When a Muslim woman clerk offering namaz and reciting Koran in government office during duty hours was asked not to do so by her officer, she gathers big crowd of Muslim politicians who forced the Officer to retract and tender an apology.
Shabnam Praveen, a Muslim woman clerk, works in the Regional Transport Office (RTO) of Meerut. She was reported to be regularly offering namaz and reciting the Koran during duty hours in the office premises since 17 years. She thinks this to be her fundamental right as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. She says she was never asked not to do so by any officer in the Department. But on September 16, her office-in-charge, Mamata Sharma, RTO, coming face to face with this fact, told her that the office was no place for namaz and asked her to recite the Koran at home. Not to be cowed down, Shabnam Parveen immediately proceeded to assemble a Muslim crowd consisting of her husband Shahnawaj, other family members, and a number of Muslim politicians including Samajwadi Party leader Haji Ameer Ahmed and CPI leader Comrade Shakeel. The crowd gheraoed the RTO. The political leaders told the RTO that she could not prevent Shabnam from offering namaz and reciting the Koran as all this was part of her Fundamental Right to Freedom of Religion as contained in the Constitution.
The RTO Mamata Sharma spoke not a word that could infuriate the crowd any more. Already they were highly worked up and in almost an emotional frenzy. She quietly accepted that she herself was in the wrong and tendered an apology. But the leaders said they would complain to the State Transport Minister and also to the Chief Minister asking condign punishment for the officer. They have since reportedly sent written complaints to both.
The matter did not rest there. The Muslim members of Meerut Municipal Corporation took up cudgels on behalf of the faithful. Diwanji Sharif, Shaahid and other more than a dozen members of Nagar Nigam called a meeting to discuss the matter. They decided that a mere apology from the RTO was not enough. They too concluded in favour of reporting the matter to the Chief Minister. They told newsmen that it was no joke hurting the religious sentiments of a Muslim lady. They advised the RTO to concentrate on removing corruption from her office rather than a sacred book. To convey this to Mamata Sharma, they gheraoed her. Shabnam's husband Shahnawaj also led a crowd taking out a procession in the RTO premises all the time shouting pro-Islamic slogans. They kept on the theme that Islam had been endangered inside the office premises, which was intolerable. Another Muslim body of Meerut, called Yuva Seva Samiti, took an effigy of Mamata Sharma to a busy crossing of the city and burnt it amid slogan-shouting.
While an appreciable section of the Muslim community in Meerut has associated itself to the religious cause, the Hindus have been looking on with an absolute bewildered silence. Muslim religious leaders including Shahar Kazi, condemned the Hindu officer in no uncertain terms, no Hindu leader, not even a lawyer, has come to the rescue of the beleaguered Hindu officer.
No unbridled right to Freedom of Religion
Krishna Pahal, a senior advocate of Meerut says that the Constitution does not provide for an unbridled Fundamental Right to Freedom of Religion. This freedom, he says, is subjected to public order, health and morality. If public order is breached, the freedom can be curtailed. No secular country in the world, according to him, allows the government employees to observe religious rites and performances inside office premises. In fact, he says, that there is also a Supreme Court judgment laying down that government offices are not meant for prayer, namaz or pooja. In his well-considered opinion, Mamata Sharma, the RTO was acting in a proper and constitutional manner when she told Shabnam Parveen to stop offering namaz and reciting Koran during duty hours inside the office. According to Pahal, the lady clerk must be proceeded against for dereliction of duty and given punishment, and not the officer.
This reporter asked Gopal Agrawal, a senior SP leader and president of State Samajwadi Vyapar Sabha, whe-ther it was proper to use government office for namaz and Koran, he unhesitatingly supported Shabnam's doing. He said even some Hindu employees offered dhoopbatti/agarbatti before pictures of their gods and goddesses in offices without realising that this is done before the office work begins, while Shabnam offers prayer when people wait for her at the counter. Ajay Mittal in Meerut