Public space use needs regulation

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is no surprise that the Noida Sector 56 SHO’s missive to companies holding them responsible for their Muslim employees congregating in a public park for Friday prayers has erupted into a political controversy. The Opposition Samajwadi Party has alleged that government officials are helping the ruling party create an atmosphere of divide and rule ahead of the 2019 General Elections.

The All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief, Asaduddin Owaisi, hit out at the Yogi government for the “discrimination”. The controversy has forced the Noida administration to distance itself from the order, saying that companies will be not penalised as their managements are not liable for the religious conduct of their employees. The administration blamed the SHO for the timing of the order as he had issued it without consulting the higher authorities, who apparently had an application before them seeking permission to hold prayers in the park.

Under a Supreme Court order of 2009, there is a clear ban on unauthorised use of public places for religious activities, irrespective of the denomination, which must be enforced by all means. The rule, however, empowers the authorities to give exemptions that must be sought and given officially. Unauthorised squatting on the road used to be a regular sight in many parts of the country, causing huge disruption to traffic. Hundreds of passengers used to miss their flights due to the once-notorious traffic hold-up on the road to the airport in Mumbai on account of the Friday prayers being held on the road, but, thanks to strict implementation of the court order, this problem has been solved. Recently, there was an incident at Mumbai airport in which a group of Muslim devotees offered prayers on the gangway of the terminal, which led to suspension of the security personnel.

The Noida park in question has been the venue of afternoon prayers by Muslims working in the area for some time now, but the number of people used to be limited, although Fridays saw a higher turnout. But the increasing numbers have been causing worry to some local residents, which triggered the latest objection. Those who offer prayers in the park say the nearest mosque in a congested area is not large enough to accommodate so many people.

The golden rule in such cases must be that the public should not be inconvenienced by the holding of religious congregations in public places. Exemptions can be given, but these must be for specific purposes and timeframes. This is a universal practice and is strictly enforced in most countries. In the Noida case, there have been allegations that the rule is being invoked selectively, which must be avoided by all means so that no one feels aggrieved.