Was Sonu Nigam merely stating what many in India already feel?
In a country of over a billion people, personal space in public places is hard to come by. The streets are packed with hawkers, walkers, vehicles and animals of all stripes. A cacophony of sights, sounds and smells compete for your attention. Nobody gives a second thought to jostling or getting jostled, and the concept of the three-foot circle of inviolable personal space, so sacred in the West, is a virtual non-starter in ‘anything goes’ India.
There are high levels of tolerance in this country and somehow everything gets accommodated. People adapt and adjust to the constantly shifting landscape and the new additions in their immediate environment. In a train compartment already packed to capacity, new entrants aren’t greeted with groans. Instead, the incumbents simply make space for the newcomers by shifting and pressing in just a little bit more.
Nowhere is this accommodative tendency more visible than in the realm of religion. Most Indian towns have temples, mosques, gurudwaras and churches in close proximity to one another and people of all religions go about their business of faith relatively unhindered. This in a way makes India special. However, when this openness of faith is combined with the tendency to disregard the personal space of others, it can have some side-effects as well. Unfortunately, the pursuit of faith is anything but private in India. In fact, it can be a rather noisy affair.
Of all the technological innovations over the years, Indians have embraced the loudspeaker with greatest vigour and deploy it to great effect, especially to proclaim their religious affiliation.
The sounds of prayer, originating from an assortment of houses of worship, reverberate all around the Indian landscape early in the morning. Unfortunately, not all of those sounds are melodious or soothing and a lot of it can be outright noise at very high decibels. Just like other aspects of India’s secular democracy, the entire spectrum of religions, sects, and sub-sects present in the country is represented in these loud and intrusive proclamations of faith.
So while a peaceful night’s sleep might be disrupted by the sounds of a “jagraata” (a Hindu ritual that includes a vigil, songs and dance that lasts all night) in the neighbourhood, the early morning Azaan will jolt you out of the sweet stupor of the early morning, truly secularism at its best!
Despite critics’ accusations of intolerance and majoritarianism, Muslims in India make their presence felt in every way. Broadcasts of prayer are not restricted to the Hindu majority, and mosques compete with great vigour to make themselves heard. It’s a daily affair, and not restricted to festivals or special occasions.
The reality of most Indian cities with a sizeable Muslim population is that all the local mosques use loudspeakers, not just for the Azaan but also for their sermons, five times a day. These loudspeakers are usually pretty powerful and their output is virtually impossible to ignore. This problem becomes particularly acute in large and crowded cities like Mumbai or Kolkata where these sounds pierce through the densely packed homes.
It is natural for people to feel resentful towards this intrusion into their daily lives. There are many faith-inspired folk as opposed to non-religious folk who are offended by the loud factor. Even in Pakistan, there are thousands of cases lodged against clerics and mosque imams for the volume of the loudspeakers, and more under the National Action Plan (NAP).
Sonu Nigam’s recent outburst on Twitter is a reflection of the growing frustration and perhaps now is a good time to revisit this aspect of life in India.
God bless everyone. I'm not a Muslim and I have to be woken up by the Azaan in the morning. When will this forced religiousness end in India
— Sonu Nigam (@sonunigam) April 16, 2017
@sonunigam Sir i am a fan of yours but you should have known that India is a secular country with many religions ,so topic of religion we should avoid
— DILWAR HUSSAIN (@DIL__war) April 17, 2017
@sonunigam I am a fan of urs but this was definitely a bullshit statement. U gotta respect other religions beliefs. It's a democratic country.
— Madhur Chandna (@macchandna) April 17, 2017
I wake each morning to the sound of church bells & the Azaan in a quiet by-lane of Bandra.I light an aggarbatti & salute the spirit of India
— Pooja Bhatt (@PoojaB1972) April 18, 2017
It’s unfortunate that Nigam is facing so much criticism for stating what so many people feel. It is extremely unpleasant to be jolted awake when all you want after a hard day’s work is to sleep peacefully for just a little bit longer. It’s ironic that he would not have to deal with this in a Muslim country like the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The mosques in Dubai also have calls to prayer, but they make sure to not overwhelm their surroundings. This is purely a manifestation of discipline and consideration, both of which India sorely lacks.
In the face of all the criticism, Nigam has gone ahead and clarified that his position is not against the religion or prayers, but rather the usage of loudspeakers. He also referred to ‘Arti’, or Hindu prayers, on loudspeakers to balance out the perceived prejudice. In a surprising move, he went one step ahead and shaved his hair in response to a fatwa issued by a cleric in Bengal and asked that the one million bounty be paid to his (Muslim) barber. This upping of the ante is a clear indication that he intends to stick to his stance, comfortable in the knowledge that he enjoys a good amount of public support in this matter. One thing is for sure, Nigam has taken the centre stage once more, this time again for acoustic reasons.
There are way too many liberties that are granted in the name of religion. Religious processions can block traffic for hours. The presence of temples or mosques can hold up the construction of roads. One of the enduring memories of my own childhood is the creeping panic of being stuck in a Muharram procession on the way to catch a flight from the Kolkata airport. We nearly missed our flight because a public thoroughfare was blocked for one group’s faith. A little less accommodation is what India needs now.
Religion is a private affair and it should not spill over into the public domain. It may still be acceptable if it happens once in a while, but the mark of a civilised society is the care to not infringe on others’ rights while pursuing our own. India needs to take this a little more seriously.
Places of worship are meant to offer refuge from the strife of daily life and not add to it. The devout may derive pleasure from these sounds, but they may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If doing away with loudspeakers entirely is difficult, it may be wise to impose caps on their volume. After all, faith lives on in one’s heart and does not need to be proclaimed at top volume for everyone to hear and see. It’s time to take the next step in evolution.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.