I walked up to the rooftop of my funky hotel next to the ancient step-well in the centre of Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The grand Mehrangarh fort loomed in the distance; below me sprawled the old city. It was a 360-degree panorama of houses painted bright blue, Sintex water tanks on rooftops, terraces with plastic chairs and tables and a fort view. From somewhere in the old town, the azaan, or call to prayer, came rolling over to us. Before long, another mosque had picked it up and then another, as if a relay torch was being passed from muezzin to muezzin, until, finally, it seemed the whole town shimmered with the call to prayer.
It was rather magical but I was a tourist and would be gone in a day or two. And I am sure it would lose its charm rather quickly if I had to live with it and be woken up by it every day at the crack of dawn.
The debate over azaan by loudspeaker is not new in India. And it is no surprise that it has popped up again as a sort of corollary to the hijabs in school uniforms controversy. After some right-wing groups led by the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sena protested against Muslim traders setting up stalls on temple premises in Karnataka, groups have gone after loudspeakers in mosques, threatening to compete, loudspeaker for loudspeaker, with bhajans.
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray has said that if the government does not remove loudspeakers from mosques by 3 May, his party activists will play Hanuman Chalisa on speaker in front of every mosque. An Islamic group, Popular Front of India, has issued a counter-threat, saying “we won’t spare you” if even one loudspeaker is touched. Loudspeakers have become an article of faith.
Unsurprisingly, the Muslim community has a range of viewpoints on this issue. When singer Sonu Nigam faced social media backlash in 2017 for saying that being woken up by the azaan every morning was “forced religiousness”, even calling it “gundagardi”, he was accused of intolerance. In 2018, though, scriptwriter Javed Akhtar came out in his support, saying no place of worship should use loudspeakers in residential areas.
In an op-ed for the online portal The Print, IPS officer Najmul Hoda writes that when the Prophet chose a manumitted slave, Bilal, to make the call to prayer, he was deliberately choosing “the low-decibel human voice over the high-decibel mechanical sound” of a bell or a horn. In fact, in the 1970s, loudspeakers were regarded as shaitaani awaaz, or devilish sound, by many community leaders and the Allahabad high court ruled in 2020 that while azaan was essential, the loudspeaker was not. Hoda suggests that instead of loudspeaker azaan being banned someday by the enforcement of existing laws, it would be better if this happened as a “good neighbourly gesture by the Muslim community”.
Veteran singer Anuradha Paudwal says she has seen a ban on loudspeakers in some Middle Eastern countries and wonders why India cannot follow suit. She worries that if people start playing the Hanuman Chalisa on loudspeakers, it “will lead to disharmony”. But disharmony can have its uses in polarising voting blocs.
There is a genuine conversation to be had here. But at a time when there’s a new row every day about Urdu on packages, halal meat and hijabs, the players seem much more interested in drowning out the conversation by turning up the volume. There’s not much appetite here for mile sur mera tumhara. Azaans and bhajans blaring at each other can make for far better television TRPs than a neighbourly conversation. In some ways, the azaan controversy pithily sums up the Indian love for noise, as television debates remind us every night. In fact, one can already imagine the azaan-chalisa stand-off being followed by an even louder fight between television talking heads, all trying to out-shout each other, noise begetting more noise. In a way, the azaan via loudspeaker fits in perfectly into this Republic of Noise. In general, for us, louder is always better.
Perhaps it’s culture, Pradeep Kakkar, one of the co-founders of an NGO called Public, once told me. He said a family with lots of children and hubbub prided itself on its raunak, a word he translated as “positive commotion”. “People like the sense of life as signalled by the noise,” he remarked. Of course, it meant Public was pushing against a tidal wave of noise as it periodically marshalled schoolchildren to run No Honking awareness drives in different parts of Kolkata. An ENT doctor friend who spends time in both London and Kolkata once remarked that the biggest culture shock is how loudly people transposed from Kolkata talk when they initially land up in London. We have all heard of the city that never sleeps. Kolkata is a city that never stops honking.
Every Durga Puja, the city explodes with hundreds of puja pandals broadcasting the sound of Bollywood hit songs, Rabindrasangeet, the sound of drummers and cymbals, all creating a vibrating khichdi of noise. Covid-19 added a new layer, as some pujas started broadcasting the prayers via loudspeaker as social service for the benefit of those who were not leaving their homes.
But a Durga Puja is still a community affair. As is a mosque. Increasingly, more and more Indians feel their personal home pujas will fall on God’s deaf ears unless the entire neighbourhood listens in.
One particularly devout family in our neighbourhood in Kolkata decided to do all-day bhajans and kirtan last year. There was a community park and a street between us but we could hear them clearly all day long. While the devotion was no doubt heartfelt, it was loudly besur, as if afraid that tunefulness might lull the faithful to sleep. After the weekend of devotion came and went with no sign of either the fervour or the noise abating, my sister politely stopped by the house. They were astonished we could hear them from that far but regretted they could not turn off the loudspeaker. The singers, they said, insisted on loudspeakers as part of their contract. Eventually, we got a bit of an afternoon siesta break and a slight lowering of the volume. But it was a long 10 days indeed.
We watched nervously as marigold garlands went up over a neighbour’s gate this Navaratri. Luckily it was only a one-night song fest and the family distributed laddoos to the neighbours the next day.
At one time, the noise was just hurting our ears. But as a 2014 survey in Uttar Pradesh by The Indian Express showed, the consequences can damage way more than our eardrums. It found 605 incidents of a communal nature in the state 10 weeks after the National Democratic Alliance government had come to power in Delhi. Two-thirds of these were in and around 12 assembly constituencies headed for by-polls. At least 120 of those incidents were triggered by the use of loudspeakers and fuelled by WhatsApp messages like Mitron aaj to tumhare mandiron se speaker utar rahe hain, ek na huye to kal yeh tumhare ghar main ghuske tumhari izzat utarenge (Friends, today, they are removing speakers from your temples; if you do not unite, tomorrow they will enter your homes and humiliate you).
That message speaks volumes, no loudspeaker needed.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.