Making peace with noise?

Hanuman Chalisa Vs Azaan

By Poonam I Kaushish

Ever get up cursing in the wee hours of the morning? Thanks to a loudspeaker blaring, upsetting your beauty sleep, breaching a beautiful dream or blinding headache from a drunken hangover. Welcome to our noisy raucous country where your freedom ends where my ears begin!
Last fortnight and ongoing is a high decibel political controversy over ban of loudspeakers used by mosques with the Hindutva Brigade threatening to recite the Hanuman Chalisa over amplifiers to drown the noise of azaan from mosques. In Yogi’s UP over 54000 ‘illegal’ loudspeakers have been removed and sound level of 60,295 lowered citing an May 2020 Allahabad High Court order that held azaan could be recited by a muezzin (Islamic priest) from mosques minarets without using any amplifying device or loudspeakers as it is not an integral part of religion warranting protection of Fundamental Right.
In Maharashtra, Chief Minister Udhav Thackeray’s cousin Raj, Navnirman Sena Chief too echoed this, demanding loudspeakers removal at mosques 3 May failing which he would amplify Hanuman Chalisa. An Independent MP Navneet Rana and her MLA husband languish in jail because they threatened to recite Hanuman Chalisa outside the Thackeray residence considered sacrosanct by Shiv Saniks.
In Bengaluru the police issued notices to 125 mosques, 83 temples, 22 churches and 71 other establishments for loudspeakers use during banned hours or crossing 60 decibels limit of noise level. In Gujarat the High Court is hearing a PIL against loudspeaker use by mosques. In Bihar the BJP demand for ban is nixed by Chief Minister Nitish.
Amidst this ongoing nok-jhok, it is hardly surprising that loudspeaker piercings have landed in courts and reviews multiple times, yet nothing has changed. In fact, laws on their use continue to be observed more in breach and moulded routinely to meet religious and political interests. Questionably, has India made its peace with noise?
Over the years various courts have ruled on the issue. The Supreme Court in July 2005 banned use of loudspeakers and music systems between 10 pm to 6 am (except in public emergencies cases) at public places citing serious effects of noise pollution on peoples’ health. In October it modified its order by allowing loudspeakers till midnight on festive occasions for 15 days a year.
Some State Governments appealed the order contending that Supreme Court’s blanket ban had taken away their right under the Noise Pollution (Control and Regulation) Rules 2000 whereby loudspeakers cannot be used by anyone —- including places of worship and religious institutions — unless they obtain written permission from a relevant local authority (Rule 5) which was overruled.
Again in August 2016, Bombay High Court ruled loudspeaker use was not a Fundamental Right conferred by Article 25 and no religion or sect could claim so. “All places of religion are bound by noise pollution rules and no place shall use loudspeakers without permission.” Two years later in June Uttarakhand High Court set a five-decibel limit for loudspeakers even during day time. The noise level of a pin falling on the ground is 10 decibels, same as a person breathing.
The Karnataka High Court in September 2018 banned loudspeakers use after 10 pm directing Supreme Court guidelines be followed when authorities ban loudspeakers. In July next, Punjab and Haryana High Court banned loudspeakers at public places, including religious bodies temples, mosques and gurdwaras asserting they could be used only with prior permission and noise level should not exceed permissible limit10 decibels. In July 2020 Uttarakhand High Court modified its 2018 limiting noise level at five decibels thus paving way for lifting loudspeakers ban at religious institutions.
In sharp contrast, the Karnataka High Court in January 2021 directed the State Government to act against illegal loudspeakers at religious places and issue directions to State Pollution Control Board and police to initiate action on loudspeakers use in religious places in violation of Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control ), Rules, 2000 and Supreme Court directions. In November it asked the State Government to explain under what legal provisions loudspeakers had been allowed in mosques, and what action is being taken to restrict their use.
Lost in political clamour and legalese, the story of how azaan should be rendered has a complicated history —- from the Prophet himself choosing a human voice instead of a mechanical device, loudspeakers were introduced in mosques in 1930s and used for azaan and khutbah (sermons). But in 1970s Muslims saw loudspeakers as shaitan as it was installed as a bauble of superficial modernity to reflect the self-esteem of the community.
Islamic Saudi Arabia issued a directive in May last restricting mosque loudspeaker volumes to “one third of maximum,” though they are commonplace in Turkey and Morocco. In Netherlands only 7 to 8% of all mosques employ loudspeakers for azaan ditto in Germany, Switzerland, France, UK, Austria, Norway and Belgium. In Israel use of loudspeakers by religious institutions during rest hours is prohibited. Indonesia the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has recognized the overzealous use of sound amplification by mosques as an environmental issue and is taking measures to curb the problem.
Alas, today loudspeakers are seen as a symbol of Muslim community asserting its presence in public space. This not-too-veiled sentiment is not lost on the majority community. Therefore, the resentment against it, which is deeper than what its sporadic expression suggests, is not against the call to prayer per se, but against the loud, in-your-face stamping of an identity-obsessed self-bothered presence.
Liberals aver Muslims need to reflect on whether attaching religious import to loudspeakers amounts to a reprehensible novelty called bid’at, — an innovation which distorts religion. Also in an age of smartphones one can get numerous Islam apps to set off the azaan at appointed hours.
A random peek in any mosque during prayer time shows not many Muslims respond to the call. The footfall in mosques is negligible except for midday Friday prayers. And those who regularly go five times a day do not depend on azaan to be reminded of prayer time.
Undeniably from both practical and religious point there is no justification for using loudspeakers at mosques. Religion is not a ground to violate noise rules as loudspeakers not only create noise pollution that can be avoided but also create disturbances in festivities, mourning, sleep and upset sick and elderly.
The thumb rule should be that sound should not go beyond the premises to enable people undertake their normal religious activities. However, there should be uniformity with rules applying for all religious places. After all, loudspeaker is a 20th-century invention, but religions are millennia old.
Ultimately, public morality and collective ethics are shaped by being mindful of one another’s space, individually and groups. If some practice is regularly being called out as nuisance, it is time for reflection rather than indignation. In a pluralist society, with a multiplicity of religions, the modus vivendi is to keep one’s practices private lest they step on another’s toes. Posturing of assertion is not the best formula for amity. What gives? —— INFA