As Muslims in Gurugram gathered under police protection to offer Friday namaz yesterday, some members of the Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti (SHSS), a weeks-old Hindutva organisation fanned out across the city to record video clips of men praying at construction sites, by-lanes and sidewalks, and parking lots.
The footage, SHSS members said, was for their campaign against prayers in public spaces. The outfit, its members said, was set up on April 28, after when six Hindu men were arrested for disrupting namaz on a barren spot of government land in Gurugram's Wazirabad area on April 20. Since then, the outfit has frequently been in the news for disrupting namaz, organising public marches, and making provocative demands, such as namaz should only be held in areas where at least half the residents are Muslim.
The very existence of the SHSS, its supposed agenda, and the circumstances of its creation offers an insight into the growth of scores of "astro-turf" style Hindutva outfits, that claim to be grassroots organisations but are actually synthetic fronts propped up by political parties to push their own state governments to take extreme positions on sensitive issues.
The SHSS, for instance, was formed with the support of Usha Priyadarshi, the BJP's Haryana State General Secretary OBC Morcha, who told HuffPost that she was integral to the creation of the SHSS. SHSS members work out of the Vivekanand Global School, a private school where Priyadarshi serves an managing director. The outfit's coordinator, Mahavir Bhardawaj, told HuffPost he was a journalist with Jansatta, a widely read Hindi newspaper.
Mukesh Bhardwaj (no relation), editor-in-chief of Jansatta said Mahavir Bhardwaj is a freelance journalist whose articles the paper publishes time to time, but was not an employee of the paper.
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Soon after SHSS aired its demands, the BJP-run Haryana state government also clarified its stance on the offering of Muslim Friday prayers in public places.
In a press conference, Haryana Chief Minister, Manohar Lal Khattar told ANI, "There has been an increase in offering namaz in the open. Namaz should be read in mosques or idgahs rather than in public spaces."
Khattar's statement prompted a fresh round of media coverage, an fresh airing of the SHSS's claims about the growing presence of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas in Gurugram, and culminated in Friday's prayers under police protection.
Now as a the Friday prayers in Gurugram have become a full-blown national issue, Priyadarshi, the BJP leader, completed the feedback loop between her government and the SHSS, by telling HuffPost she supported the statement by her Chief Minister.
"It's their right to practice their religion. But you cannot just sit down on roads and public spaces and create problems for others," Priyadarshi said. So we want them to go to designated places to read namaaz."
Yet the Hindus and Muslims who live together on the barren, dusty, plot of land where the controversy around Friday namaz began, are perplexed that a neighbourhood argument between Muslim worshippers and seven Hindu men on motorcycles has spiralled into an acrimonious national debate.
'No history of communal strife'
The plot of land at the heart of this dispute belongs to the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) in Gurugram's Wazirabad area and is used as a dumping ground for refuse - most likely by the various offices and residential complexes that encircle it.
In a two-story building at one end, approximately 65 Hindu and Muslim families from West Bengal and Bihar live in small one and two room units, and share common utilities like toilets, drinking water and common areas.
"Why, Muslims and Hindus can't live together or what?" asked Mireja Bibi, when asked if there had ever been communal tension in the house. Mireja, who is Muslim, and her friend Dipali Karmakar, who is Hindu, said they were both from West Bengal's Malda district, and had come 18 months ago to look for work. Both women are employed as domestic workers in Gurugram's upscale gated communities, while their husbands work as gardners and janitors in nearby office complexes.
The men living in the house have been offering prayers in the empty ground in front of the house for the past two years, Dipali said.
"A lot of other men from around this area also came here for namaaz. We don't know all of them but some stay in shanties nearby and work as labourers. Many of them are Bengalis," she said.
Hiralal Chaudhry, who built the house in the plot adjacent to HUDA's land, said in the years his family had owned the land, they had never sensed any communal tension in the area. That's one of the reasons that Chaudhry decided to build the house, which he finally started renting out two years ago.
"Over the last two years, my tenants have regularly performed namaaz and no one has bothered them," Chaudhry said. "Of course, someone has instigated the Hindu men to do this." Chaudhry said a few of the accused men live a couple of houses behind his and had never bothered his tenants in the past.
On the afternoon of April 20, Dipali Karmakar and Mireja Bibi had just returned from work, when their children told them that some boys from the neighbourhood had ridden in on bikes and yelled at the men performing namaz a few dozen feet away from their house. At the time, between 200 and 300 people had gathered for namaz, a policeman said.
According to an eyewitness who lives in the house and participated in the namaaz, seven men came on bikes and started shouting 'Jai Shri Ram' and calling them Bangladeshis.
"They were laughing and shouting. It lasted for a 10-15 minutes," said the witness, a teenager who preferred to remain anonymous. When the worshippers got up and left, the trouble-mongers also disappeared.
