorities claim that new sites will be identified after consultation—but that’s exactly what they promised in 2018 when they cut their number by 70-plus. 


Also this: A committee of local Muslim residents says it is willing to rent private spaces to offer prayers—“but then the residents of the area should not have any problems.” And it urged Muslims “who are forced [to go] to these open sites due to lack of mosques in Gurgaon” to show “restraint and walk away in case troublemakers try to provoke or disrupt namaz.”


Quotes to note: Meanwhile, one of the chief organisers of the protests has declared a 30-day deadline: “They have 30 days to make arrangements but once the deadline is over we will not let anyone offer namaz in open.” Another leader said last week:


“We are giving a polite warning. We won’t submit more memorandums. It will then be the responsibility of the administration to maintain peace, not ours… We are ready for lathis [sticks], we are ready to go to jail. We won’t run if we are shot at, but this will not be tolerated.”


Who exactly are these people?

The Govardhan puja was organised by the same-old Sanyukta Hindu Sangharsh Samiti (SHSS)—which includes all the prominent Hindutva groups, including the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad etc. But a couple of new faces have been leading the charge.


Dinesh Bharti: has been a local resident since 1997—and claims to be a member of the Gurgaon wing of the BJP, which denies it. He leads a group called Bharat Mata Vahini (BMV), which has only two members—Bharti and Naresh Thakur, a 29-year-old autorickshaw driver. And yet he has been the single most prominent face during the current protests—and has been arrested multiple times at various anti-Muslim rallies. Many local residents also deny any connection with him: 


“He started coming to our area in March and created a ruckus. He would raise anti-Muslim slogans and ask us to donate for his cause. Nobody had the time to engage with him.”


Kulbushan Bhardwaj: is a lawyer and Gurgaon resident. He is also most frequently quoted in news stories on the protests. He was among those arrested last month—and according to Indian Express, he was suspended from the BJP for anti-party activities. Hindustan Times cites him as the legal advisor for Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti.


The RWAs: Resident Welfare Associations in several sectors have been active participants in the protests—but some of their members insist they have no grudge against Muslims:


“We have been holding protests for the last one month. Kulbhushan Bhardwaj, a lawyer and former district president of the BJP, and Dinesh have both visited us once, but we have distanced ourselves from their communal agenda. Ours is a civic problem and I don’t want it to become an issue that they use to further their political ambitions.”


But others are far more blunt


“We just want these people to go where they came from—do namaz in your house, mosque, or workplace, not in our area. They are outsiders—we don’t know them, where they’ve come from and which country they belong to, and what they intend to do.”


Point to note: Both in 2018 and now, anti-namaz activists insist that the Muslims may harbour illegal Rohingyas or Bangladeshi migrants—and/or terrorists. The other claim: this is all a conspiracy to wage ‘land jihad’—to take over Gurgaon.


Quote to note: A member of a group to foster communal harmony—Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch—offers this view of these newly minted warriors: 


“Most of these incidents are individual leaders driven...there are people who want to become leaders through it. But there also seems a tactic support from behind. To me, these are small experiments to see the kind of impact these create. If it works and gets attention, it gets more support. While the incidents in 2018 were held in the run-up to the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha elections, these protests now are happening at a time when the farmers' protests are going on at the Delhi borders.”


The bottomline: Over the weekend, the Tripura police slapped anti-terror charges on two lawyers and 102 social media accounts. Their crime: speaking up against recent attacks on 16 mosques during a VHP rally. So let’s review: Muslims can’t pray in public, but neither are their places of worship safe. In other words, some of our citizens are in great danger of losing their fundamental right to worship—with the active collusion of their state governments. 


Reading list

  • Al Jazeera offers a good overview of the anti-namaz protests—while The Hindu has more background. 
  • The Wire has two good pieces. One: a report on the Govardhan Puja and key people who raised threatening slogans. Two: a scathing op-ed by Apoorvanand who points out the many ways the puja violated Hindu tradition.
  • The Print takes a closer look at Dinesh Bharti who initiated the protests. 
  • The Quint offers a taste of the arguments made by these leaders, while NewsLaundry speaks to RWA members in Gurgaon. 
  • Huffington Post’s 2018 report underlines an eerily identical pattern shared with past protests.
  • Also from Al Jazeera: a ground report on the aftermath of the attacks on the mosques in Tripura. The Print has more on the two lawyers facing anti-terror charges for investigating the attacks.

Headlines that matter

A big tragedy at a Travis Scott concert

At least eight people—including two teenagers—died in a stampede at the Astroworld music festival in Houston:


"As soon as the crowd began to surge ... those people began to be trapped, essentially up at the front, and they began to be trampled and they actually had people falling down and passing out." 

There were 50,000 people at the annual event created by Scott—who continued performing even as things started to go wrong. While the exact cause for the tragedy is still unknown, Variety speculates that a $5 million stage constructed solely for Scott’s performance, and the time he chose to play may have been factors. See people shouting for help here. (ABC News)


A very strange plane heist

In a carefully coordinated operation, 24 passengers forced a flight from Morocco to Turkey to land in Spain. No, they didn’t take it hostage. One of them faked a medical emergency—and while he was taken to the hospital, the rest of them fled across the tarmac. Of these, 12 are still missing. This truly may be the most innovative form of illegal migration. (New York Times)


In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • Poulomi Basu's photo captures the intimacy and tenderness of female friendship


Smart & Curious

  • A new NFT slur: 'right clicker mentality'
  • A close-up look at how meat is grown in a reactor
  • How casteism operates in America
  • The most hygienic way to pee on a plane

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