Thank You, Sonu Nigam, For Highlighting Our Right to Silence

The singer’s tweets on azaan have been misread as a religious comment; the issue he is raising – the runaway use of loudspeakers in India – is something that concerns us all.

Why must everything be amplified? Credit: Flickr/Premnath Thirumalaisamy C 2.0

The Sonu Nigam saga is a glaring example of how public discourse in India can go off the rails. In a series of tweets, the singer spoke about being woken up by loudspeakers relaying the azaan – the Muslim call to prayer. This, he said, was ‘forced religiosity’. He also said that temples and gurudwaras ‘should not have electricity’ – i.e. that they too should not use loudspeakers. However, it was on the azaan remark that all hell broke loose. While some folks appropriated him as a votary of Hindutva, which makes a habit of baiting Muslims, one maulvi offered ten lakh rupees to anyone who would tonsure Nigam’s head as punishment. Unfortunately, at a time when the lines separating the state and politics from religion have blurred, opinions like Nigam’s are seen through a prism which allows for only binary outputs. A person is either with us or against us, reality and nuance be damned.

Several hypotheses have been floated about Nigam’s motives. Some accuse the singer of trying to utilise the underlying Hindutva current to make a comeback. Others have alleged that his tweets are an expression of his support for a particular ideology. Nobody, it seems, wants to take his tweets at face value – that he was trying to speak about a problem that confronts most Indians all the time, i.e. noise pollution.

Unlike in other countries, noise pollution in India is not caused only by industry, traffic, airports or railway stations. A major culprit is the routine and unregulated use of loudspeakers for religious purposes, and also revelry. By bringing religion and politics into the debate, sadly, the severity of the problem is being ignored. Religion, religious festivals and their celebrations are part of our culture and society but loudspeakers surely are not and d0 not need to be.

I became an engineer despite the nearby temple

Loud speakers have always been my worst enemy. My father was transferred to a new city just after I finished class X. The new city was less crowded and our house was in a residential area, away from the hustle of a market. It seemed like the perfect place to study for my engineering entrance (JEE) exams. However, to my family’s utter dismay, it took us just a week to realise that peace was a distant dream. There were five or six marriage halls and about a dozen temples in and around the locality. During wedding season, my mother had to make frantic calls after 10 pm every day to ask these banquet halls to lower the volume. (It is illegal to use loudspeakers after 10 pm except in public emergencies, but the deadline seems eminently flexible in practice). She even registered complaints with the district authorities and police and wrote articles in local newspapers, but to no avail. As if marriage halls were not enough, weddings and other events were often accompanied by a surge of loudspeakers in different corners of the locality.

Then it was the turn of various temples. One Bengali temple started celebrating Navratri with a mike and a few loudspeakers. We would have loved it if it was not at 4 o’clock in the morning. The other temples had half-an-hour ‘aartis’ twice a day, 365 days a year, apart from special bhajans on Tuesdays or other days. And then there were loud processions with drum-beats to mark different religious festivals. I cannot recall the names of these festivals or how often they took place, but they were surely more frequent than my coaching classes and tests combined. In all of this it was a miracle that I cleared the JEE.

After a few years we shifted to another place, this time near a bus stand with a temple beside it. Both my parents had just had  surgery and thus the noise was more challenging for us. Once again, the temple loudspeakers won the decibel battle against the trucks and buses combined. Any complaint and the volume went one notch up. Convincing the priest was impossible, for he did not hesitate in hurling abuses at the slightest provocation. There was no escape from the loud, untimely cacophony of jagrans, chowkis, pravachans or religious discourses, which sometimes lasted for 10 days at a stretch, combined with vehicular honking. A nearby mosque and a gurudwara also took turns to compete in producing noise on occasion.

