Civic laws are flagrantly flouted in India when it comes to religious celebrations of all hues; what explains this?

  • The breaking of civic rules such as those relating to use of loudspeakers, and the taking over of public spaces for religious functions, is seen as a matter of pride by all kinds of groups

  • If anyone objects to a temple or mosque breaking loudspeaker restrictions, the whole community lines up behind the offender

  • The taking over of roads for pandals and processions is seen as a show of strength, a measure of community power

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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I have often wondered how ancient Indians could possibly have lived happily in the halcyon days of yore, when Bharat was great and Hindus ruled the world, because those best of times lacked the most popular aspects of our devotion — the loudspeaker and the Bollywood song. Life must surely have been unimaginably different before these two 20th century inventions without which no function — religious or secular — can be conducted. That religion and politics survived and thrived with neither loudspeaker nor Bollywood is astonishing.

The Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata have just ended. I spent the past four days hearing mantras over loudspeaker in the early morning, Bangla songs in the late morning, old Bollywood songs in the afternoon, and plays and dance numbers at night. The music, presumably arranged in decreasing order of holiness, continued till midnight.

The end of the festivities does not mean the loudspeakers will fall silent. On all days of the year, there’s the azan from a number of neighbourhood mosques, five times a day, from dawn, with which a local temple tries to compete by blaring some bhajans every evening. Often, there is also the sound of a political speech by some local worthy, carried far and wide by loudspeakers tied to poles and lampposts. Every wedding season, there are the sounds of remixed Bollywood tunes, which are certainly more central to weddings these days than the vows.

Kolkata’s love for loudspeakers is excessive even by Indian standards, but Mumbai is not too far behind. There, it is widely rumoured that Ganapati visarjan processions cannot commence until the arrival of the most important person of the festivities — the DJ. I am inclined to believe this rumour. My rented house in Mumbai used to be near a little chawl whose inhabitants celebrated all festivals with great gusto. During Ganesh Chaturthi, the road outside my house would be taken over for a pandal, and I would wake up with devotional music that would soon give way to thumping Marathi and Bollywood numbers.

 Civic laws are flagrantly flouted in India when it comes to religious celebrations of all hues; what explains this?

A Ganesh visarjan procession in Mumbai. Image for representation only. File Photo/Polina Schapova/Firstpost

These and other similar experiences, in Kolkata, Mumbai and elsewhere, have caused me to doubt another rumour, namely that there are laws that regulate the use of loudspeakers in India. I have seen it reported in otherwise reputable publications that the law in India does not permit the use of loudspeakers between 10 pm and 6 am. Exceptions can be made by the state government for a maximum of 15 days in a year. On those days, the loudspeakers must fall silent by midnight instead of 10 pm.…but no one ever seems to know which 15 days enjoy the extended happy hours, and so the 15 days stretch to as many days as necessary.

There are also decibel restrictions, but the police in India measure decibels like they test for drunkenness…by using their own ears and noses. The standard test for alcohol in India, for those unfamiliar with the process, used to be a policeman sticking his nose into your mouth, and this has changed only a little in some cities. The test for noise levels, which is “whatever the policeman thinks is too loud, is too loud”, remains unaltered.

Counting and measuring were not part of our cultures like they were part of Western cultures. We have still not taken to it in the same way, for good and for ill. Nor have we taken to reason, the scientific worldview, and the idea of secularism, with any depth of feeling. As a country, our attachment to these remains superficial at best, and that superficiality often pops out and seeps through in little ways and big. The big political wave against reason, science and secularism is all too evident. The smaller manifestations are perhaps more interesting now, because they say something about us as a culture, independent of political affiliations.

The fact that laws regulate the use of loudspeakers, but remain unimplemented everywhere when it comes to religious functions of all faiths, indicates that religion has a place of honour in our culture that places it beyond the reach of civic laws. The same attitude is evident in the taking over of roads for pandals, processions and prayers. Nowhere has the state, under secular governments or religious, tried very hard to implement the civic laws that would prevent these.

Instead, more deities have been added to the pantheon at different times in different places. Thus, in Kolkata, the Communists, when in power, had the right to take over any road and set up loudspeakers blaring at any hour for their holy days. The Trinamool now has similar events. The BJP will doubtless do the same as it gains presence in the city. There is a Bengali saying that predicts this. The Bengalis often say, “Je jai Lanka-e, shei hoy Ravan”, which means, “Whoever goes to Lanka, becomes Ravan”. Whoever goes to the seats of power, in Kolkata or Delhi, becomes Ravan.

Yesterday the country celebrated Ravana’s demise, but the “asuri bhav” or tendencies associated with the asuras, such as anger, greed, ego, excessive pride and selfishness, are very apparent in our country’s social, civic and political lives. These tendencies run through our country in ways we often don’t even recognise. For instance, the breaking of rules such as those relating to use of loudspeakers, and the taking over of public spaces for functions, is seen as a matter of pride by all kinds of groups. If anyone objects to a temple or mosque breaking loudspeaker restrictions, the whole community lines up behind the offender. The taking over of roads for pandals and processions is seen as a show of strength, a measure of the community’s power.

Even in case of individuals, being subject to a different set of rules is what signifies status. Thus, to not stand in queue for anything, including visits to places of worship, is a sign of having arrived in life, because there is no equality even before god. And if you can beat the queue at airport security, well, congratulations. You are now a VIP, the highest caste in our modern, secular republic. The Hindutva neta, the Dalit icon and the Communist revolutionary all become members of this caste when they become ministers, and perhaps even before that.

Religion and group identity enable those less powerful and privileged than VIPs to feel powerful and privileged. In Mumbai, the blasting of music from chawls during Ganesh Chaturthi, Dahi Handi, Ambedkar Jayanti, and New Year’s, and the taking over of roads for the Mount Mary fair, the Urs at Mahim dargah, and the Ganapati and Dahi Handi celebrations, are expressions of power. Similar celebrations across communities can be seen in towns and cities around the country. They suggest that the underlying idea is deep-rooted. Civic laws are no match for the thymotic urge — the urge for recognition — behind such celebrations, because it is the urge that powers Indian democracy and society.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

Updated Date: Oct 10, 2019 16:46:51 IST