Namaaz, public spaces, and religion

Over the last couple of weeks, the practice of namaaz in the open spaces of Gurugram, Delhi’s southern neighbor, has become a deeply contentious affair. Hindu vigilante squads heckled and intimidated the worshippers till they dispersed.

When civil rights groups brought the matter to the Haryana government, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was quoted by NDTV as having said, “it wasn’t right to pray in open spaces.”

If there is shortage of places for offering namaz, it should be done in personal spaces, inside homes,” Mr Khattar added.

I agree with Mr. Khattar. Religion is a private affair, and should have no demand on public spaces. I hope he holds to this view during the kawariya season this year.

Every July, millions of observant Hindus spill onto the streets of north India, ferrying water from the Ganga, at Hardwar, and at Garh Mukteswar, to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana. Recent estimates put the number of water carriers, called ‘kawariyas’, at 32 million. Governments of the northern states, including Delhi, through which many of the busiest routes pass, make extensive arrangements for the welfare and security of these pilgrims.

Roads – sometimes entire highways – are blocked, schools are closed, law and order becomes sensitive, and meat shops are shut down for fear of offending religious sentiments.

Here are some news clippings of the impact that the kawariya season has on public spaces and private lives every year:

We found that the entire Delhi-Hardwar highway was closed to non-pilgrimage traffic. Our bikes went so fast it felt we were going to take off! On the way, there were places for us to rest and eat – all free!

Business Standard, August 10, 2013

The Ghaziabad administration on Monday declared a seven-day holiday for all educational institutes located along NH-58 for the ongoing kanwar yatra. Schools, colleges, and management and engineering institutes along the highway will remain closed till August 1. It’s the first time such an order has been issued in UP for kanwar yatra. “The order is applicable to all types of educational institutes,” district magistrate Nidhi Kesarwani told TOI.”

Times of India, July 26, 2016

Huge force would be deployed along NH-58 for people’s security and also to maintain the traffic. A large number of policemen in civil clothes will also be among the Kawariyas.” Inspector General, Police, Meerut range, Uttar Pradesh.

India Today, July 31, 2015

Besides this, all meat shops on the Kanwar Yatra route in the Ghaziabad district have been ordered to remain closed. All eateries on the route have also been instructed not to display non-vegetarian dishes till Maha Shivratri celebrations on July 21.

Financial Express, July 10, 2017

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