POST TIME: 26 September, 2021 08:53:18 PM
DATELINE INDIA: One prayer versus another?
Controversial it sure is because this is not about a room but an issue that has, and not surprisingly, snowballed into a face-off between the two communities namely Hindus and Muslims.

DATELINE INDIA: One prayer versus another?

Literally meaning the land of forests, its pride being elephants and tigers, the tribal state nestled in the eastern part of India, Jharkhand, is currently battling a communal issue of one prayer versus another, rather namaz versus hanuman chalisa to put it bluntly.
If one were to decode this in the current scenario India is witnessing, it would easily read as Hindu versus Muslims. But, on that later.
The present imbroglio began with the state assembly. It not only spilled to the streets of Jharkhand but had a spiral effect on the other states too, among them Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
It started with a demand for a prayer facility within the precincts of the state Assembly. A harmless and for some a genuine demand but one with unimagined repercussions and perhaps graver consequences, to say the least.
More than the demand, it was the Speaker conceding to it that was the flashpoint. And if one community gets something can the others remain mute spectators particularly if the Muslims are beneficiaries? As things appear at present the answer unfortunately is in the negative: loud and clear.
But the facts first:
Earlier this week, the state assembly in Jharkhand gave the go ahead to reserve a separate room inside the Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha to offer Namaz.
Subsequently, “room no TW 348 was allotted as Namaz Hall for offering Namaz in the new Assembly building.”
What the critics are slamming as an “unprecedented move was a consequence of a demand by Muslim legislators that they needed a place to offer namaz during the session and hence a room be allotted for the same.
That there are only four Muslims in a House of 81 is another matter altogether. Two Muslim MLAs are from the Congress party, while the remaining two belong to Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).
However the logic, completely unconvincing to those crying foul, was, to quote one of Jharkhand’s Minister: “In the absence of a Namaz room, Muslim politicians had to go back home for prayers and then rush to the Assembly to attend sessions” according to reports.
However this did little to assuage feelings. In any case politics played out in full swing: a kind of a no holds barred situation.
Quite expectedly, the knives were out:  in the face of the Congress and the state government, of which it is an alliance partner, not only backing but clearly welcoming the controversial move.
Controversial it sure is because this is not about a room but an issue that has, and not surprisingly, snowballed into a face-off between the two communities namely Hindus and Muslims. If the former are accusing the state government of appeasement, the Hemant Soren government is saying that the BJP is playing politics as it is prone to. To quote a Congress MLA yet again: “The BJP’s character is well known to all. It is always on the lookout to play politics on trivial issues connected to religion.”
Not the one to relent, the BJP charged the state with appeasement adding that it was playing the politics of “religious polarisation”.  
However the BJP’s take is that when Parliament and Vidhan Sabhas are regarded as the “temples of democracy” then they cannot be specific to any religion”.  Yet in the same breath, the saffron Party demanded space in the Assembly for setting up a Hanuman temple on grounds that if there can be separate room allotted for namaz then why not for recitation of Hanuman chalisa: the Hindu prayer ?
Consequently, they have demanded that a temple for Hindu deity Hanuman be constructed within the state Assembly premises. In fact the BJP went as far as offering to build the temple with their own funds, provided the space was allotted.  A tweet from an MLA sufficiently substantiates this sentiment:
“I’m not against Namaz room, but then they should also build a temple at Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha premises. I even demand that Hanuman Temple should be set up there. If the Speaker approves, we can build the temple at our own cost.”
Another went a step further and demanded that rooms should be allotted for people hailing from all other religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and so on and so forth.
"The allotment of rooms for all religions would mean equal respect for all. When a special community can be allotted a room for prayers, others should also be allotted the same," he reportedly said.
Rejecting the order as unconstitutional, the Opposition said that segregating and favouring one religion was not acceptable and since the Speaker had conceded to the demand of Muslims then it is but logical that worship rooms should be allotted for other religions too, as per reports even as they demanded an immediate withdrawal of what they dubbed as “unparliamentary order of Muslim appeasement”.
This warning also had a veiled threat of the BJP moving court, if the state government did not comply. And that they said would go hand in hand with staging protests both in the Assembly and taking to the streets.
“If Muslims can offer Namaz in a separate room, why can’t Hindus be allowed to recite Hanuman Chalisa (in a separate room” seems to be the common sentiment among the legislators mainly belonging to the BJP.
The other side of the story is the explanation offered by the Speaker in defence of his decision wherein he said similar arrangements were in place earlier:
"On Fridays, the Assembly is adjourned half an hour earlier for namaz. In the old Vidhan Sabha building, there was an arrangement and a place for namaz. Since the House has shifted to a new assembly building and no space was marked for namaz, a room has now been allotted," he is reported to have said.

The explanation was apparently not good enough because before the Assembly met for the day.

BJP MLAs sat on the stairs at the entrance of the Assembly chanting Hanuman Chalisa and ‘Hare Rama’ with placards.

As soon as the proceedings for the day began, the BJP members trooped into the Well chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

Amid the ruckus, the House was adjourned.
The BJP also took to the streets and burnt effigies of Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren and the Speaker across the State against this decision threatening to “gherao the Assembly and hold demonstrations in every district to protest the move” adding that this appeasement and vote bank politics by the state government is “an insult to the House which is the temple of democracy”.
In an oblique reference to a Congress MLA, who had courted controversy by allegedly supporting Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the BJP said this move was akin to supporting Taliban:  “MLAs in the Hemant Soren government openly support the Taliban. A separate Namaz Hall in the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly is a result of this ideology. Otherwise, any person who believes in Indian democracy would not do such an act,” said a former Chief Minister.
Trouble is not confined to the state of Jharkhand alone. If anything the move has opened a Pandora’s box.
Close on the heels is a Samajwadi Party legislator demanding a separate room for offering Namaz in the UP Vidhan Sabha. He has already put forward the demand to the Speaker of the state assembly. Ditto Maharashtra and if the writing on the wall is anything to go by, other states will follow suit.
Even while it is difficult to sift right from wrong there is no denying the fact that this controversy could well have been avoided. To say that the move is bereft of politics would be an oversimplification and naïve. Were the intentions of the state government honest and credible it could simply have earmarked a “Prayer Room” instead of a namaz room. Had that been done, it would have successfully addressed concerns if at all they were genuine and at the same time not come across as appeasing one community at the cost of another. An all prayer room would have been all pervasive and it is no rocket science to think of such a simple solution but then anything simple and straightforward would perhaps not serve the crafty political interests. Hence the storm and needle of suspicion towards the state government that would wish the people to believe that the controversy is “much ado about nothing”.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: ([email protected]