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In Jharkhand BJP's 'Jihad' against the 'Namaz Room' in Assembly was uncalled for
Unruly scenes were witnessed when BJP MLAs disrupted proceedings and climbed on top of the Assembly reporters’ table till they were forcibly removed by the Marshals
For four consecutive days last week the Jharkhand Assembly resonated with chants of ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’ and high-pitched recitation from Hanuman Chalisa. Opposition members of the Jharkhand Assembly, who had chosen to devote almost the entire session—four out of five days—to this display of devotion, were dressed for the occasion in ‘holy’ attire.
While legislative luminaries from the BJP benches turned the Assembly premises into a religious ‘Akhara’, the neighbourhood was far from amused, not used to the cacophony. People also questioned the wisdom of the opposition boycotting the legislature’s session to approve the supplementary budget. The boycott by the opposition and the din created by the chanting outside the House forced the Speaker to adjourn proceedings on all four days.
Unruly scenes were witnessed when BJP MLAs disrupted proceedings and climbed on top of the Assembly reporters’ table till they were forcibly removed by the Marshals. The MLAs then organized an equally unruly demonstration outside the House that led to the police resorting to a ‘lathi charge’.
The protest by the opposition was against a notification by the Speaker Rabindra Mahato in allotting a room for Muslim employees, officials and MLAs to offer prayers or ‘Namaz’, especially on Fridays. Enraged BJP MLAs demanded the withdrawal of the notification and threatened that unless the notification was withdrawn, they would not allow the House to conduct any business. Or else, they insisted, the Speaker must allot a place for worshipping Hindu deities.
The one-line notification on September 02, 2021, issued by the Deputy Secretary, that in the new Assembly building (where the State Assembly has of late shifted) Room No TW-348 was allotted for offering Namaz, was variously described as unconstitutional and yet another instance of ‘Muslim appeasement’.
The Constituent Assembly was however quite clear on this issue. One of the prominent members, who was also in the Drafting Committee, H.V. Kamath, had dispelled the confusion surrounding provisions relating to Freedom of Religion. “When I say that a State should not identify itself with any particular religion, I do not mean to say that a State should be anti-religion or irreligious. We have certainly declared India to be a secular state. But to my mind, a secular state is neither a God-less state nor an irreligious nor an anti-religious state,” he had said.
One of the eminent scholars of the Indian political system, M.V. Pylee, had also elaborated on Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s views on the subject. Participating in the debate on the Hindu Code Bill in Parliament in 1951, Dr Ambedkar had said that “It (secular state) does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that a secular state means is that Parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon the rest of the people. That is the only limitation that the Constitution recognises.”
These brief references would make it clear that when Article 25 of the Constitution speaks of freedom of religion, it makes it imperative for the state to help individuals or groups freely practice tenets of their own religion.
In the present context, MLAs and officials of the Assembly professing Islam needed assistance of the Speaker to perform their religious practice while on duty. Islam requires namaz to be offered five times a day, beginning with 4-4.30 in the morning when Fazr namaz is offered followed by Jauher namaz in the afternoon at about 1 pm, Asar namaz at about 5 pm, Magrib namaz at 6- 6.30 pm and finally Isha namaz at 8- 8.30 pm. What is most important and unavoidable for them is to offer namaz on Friday at 1 pm.
Such a schedule calls for absence from duty and as per the provision of Article 25, their right to practice religion has to be ensured by the state. This is all the more essential to help them offer the afternoon Jauhar namaz on Friday when they need a convenient place to offer namaz while on duty. It must also be noted that a large number of Muslims at work do without the daytime prayers. But most devout Muslims would not like to forego the Friday prayer.
Facilitating such prayers at such public places as airports and railway stations has been a common practice. Even in Bihar, where a BJP-JD(U) government is in the saddle, both Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council are said to have designated places for prayers since long. Government schools too used to have a longer break of more than an hour on Fridays specially for facilitating Muslims to offer jumme ki namaz.
This explains why public response to BJP’s call for widespread public protests in the state capital Ranchi and in Jharkhand was lukewarm. The public demonstration was attended by mostly BJP workers and MLAs, among them state party president Dipak Prakash and former Chief Minister Babulal Marandi. People at large, not the media though, rightly felt they were making a mountain of a molehill.
The controversy could well have been avoided, feel experts, if the Speaker had not issued a notification. He did not have to.
(The writer, a Professor of Political Science at St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi, writes on current affairs)