Every year I get asked by some new friends and colleagues, ‘It’s a holiday on Eid Milad but what is it?’
For those not aware Milad-un-Nabi is the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed[Peace be upon Him] which falls on the 12th day of the 3rd month according to the Islamic calendar. There are proponents for and against the celebration which also marks the day of the death of the Prophet. There is no historical evidence for Milad-un-Nabi or Eid Milad, and the practice started 400 years later by the Fatimid Empire in Egypt inspired by Christmas Day venerating the birth of Christ. However, it is celebrated widely in South Asian Muslim communities. This background is necessary to understand the context of celebrations in the midst of people questioning the legitimacy of the celebration, and it being politicized in the recent years.
Milad-un-Nabi in Hyderabad has taken altogether a new fervor and zeal. A little less than 7 years ago this day would be a small private and somber affair. Small neighborhood gatherings, if at all, local mosques filled with songs sung by children in praise of Prophet would be heard. An evening dedicated to seminar narrating the stories and lessons from the life of Prophet, and quiz, elocution competitions, and from which prize distribution followed. Businessmen, shopkeepers, and householders pitch in money for the communal kitchen where poor people are served food without discrimination. This was observed in the old city and mixed neighborhoods while the rest of the city went on business as usual. The scale of the events was still local and not yet mobilized to make grand pompous processions in the city.
One incident that brought about a dramatic overture to this is the communal tension the city was plagued with briefly during 2010. That year eid was followed by Hanuman Jayanti witnessed the celebrations competing in their show of pomp and fervor. Both celebrations are marked typically by decoration on religious buildings, prayer and puja, communal kitchens, and sounds blaring from speakers religious or Bollywood numbers. At the time, a number of people from an organization were mobilized from various parts of the country in Secunderabad area armed with swords etc. to create communal tensions, in an otherwise calm city with small infrequent altercations among the two communities, were preempted by the city police. The people of old city Hyderabad are a mixed population and contiguous areas of concentrated either Hindus or Muslims.
The following years have seen a lot of changes in the way these celebrations happen. In response to the attempt to disturb the communal harmony and threat to their security, some religious groups consolidated to make the event grander and several processions are taken out in the city every year during eid. To assert the right to city and public space grandiose statements are made during the celebrations. Bigger, brighter, larger, louder – lights, sounds, sights, places are to behold. The festivals follow each other and so do their attempt to make it larger than life. These activities happen precariously within close proximity of space and time. An imminent fear lurks as a slight mishap could be blown out of proportion, and provoke people negotiating the same public domain.
It is a known fact that the old city area has been estranged from the growth and development’s relentless activity in the newer and extended city. The celebration marks a day beyond an everyday necessary to make their presence felt in the public sphere and show of community spirit. It is an assertion of a right and a political statement as several politicians are invited in night long events that take place in the open grounds of the college run by the organisation. David Harvey defines the Right to City: ‘ far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city.’ The old city is built too densely and events such as these are a testimony of people claiming the city space outside its immediate boundaries from which they are excluded. The administrative side is another story exhibiting abject neglect and apathy. Recent proposals were made to rebuild the Osmania Hospital, a listed heritage building. Decisions such as this only prove counterproductive and disturb the integrity and sense of place. Examples from other cities emphasize that neglected urban areas divide the city and make its resources inaccessible. Such a plight is often evident as one takes a ride from the new city to the old city, a keen subject of study of marginalization of people socially, politically and economically.
The festival celebrations in such a scenario serve twofold for the people. Firstly, in claiming the public sphere far from the edges of a local neighborhood and demand the right to public space as its (ignored) citizens. Second in fostering a community spirit and solidarity as a collective response to elements that disrupts the harmony of the city. In times of the tolerance debate, one could only hope the succession of the festivals happen as peacefully, and that urban development follows a far more insightful and sensitive course.