The restrictions on religious processions in Uttar Pradesh and on loudspeakers at places of worship in Maharashtra are a necessary step toward curbing the egregious displays of competitive religiosity that have emerged as a major threat to communal harmony in recent months.
Mobilising communities through religious processions and functions had become the norm long before the communal clashes in North-East Delhi on April 16, the fuss in Gurgaon last year over namaz being offered in public spaces, and Raj Thackeray’s threat to counter azaan (call to prayer) over loudspeakers by blaring the Hanuman Chalisa in the vicinity of mosques.
The exercise of religious freedoms has translated into chaos, adversely impacting the lives of ordinary citizens. In the name of religion, they are compelled to put up with noise pollution, traffic snarls, and obstructions, littering, and unruly behaviour. In addition, these practices often involve encroachment on public land and protected monuments and damage to public and private property. Fundamental rights are callously dismissed in the face of aggressive demonstrations of religious fervour.
The Supreme Court and High Courts have repeatedly pointed out that Article 25 (1) of the Constitution, while mandating freedom to practice and propagate religion, makes it clear that this right is “subject to public order, morality, and health." Thereby, a clear-cut legal boundary is set between the religious and secular. In practice, that line is never respected.
That the Nashik police have banned “bhajan or songs” over loudspeakers near mosques immediately before or after the azaan is heartening. So is the order that all religious places must obtain administrative permission for loudspeakers before May 3, 2022. One can only hope that the authorities take an even-handed approach and do not favour one community over another.
Equally important is ensuring that places of worship strictly conform to the Noise Pollution Rules 2020, as mandated by the Supreme Court. To this end, all police personnel must be equipped with decibel meters. Alternatively, they can use smartphones. A plethora of free apps that monitor decibel levels can now be easily downloaded. All that needs to be done is to assess and designate apps that can be used for official purposes.
In any event, there ought to be no requirement for loudspeakers at mosques, temples, and gurudwaras. After all, they are a fairly recent invention and came into widespread use only in the 1970s. Indeed, as certain Muslim intellectuals have argued, the Prophet preferred a human voice to give the call to prayer rather than a mechanical device (bell or horn) that would have carried further.
The azaan or bhajan or gurbani are not meant to assert the presence of a particular community. They are meant for the spiritual benefit of adherents of a particular faith and are not for the ears of those who follow other belief systems. Moreover, law-abiding citizens must follow the noise pollution norms mandated by the Supreme Court and not create a public nuisance under the guise of ‘pluralism’.
In many countries, including Saudi Arabia, the use of loudspeakers in mosques is severely restricted. A public official in Amsterdam reportedly refused a mosque the permission for a loudspeaker asking why, in the age of social media and mobile phones, auditory reminders to pray were needed!
The main cause of combative ‘in your face’ religious zeal is the laissez-faire attitude of the authorities. The recent riots in Delhi, which began with stone-pelting during a Hanuman Jayanti procession passing a mosque, is a classic example.
It is not yet clear who cast the first stone – even press reports are contradictory – but the police say there was aggression on both sides. Allegations of a conspiracy to undermine law and order are flying thick and fast, but even if they are true, why were adequate precautions not taken?
While the police said their permission for the procession had not been sought and had, in fact, registered an FIR to that effect against the organisers, the latter has shared a letter indicating that they did apply to the police. Granted, a mere stamp on a letter does not mean that the application had been approved, but then, why did the police deploy personnel at the venue and make no attempt to stop it from taking place?
Clear-cut procedures need to be laid down for all public processions – be it for weddings, religious functions, or political purposes. A single-window system, in each district, for applications and permissions is necessary so that authorities do not pass the buck to each other.
Nor should citizens be taken for granted, by giving permissions in an ad hoc manner. It is vital to involve local residents, that is, Residents’ Welfare Associations and municipal councillors. They must be consulted before public parks and other spaces can be used for processions and religious functions because they have to deal with the messy aftermath.
No one contends that India should have a homogeneous public culture, but it should not undermine the rights of citizens and engenders hostility and distrust.
(The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author. She tweets at @BhavKang)