I don't know when exactly it happened, as we came to realise it quite late. The deals had already been signed and sealed, transactions made and possessions taken. They auctioned all the mosques of this land of the pure to private individuals trading in faith.
The owner made arrangements to secure his property, iron grills, gates, lock, key and all that. Trespassing is strictly checked now which means that the owner does not allow any other business on his premise. Can you ask a mall owner to let you host a community meeting inside the shop? No way.
Trade in faith is nothing new. It has been there since ages. It may, in fact, be as old as faith itself. If there are buyers and sellers, trade is bound to take place. If the State supports it, it will flourish and in case it is suppressed, the business will not die out, it will only go underground. My take here is not about how and why has our State supported this trade. My concern, instead, is that how can one party be given monopoly over a public place?
I have recently been to a Sikh Gurdwara. Sikhs, like Muslims believe in an abstract God and do not worship idols. The prayer place thus is a hall with seating arrangement on floor. The holy book, Garnth Saheb, is placed at a central place on a higher pedestal where the prayer leaders sit to recite the script. But that's about praying only. Gurdwaras mean much more than that. Almost all of them have a Langar attached that offers free meals to whoever wants these. Devout Sikh volunteers take turns to cook at the Langar kitchen and serve others. Some Gurdwaras can have Musafir Khanas also. The whole complex serves a number of community functions – hosting prayer meetings in one of them. It may be the most important one, in the sense that it gives this brick and mortar structure its reason to exist but it is certainly not the only one.
Gurdwaras are built by communities themselves with their own money, so are mosques. The faithful donate generously for this cause. I am sure there will be no locality in our country that does not have a mosque. In many cases these are the most expensive structures of the entire locality. What purpose do they serve? They house the prayers, and to do anything else within that premise is declared sacrilegious.
Prayer leaders, maulanas actually own mosques. In many cases, they themselves are its founders. It generally starts as a makeshift structure erected on an encroached upon vacant area, with or without the consent and support of neighbors. Who can dare oppose such a holy project? It takes sometime in maturing. Most mosques then extend to add a residential apartment for the prayer leader. They also feel free to insert shops all along the mosque's perimeter. The rent is considered 'the mosque's income'.
Mosques can be registered as not-for-profit entities under the Societies Act. The law was enacted in 1860 – some 11 years after the British defeated the Sikh regime of Punjab and annexed it to British India as a new province. To the best of my knowledge, the Act has never been amended since then. Needless to say, that this 152-year-old piece of legislation is completely outdated and totally irrelevant today. It is unsuitable to provide a governance structure for a public place. Its vague 20 clauses can be interpreted in thousands of creative ways to justify anything under the sun.
The registration is not mandatory by law. In fact, this particular law was not intended for this purpose. One needs registration as a not-for-profit entity only if one has to open and operate a bank account. However, if your bank is the green donation box put outside the mosque with its keys in your pocket, you don't have to bother with registration formalities. If one does not opt for legal protection, one can sure go for political insurance by associating with some known madrassah or a religious leader. The bigger institutions serve and operate as cartels of faith.
Mosques have not always been like what they are today in our country. They are not the same in many other Muslim countries. They are not the same in other 'non-Muslim countries' even if founded and run by Pakistani immigrants. They perform many community functions. Those hard structures and the invisible space enclosed within those structures associate and identify with the good and humane in society.
Private businesses were nationalised by our government in 1970s. They were denationalised in the next decade and in the following one we sold institutions that were born to and raised by the State, to private individuals. While the entrepreneurs were on a roller coaster, the business of faith proliferated and prospered, all along, becoming more and more private. Public influence over our places of worship was marginalised and then the communities were disempowered altogether and thrown out. Has it not stunted the growth of the mosque as an important social institution?
More importantly, has the time come to reclaim the mosque from the usurpers?
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.
Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.
He tweets @TahirMehdiZ
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.