"Please show your ID cards," said a policeman as we entered the site of Friday prayers in Gurugram's Sector 47, where 100-150 members of the Muslim community have been offering namaz for years. Several policemen stood guard on both sides of the open space around a mobile tower, alert and observant.
The stringent police presence was necessitated by disruptions of the namaz by protesters and local residents of Sector 47 for the past four consecutive weeks, who demand that the prayers be shifted to an alternate location due to "security concerns."
On 15 October, the matter was on the brink of taking an ugly turn as protesters didn't just turn up with placards, but with a mic and portable speakers to sing bhajans.
Consequently, the namaz this Friday was moved at least 100 meters away from the actual site, locally called the 'mobile tower of Sector 47'. Surrounded by bushes, the site is not immediately visible from either of the three roads that surround the open space.
The protests here have been deferred for two weeks after intervention by the authorities and an assurance that an alternate location or a solution to the "problem" will be found by Diwali. However, volunteers laying out the carpets ahead of the prayers this Friday were cautious, with the mood being dampened by the possibility of an 'untoward incident.'
While the Sector 47 site remained peaceful on Friday, in Sector 12, locals and members of several right wing groups attempted to disrupt the namaz being offered there.
The Dispute Over 'Designated Sites'
"We are a little relaxed since we have been provided with security. We are also happy with the CM's statement. Even he understands that the namaz is not a seizure of any land. It's a 15 minute affair and then we are on our way," said Mufti Salim who led the prayers at Sector 47.
Haryana chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar last week had said that no one should disrupt the prayers and that people should be allowed to offer namaz at designated sites.
The administration had designated 37 locations in Gurugram in 2018 for the Muslim community to pray after similar incidents.
Altaf Ahmad, member of the Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch (GNEM) and a frequent participant at the Friday prayers in Sector 47, said that there used to be 106 sites for offering namaz in Gurugram before but after 2018, those were consolidated into 37 designated praying sites, with the mobile tower at Sector 47 being one of them.
However, protesters claim that the site at Sector 47 was approved only for a day.
Claims of Wrongdoings and Role of Dinesh Bharti
Several protesters, who spoke to The Quint anonymously, said that the concerns were about the "safety and security" of the locality and that the movement was not against the community. They said that there have been several "outsiders" coming to the area and pose a security threat.
"We have tried to understand from the residents what their exact problem is. We are being accused of wrongdoings. Even the police has asked them if any such incident has been reported anywhere or if any such complaint has been filed by anybody. They could not prove it," Ahmad said.
"If somebody tells me that there had been an accident on the road and two people died. I haven't seen it, but I am most likely to believe it and probably tell more people. Dinesh Bharti called the prayers as 'land jihad' and alleged that we will seize this land. It's disappointing that some intelligent people get influenced by people like him," Mufti Salim said.
Bharti, a member of the Bharat Mata Vahini, has been arrested for instigating the protests and disrupting Friday prayers in the past. A video shared on social media of him on 8 October, in which he can be seen singing bhajans along with protesters in Sector 47, also went viral.
"We have rejected the offer to move to an alternate location. Such incidents have happened in the past too. Dinesh Bharti had played the same game in the month of March in Sector 39. He had gathered people there and made sure that prayers don't happen there anymore. He did the same in Sector 40. Later, prayers were stopped in Sector 43 as well. Prayers could never resume at those sites. We have been trying to speak to authorities about those sites but to no avail," Ahmad said.
Ahmad said that Bharti had showed up with a few of his men on 10 and 17 September at the prayer site in Sector 47 and then allegedly mobilised a few more residents in the coming weeks and made it into a whole movement.
Peace at One Praying Site, Unrest at Another
Even as prayers were offered peacefully on 22 October in Sector 47 after four weeks of interruption, a prayer site at Sector 12 witnessed sloganeering and chants of "Jai Shree Ram" by locals and members of groups like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Speaking to The Quint, advocate Kulbhushan Bhardwaj, who was at the forefront of the protests held in Sector 12 on Friday, said that the demonstrations were not against the Muslim community. He also claimed that the land on which prayers are offered in Sector 12 is a private property owned by one Satish Bhardwaj.
"Be it namaz or pooja, prayers should be offered in a temple or a mosque and if that's not available, people should pray in their houses. This is not an opposition to a particular community, it's about upholding laws," he said.
Bhardwaj also claimed that there is fear among many people that Rohingya Muslims and refugees from Bangladesh might try to infiltrate these praying groups and create a law and order situation in the city.
Satender Singh, SHO of the sector 14 police station said that they had asked the protesters to submit a written complaint and that the police will try to resolve the issue before next Friday.
'Is the Problem Merely the Fact That We're Muslims?'
Ahmad said that hate mongering is done by some people for their own political interests.
"The media often calls it a clash between two communities. That's not what it is. It's a clash between hate mongers and peace lovers. The peace lovers are not just from one particular community. When we meet the authorities, there are more people from the Sikh, Hindu and Christian communities than Muslims," he said.
"There are some people trying to get political mileage by claiming that all residents of the sector have a problem. That's not true. They just want to bake their political breads by lighting fires of hatred," he added.
Ahmad reiterated that the protesters must convince the community and the authorities that untoward incidents have taken place due to Friday prayers in Sector 47.
"If they can convince us what exactly is their problem with Muslims offering namaz here, then we are ready to talk. But if their problem is merely the fact that we are Muslims, the fact that everything we eat, wear, say is problematic to them, then the question of us changing the location is not the solution at all. It won't matter how many locations we change," he said.