The police diktat has triggered a public debate with some defending the ban and some opposing it.
NEW DELHI, India — Indian police have warned several private companies in Noida, a suburb next to New Delhi, against allowing their Muslim employees to use a public park for Friday prayers.
The shocking directive also demands the factories and other firms to deter their employees from any religious activity or else face consequences.
The event triggered a public outcry, with people taking to social media to express their anger and disappointment.
Professor Apoorvanand of the University of Delhi told TRT World, "This is brazen, communal and anti-Muslim attitude from the police.”
“Since when did religious acts like offering namaz becomes disharmony?”
Issued to 23 private companies in Noida, just 20 miles away from the national capital New Delhi, the notice came a day after an alarming video surfaced showing workers of a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation objecting to a cleric leading namaz in a public park.
The incident is yet another manifestation of India's social discord, which became too brazen after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014. Since then, hate crimes against the country's minorities, especially Muslims, are on the rise and rarely debated in mainstream media. Public lynchings carried out by mobs affiliated to several right-wing pro-BJP groups are commonplace. And in most cases Muslims and Dalits, an outcast community in Hinduism, have been targeted.
Fuelled by Hindu nationalism, the highly charged political climate often leads to hate-driven incidents. And the police is often accused of siding with the far-right and encouraging majoritarianism at the cost of minority suffering. The latest controversy over the police notice is seen as yet another outcome of this vicious politics.
Muslim leader Asaduddin Owaisi of All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen, promptly expressed his anger on Twitter.
“UP Cops (the police) literally showered petals for Kanwariyas (a Hindu procession), but namaz once a week can mean 'disrupting peace & harmony,'" Owaisi said. "This is telling Muslims: do whatever you do, it would be your mistake only. Also, by law, how does one hold an MNC liable for what their employees do in individual capacity?”
In its defense, the police cited a Supreme Court order of 2009, saying the law does not allow religious activity in public places and that the ruling applies to all religions.
“Time and again we have issued warnings, asking people not to carry out religious activities in the park," said Ajay Pal Sharma, Senior Superintendent of Police. "However, no one paid any heed. The notice to the companies was issued soon after the complaint."
"We have even heard that they want to build a tomb in the park," he continued. "The locals and villagers have opposed this time and again, but in vain.”
Located in an industrial hub, the park is surrounded by tech firms and garment factories.
Every Friday, hundreds of Muslim workers, most of whom are employed in garment factories nearby, gather at the park to offer prayers.
“There is no mosque in a five-kilometre radius," Ehsaan Alam, who works at a garment factory next to the park, told TRT World. "The park was the only place for us. Now where do we go?”
The incident is a chilling reminder of a similar diktat issued by Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, also from the ruling BJP, earlier this year that led to a wide chase of Muslims by right wing Hindu outfits in Gurgaon, another city in close proximity to New Delhi.
On May 4, members of the Hindu far-right groups chased away prayer congregations at several places shouting slogans “Jai Shri Ram” or praise be to lord Ram and “Bangladeshis go home”- a reference to alleged illegal migrants and Rohingya refugees.
They had also demanded citizenship check of people gathering for namaz and limiting the number of open spaces from 76 to five for prayers.
However, the district administration ruled out any change in the place of prayers and instead put a duty magistrate overseeing security at each site.
“Such diktats are anti-Muslims. It is simply to curtail our religious freedom,” said Arshed Ahmed, an employee at a travel company in Gurgaon.
Echoing similar sentiments, Dr Iqtidar Mohd Khan, Professor of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University, said India is a "secular country" where people from different backgrounds have been practicing religious acts in open spaces for centuries.
"Everyone should be treated equal as per the law of our country. If police has stopped Muslims from offering Namaz in this park, other communities shouldn't be allowed to hold prayers or rituals there,” Dr Iqtidar Mohd Khan told TRT World.
The incident has also triggered a debate in the country with some people criticising the government for slowly excluding Muslims from society by snatching their rights, and others defending it by saying the police order is applicable to all religions.
There is a mandir beneath pretty much every tree in India. On highways, stones are marked sacred and they eventually become mandirs. Who are we fooling? Those who say that "public place me religion allowed nahi" may please excuse themselves and go to China.— Shehla Rashid (@Shehla_Rashid) December 26, 2018
Noida, where the police issued what many call "anti-Muslim" notice, is part of Uttar Pradesh state, which is led by a right-wing Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath. A senior BJP member, Adityanath has earned a reputation of being a staunch Muslim hater.
According to data released by IndiaSpend, which tracks reports of violence in English-language media, reports of religious-based hate crimes have spiked in India since the BJP came into power in 2014. The data shows that Muslims are overwhelmingly the victims and Hindus the perpetrators of the cases reported.
The Amnesty International asked the Indian authorities last year that it must ensure that there is no impunity for those responsible for public lynchings and other hate crimes against Muslims in several states.
Instead of addressing the issue, Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government recently announced a cash reward for a Hindu rioter who was killed in police firing. He was part of a mob that attacked a police post in the state and killed an officer, who was investigating another hate crime in which a Muslim was lynched to death on the pretext of eating cow. In Hinduism, cows are sacred and much of the BJP's political campaigning in the past has been centered around banning cow slaughter.
The Human Rights organisation had said that attacks have contributed to a growing sense of insecurity for many Muslims, and intensified religious tensions.