Over the next few days, a video of the incident started getting shared on WhatsApp and social media platforms like Facebook. Haji Shehzad Khan, a real estate businessman, received the video on WhatsApp the same day the incident occurred. He spent the next few days trying to identify the Hindu men in the video.
"I waited for four days and then filed a police complaint," he told HuffPost. On 27 April, police arrested six men from nearby Wazirabad and Kanhai villages for threatening the Muslim worshippers.
A day later, 21 Hindutva organisations in Gurugram came together to form Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti. The Samiti helped the Hindu men get bail and began what they call a 'movement' against Muslims reading namaaz 'illegally' in public spaces. On 4 May, reports poured in from across Gurugram that Hindutva organisations have been descending on namaaz sites, and preventing Muslims from offering prayers.
Soon, Dipali said, a steady stream of 'important-looking people' who 'came in big cars' began frequenting the spot.
"I told Mireja we are outsiders here," Dipali said. "You people pray inside the house instead of running into danger. We don't know these people -- the politicians, police, anyone."
The local police confirmed that the men they arrested -- all in their late 20s and early 30s -- were locals who did odd jobs like working in garages or as mechanics. They were not known to belong to any political outfit.
Temples and Playgrounds
The six men who were arrested told the police that they disrupted the namaaz because the Muslim men were occupying a space that they wanted to use as a sports ground.
"The men were from Wazirabad and Kanhai villages. They said that there weren't playgrounds around where they lived," Suresh Kumar, assistant sub-inspector of Sector 53 police station told HuffPost India, adding that the men insisted they were not part of any political organisation.
The police said the accused stuck to this account even when they were grilled on why they never had issues before and how less than an hour's namaaz would come in the way of using the ground as a playground.
But the public conversation was being shaped by Mahavir Bhardwaj, a freelance journalist who named himself the coordinator of the SHSS and has launched a determined campaign based on claims which he has no proof of.
HuffPost met Bhardwaj in a swanky, spacious office in the backyard of the Vivekanand Global School in Sector 7, Gurugram, the school owned by Usha Priyadarshi, the BJP leader.
The Hindu youth, Bhardwaj claimed, were enraged because the Muslim men were offering namaaz in front a temple in the Wazirabad plot. He insisted that the men had 'warned' the worshippers a week before against reading namaaz in front of a temple. The men who interrupted the Friday prayers didn't belong to any Hindutva group or political party, Bhardwaj said.
"They are just concerned locals who took action in the interest of the country," he said. "They should be felicitated, instead, they were arrested."
When visiting the site where the namaaz was disrupted, HuffPost could not seen any Hindu temple in front of the spot where prayers were held.
Bhardwaj claims the SHSS wants a ban on all public displays of religion, yet the memorandum submitted by the SHSS to the deputy commissioner of police on 9 May, demands Muslims be barred from offering namaaz at public places in Gurugram. The document, a copy of which is with HuffPost, also asked the police to find the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis in Gurugram 'fast-growing Muslim population' and drive them out. The document makes no mention of Hindus or any other religion.
The SHSS has also claimed that the men offering Friday prayers chanted slogans in support of Pakistan, and Azad Kashmir, and were going door to door to sell cow meat.
ASI Suresh Kumar, the investigating officer, said that there was no evidence that the men were shouting at anti-India, pro-Pakistan slogans or selling cow meat.
"We have a task-force which regularly conducts raids to track illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Residents of that area are not illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are mostly labourers from West Bengal," he said. He added that in the last couple of years at least, he has not received any complaints of harassment against the migrants from the locals in the area.
Enter the Congress
HuffPost met Khan at the office of Aamir Hasan, the ex-general secretary of the Haryana Pradesh Youth Congress, and currently the vice-chairperson of the Congress' minority cell in Gurugram.
"When attacks such as these happen, it harms the cosmopolitan image of the city. This city is full of migrant workers from across the world and corporations are investing hundreds of crores here. We want peace and hope people will work their differences out peacefully," Hasan said.
Khan told HuffPost that the attack on the prayers were a clear act of aggression, which is why he filed the complaint.
"These prayers have been taking place for years. Why this attack now? Most of these namaaz 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?" he asked.
Twelve years ago, Khan said, he had submitted intimations to local police and administrations that they're going to hold prayers in certain public spaces. He says that he did it in the capacity of a 'social worker'. "No one objected. The administration didn't ask us to stop namaaz anywhere. Yes, these are public spaces, but a Friday prayer hardly takes more than an hour," Khan told HuffPost.
Hasan added that after the 20 April incident, imams and locals from at least 20 neighbourhoods in Gurugram had called him, expressing concern about possible attacks and cancelling plans to hold prayers.
Hasan later released a statement congratulating the divisional commissioner and deputy commissioner of Gurugram for helping maintain law and order and said that the party wants the 'social fabric of the society to be intact'.