A few days ago, the social media had worked up a real lather. A Minister in one of the BIMARU States [Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh] said that public places should not be used for Namaz. Before I proceed, it is my view that, generally, a very large proportion of the gruesome crimes - rapes, murders, juvenile killings, shooting uncooperative DJ’s, Khaap killings, honour killings, et al – happen in the BIMARU states. Please don’t say Kathua; that is an exception in that it happened in Kashmir. Getting back to the point, the statement by the Minister was obviously made shortly before Ramzan is to start and made with some degree of mischief. I believe Ramzan starts on 15th May 2018. Even more obviously, the statement had an equal degree of support as well as condemnation, which lead to the lather on social media.
Some of our more intellectual and erudite folks opined that while the statement was worthy of condemnation, the Minister had a point, no religious festivals, celebrations should be held in public spaces. This caused even more uproar as the discussion instantly turned into the usual garbage of Hindu dominance, Hindu agenda on the one hand and appeasement of minorities and so on, on the other.
However, all this din and noise got me thinking. Has anyone on either side of the argument, even bothered to understand and think what use of public spaces for religion could mean? How far is the concept to be taken? That is the point I shall seek to make in this post.
A few disclaimers and assumptions.
· I am not a `Bhakt’ or a `Muslim’ supporter. Yes, I did vote for the BJP.
· I do not practice any religion, do not have a pooja room or visit temples.
· In principle I agree that no religion should use public spaces and the `ban’ on the use should apply across all.
· This is not a Hindu v/s Muslim argument.
Have got over the disclaimers and assumptions, let me now set down the facts i.e. the problem.
First up the Muslims. There are 52 Fridays in a year. Many places see roads shut on Fridays especially for the afternoon Namaz. As a rough estimate, let us add another 5 days when roads are blocked. This could be Ramzan Idd falling on a non-Friday or Bakri Idd also on a non-Friday. I also make allowance for the sermons that are held during Muharram and the last day of Muharram when there are processions with men whipping themselves or beating their chests. So, aggregating this, we have 57 days of public spaces being used.
Let’s turn to our Hindus. 10 days Ganapati, add another 10 days for Dusshera or Durga Pooja. 2 days for Holi which is `celebrated’ with gay abandon by cutting trees, having bonfires, throwing colour and generally engaging in loutish behavior. You could throw in the hitherto unknown, but now all pervasive, Chaat Pooja which is celebrated by our BIMARU sisters on Mumbai beaches. Would 2 days for Diwali be adequate? We do celebrate by lighting firecrackers on the streets. No. Please please don’t get into the smoke, pollution argument. Please also don’t get into the noise scares sick people and terrifies puppies. All that is in a different post. It is a different subject. I would add 5 days here too as allowance for festivals I may have forgotten. Hindus aggregate 27 days of use of public space.
Catholics are a small part of our population. But they do have their Midnight Mass and Novena every Wednesday at Mahim. Strictly speaking they do not block streets. They may cause traffic jams as the sheer force of numbers clogs roads. But I am sure you will agree that the Bandra Fair is use of public space, though not necessarily by Catholics but hawkers who set up stalls on the way to Mount Mary. So, shall we give them a total of 5 days or 9 days for Bandra Fair?
Our Dalit friends come to Shivaji Park in Mumbai to commemorate and remember the death anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar on 6th December. Shivaji Park is public space and the Dalits really and truly make a mess for 3 days in a public space.
The Sikhs are generally a more private lot, but at times, like the Catholics they cause traffic jams at their Gurdwaras. Let’s allot 3 days to them.
Don’t forget our Jain brothers. If you live next to a Jain Derasar, the first thing you should do is sell your home. A Jain will give you a premium for the privilege of living next to the Derasar. They have processions and horse drawn silver chariots all using public spaces. Let’s allot 3 days to them too.
The grand total of days that I have reached is 98 days in a year when public spaces are used for religious purposes. Frankly, that is a lot, an enormous number. I can bet you would never have thought it would be such a substantial number. To put it differently, this is a problem and should be addressed.
The question is how should it be addressed? What really is the use of public space?
Please do note that I am leaving out wholly religious cities from this argument. By wholly religious cities I would mean Tirupati, Shirdi, Nathdwara, Varanasi, Mathura, Ajmer, Amritsar and the cities where the Kumbh Mela is held and so on. In those cities there is a tacit understanding that you visit them knowing full well that because of religion public spaces are usurped.
To me, clearly, blocking roads for Namaz is use of public space as is slaughter of goats out in the open at Bakri Idd. Equally, purloining of roads to make Ganapati, & Pooja pandals, pandals for Garba during Navratri is use of public space. Fire crackers on the street or Chaat pooja on the beach should not be permitted either. Cutting trees for Holi is similar. Cooking a Langar in a pandal on a street is use of public space as is the entire Ambedkar remembrance on 6th December. These are instances that are rather more clear cut and easy to understand. A prevention of use of public spaces should, ideally, apply to all these.
The problem I have is the argument of our erudite intellectuals who say that use of public spaces should apply equally. Assume, for the purpose of argument, that there is no Ganapati or Pooja pandal on the road. Now comes the matter of bringing the Ganapati or Durga idol to its shrine as well as the visarjan of the idol after 1 days. How does one deal with this? Should you use a road? Should the people be allowed to dance and move at a snail’s pace or should they simply drive at normal speed? Can they carry the idol on their shoulders and walk or on a cart and push the cart? Would this be use of public space? Should immersion not happen at a beach or river?
Take the case of Mass or Novena or Bandra Fair. Admittedly, these are held inside the Church. The problem is caused by one, scores of people attending and two by the attendant hawkers, beggars and assorted bodies that simply gather at these spots. All this happens in a public space. How does one deal with this?
Is the use of public space to be dealt with or viewed on distinct levels? To clarify, for example, Namaz and pandals are not permitted on public spaces. However, are processions and attendant hawkers permitted? To amplify, lets say that there is legitimate permission given to hold a religious function at a public space – say a Baba Ramdev or Nirankari or Catholic gathering at the MMRDA ground at BKC – but the roads are clogged on account of traffic, is the grant of permission correct? How do we deal with an amalgam of religion in non public spaces while the attendant hoopla does use public space?
Just as I was reviewing this piece, another thought popped into my mind. Should weddings with dancing and bands on our roads be allowed? Is that not use of public space? It may not be religious but all the same.
To conclude, I agree that public spaces should not be used for religion and this should apply across all religions. However, for God’s sake [no pun intended] let us understand the contours of the argument before shooting off missives or spouting on TV or social media.