I am sure there will be readers who may feel that by showcasing some of the problems of institutionalised Hinduism, I am trying to ‘hit back’ at Sonu Nigam. In fact, since I have mostly lived in areas populated by Hindus, I am simply expressing a common concern, regardless of religion. If anything, I feel an intense connection to Sonu Nigam on this matter, not just in terms of his aversion to loudspeakers, but also in the absurd reaction to his tweets. On one occasion, I remember requesting the priest of a neighbouring temple to lower the volume of the loudspeaker. He was quick to retort, “Why don’t you go and ask the mosque to shut their loud speaker off?” I preferred to end the debate there.

Drowned in the din, sound judicial reasoning

The fact is that the rampant use of loudspeakers don’t merely spoil one’s sleep (which, according to the Supreme Court is a fundamental right) but there is much more to it. Anil K. Mittal, an engineer like me, filed a writ petition which raised the unfortunate incident of the rape of a 13-year-old girl whose cries for help went unheard due to music blaring over loudspeakers in the neighbourhood. Later in the evening, the girl set herself ablaze and died. Apart from tragic incidents like these, loudspeakers impede work, rest, sleep, communication, performance and studies, and also pose severe physiological and psychological health hazards.

In its judgment in Church of God (Full Gospel) in India v. K.K.R. Majestic Colony Welfare Assn, the Supreme Court commented, “undisputedly, no religion prescribes that prayers should be performed by disturbing the peace of others nor does it preach that they should be through voice amplifiers or beating of drums. In our view, in a civilised society in the name of religion, activities which disturb old or infirm persons, students or children having their sleep in the early hours or during daytime or other persons carrying on other activities cannot be permitted.” Article 21 of the constitution provides for the right to live with dignity, a right which incorporates our rights to rest, leisure and to be at peace in one’s home.

Those justifying the use of loudspeakers by citing the fundamental right to free expression should refer to the 1992 case of P.A. Jacob vs. The Superintendent of Police, adjudicated by the Kerala high court:  “The right to speech implies, the right to silence. It implies freedom, not to listen, and not to be forced to listen. (Free speech) is subordinate to peace and order.” Further, it was added that the fundamental right of expression under Article 19 is for humans and “no mechanical device can be upgraded to a human faculty. A computer or a robot cannot be conceded the right under Article 19 (though they may be useful to man to express his faculties). No more, a loudspeaker. The use of a loudspeaker may be incidental to the exercise of the right. But, its use is not a matter of right, or part of the right.”

Apart from The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000, there are many sections in the Indian Penal Code , Criminal Procedure Code and law of torts to supposedly safeguard us from the menace of loudspeakers. But all these punitive provisions, codes, rules, court decisions and cries have failed to make a single dent. That is why we should be grateful to Sonu Nigam for raising the issue.

All together for silence

If we succeed in muting the loudspeakers of all places of worship, the maulvis and temple priests who shout down suffering neighbours by pointing at each other will have one less excuse to make. Noise pollution is a common problem millions of Indians face. It is altogether a different thing that most of us have made peace with loudspeakers, some in the name of religion, culture and destiny while others simply because of apathy or fear. In these loud times, one should remember Kabir’s couple from the 15th century:

कांकड़-पथर जोड़ के, मस्जिद लिया बनाए।
ता चढ़ी मुल्ला बांग दे, क्या बहरा हुआ खुदाय

Kankar patthar jod ke, Masjid liya banaye,
Taab chadh Mulla baang de, Kya behra hua Khudaey.

(We have made a mosque by putting together pebbles and stones
And then got the priest to climb on top and shout as if God is deaf)

God is not deaf, Kabir reminded the followers of religion, and he said this when there weren’t even any loudspeakers. Is not humanity, harmony and peace the core of every religion? In using loudspeakers to harass others, aren’t the followers of religion not forgetting the essence of their faith?

Rajat Kumar Mishra graduated from BITS Pilani and is currently a research scholar in the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU.

  • Gaby

    Ironic that this singer should be complaining while his Jagaran songs are a major contributor to the whole issue of sound pollution.