Putting the 'civil' back in civilisation: On loudspeakers, religious sentiments and the right to a peaceful night’s sleep
Twenty full years after rules regarding noise pollution were framed, they are observed almost entirely in the breach, by groups religious as well as secular.
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
A few nights ago, around 2.30 am, I was startled out of my slumber by the sound of a man’s voice on a loudspeaker. He seemed to be telling people who had not yet eaten to eat. This was followed, sometime later, by an announcement that only so many minutes – I think it was 50 – were still left. The announcements and countdown continued for the better part of the next hour, nixing all my efforts to go back to sleep. The next day, and the next, the same thing happened. It was announcements for sehri meal timings from the local mosque.
The issue of use of loudspeakers by mosques has long been controversial in India. The controversy resumed on 9 May when poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar said on Twitter that in India for almost 50 years, “azaan on the loudspeaker was haram but then it became halaal and so halaal that there is no end to it”. There should be an end to it, said Akhtar; azaan is fine but the loudspeaker does cause discomfort for others.
A few days later, on 15 May, the Allahabad High Court passed a judgment saying “azaan may be an essential and integral part of Islam but its recitation through loudspeakers or other sound-amplifying devices cannot be said to be an integral part of the religion warranting protection under Article 25”, which guarantees freedom of religion. The district administration of Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh, citing the coronavirus lockdown, had banned the azaan altogether. The court’s pronouncement was thus a partial relief to the petitioners who wanted azaan, including use of loudspeakers, to be resumed.
I look forward to similar orders, balancing the requirements of religion and civic order, from other courts.
Ever since I moved to Kolkata, I hear the call to prayer five times a day, blasted out of loudspeakers. I don’t mind it now as I am used to it, but the early morning one, at the crack of dawn, took a bit of getting used to. I have no issues with anyone of any faith offering prayers but I do not enjoy having my sleep disturbed at odd hours on a daily basis. Any midnight loudspeaker announcement, Hindu or Muslim, religious or secular, is an infringement on my right to a peaceful night’s sleep. This is a right that all of us enjoy as part of our Right to Life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, according to several judgments of various high courts and the Supreme Court of India.
In one such judgment in 2015 in a case relating to the use of loudspeakers by a mosque in Uttar Pradesh, the Allahabad High Court had said that “right to life enshrined in Article 21 is not of mere survival or existence… Anyone who wishes to live in peace, comfort and quiet within his house has a right to prevent the noise as pollutant reaching him. None can claim a right to create noise even in his own premises which would travel beyond his precincts and cause nuisance to neighbours or others.”
The court, in the same judgment, had mentioned that “the Supreme Court has emphasised that right to live in an atmosphere free from noise pollution is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and noise is more than just a nuisance. In fact, the Supreme Court has observed that ‘right to live in freedom from noise pollution’ is a fundamental right and noise pollution beyond the permissible limits is an inroad on that right.”
The rules on noise pollution are quite clear. These Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 have been framed under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. They specify that “the noise level at the boundary of a public place, where loudspeaker or public address system or any other noise source is being used shall not exceed 10 dB above the ambient noise standards for the area or 75 dB whichever is lower”. Normal conversation is about 60-70 dB (decibels). Therefore 75 dB is a volume a little louder than normal conversation.
Twenty full years after these rules were framed, they are observed almost entirely in the breach, by groups religious as well as secular. However, to complain about mosques blasting out azaans or sehri timings over loudspeakers, even at the oddest hours, is to invite charges of Islamophobia, and the opprobrium of both religious Muslims and secular Hindus. To complain about the similar, albeit less frequent – since they are annual, not multiple times daily — use of loudspeakers by Hindus for festivals such as Ganapati and Dahi Handi in Mumbai or Durga Puja in Kolkata draws the ire of the Hindu Right. Anything said about the blaring of repurposed Bollywood tunes for Ambedkar Jayanti is, of course, likely to be construed as casteist.
Every community in India treats as an affront any suggestion that it should follow the laws on noise pollution. All of them believe they have the right to make themselves heard, loudly, via the loudspeaker. The police usually turn a deaf ear to all such cases. Their ears however perk up when they hear anything that sounds like a party. I still remember the moment several years ago when the police came to my friend’s house in Delhi where we had gathered for an afterparty following the launch of my first book. We were not using any loudspeaker. They walked in as one of us, a young woman of North African heritage from France, was singing an Arabic song with her eyes closed, without any mic. She opened her eyes to find the police standing in front of her.
I have not heard of the police being so proactive about shutting down noise pollution when it is spread by religious or political organisations. Kolkata is especially awful in this regard; they have here a custom of rigging up long lines of loudspeakers on poles running for kilometres from which speeches and songs are blasted out. The godless communists popularised this torture form, and their successors and opponents have gleefully adopted it. Moreover, apart from azaans and bhajans, one is also subjected to Rabindra Sangeet and speeches of political worthies. Perhaps the intention is to increase the cultural quotient of the populace while decreasing their sanity.
There are certain iron laws of loudspeakers that I have observed. The First Law of Loudspeakers is that “the most boring speaker speaks the longest”. The Second Law is that “the worst singer will not stop singing until the mic is wrestled out of their hands”. Before the coronavirus lockdown, you could observe these laws in operation around you in every public gathering and at every karaoke bar and open mic, where tuneless singers would belt out unending renditions of evergreen hits such as I Will Survive, leaving listeners wondering if they would be equally fortunate.
The coronavirus has now put a temporary end to those sufferings. However, religion always claims special status, and is given it by the religious and secular alike. There is thus no escape even from midnight countdowns over loudspeaker lasting a whole hour.
People around the world have for centuries been taught to serve God, king and country. The habits of such servitude are deeply ingrained. This feeds into ideas of identity, and into religious nationalisms of various sorts. It makes the so-called “clash of civilisations” a little more plausible.
The word “civilisation” starts with “civil”, which means “relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns, as distinct from military or ecclesiastical matters”. If we would all put the “civil” back in “civilisation” there might be no “clash of civilisations”.
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