The Politics of Urban Noise

On April 23, the Uttar Pradesh Government commissioned a state-wide drive to remove unauthorised loudspeakers from all religious places across the state and to ensure that the volume of the authorised speakers are set within permissible limits. The drive began on April 25. Up until May 09, roughly 64,000 unauthorised loudspeakers were removed from religious places and the volume of about 60,000 speakers was set to permissible limits across UP following the government order. While both mosques and temples across Lucknow are required to participate in steps to meet the noise requirement, the enactment of the law has triggered several apprehensions.

Previously, similar notices were passed by the UP government in 2018. These notices strived to ensure that the order passed by the Lucknow Bench of the High Court in Moti Lal Yadav vs. State of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 regarding The Noise Pollution Rules, 2000, was implemented. However, the fact that the government in UP, decided to enact a similar order on April 23, just a week before Eid, has triggered many concerns. Critics have found the decision and its timing arbitrary and to have communal undertones. It begs the question- is this judicial order just another way to humiliate and disenfranchise a particular section of the society

Additionally, several news reports suggest how loudspeakers are being removed regardless of the place of worship. While there appears to be a sense of neutrality with regards to how the order is implemented, another apprehension that has arisen across religious lines in UP is that there is uncertainty as to how the order is interpreted by authorities. For instance, since the noise limits that the order states aren’t necessarily standardised, it leaves a lot of room open for interpretation and therefore also for harassment.

Ripple Effects and Political Repercussions

Regardless of how the order is implemented in UP, its ripple effects have been particularly perturbing. Right-wing organisations operating in other states began throwing similar appeals of removing loudspeakers from religious sites. While such demands can be easily brushed off as mere civic appeals, making the argument that the use of loudspeakers in mosques disrupts civil and urban lives, one mustn’t overlook the communal undertones of such appeals.

For instance, in the same week of the UP order, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena President Raj Thackeray gave an ultimatum for the removal of loudspeakers from mosques, declaring May 3 as the deadline. He demanded that in case the conditions weren’t fulfilled the party would play Hanuman Chalisa outside mosques. Addressing a public rally, Thackeray went to the extent of insinuating that loudspeakers are a “nuisance”, and their removal from mosques is not a religious but a social issue.

Similarly, on May 09, the BJP led Karnataka Government followed suit and declared a 15-day deadline to remove illegal loudspeakers across the state. Only a day earlier, Pramod Muthalik, the head of another right-wing organisation in Bangalore, had asked the BJP leadership in Karnataka to show “guts” like UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. He declared that his party members will play Hanuman Chalisa and Suprabhata from loudspeakers in Karnataka temples Monday onwards if the state government failed to rein in loudspeakers installed atop mosques. Unsurprisingly, on May 09, Sri Ram Sena workers were found singing bhajans close to mosques at about 4:45 am, to, as they stated, “counter” the azaan.

These reactions are particularly worrying on two counts. First, such instances indicate a sense of normalisation and mainstreaming of what has for long been a Hindu-nationalist sentiment and scepticism towards Indian secularism. Hindu-nationalists claim that the proponents of secularism endeavour to make the state indifferent to religion, or worse that it enables minority appeasement. This trend indicates a significant shift of the state’s priorities. Acts of allowing a manner of expressing one’s religious beliefs, especially the minority’s beliefs, are closely being associated with acts of minority appeasement. Which is to suggest that, taking the example of Hijab row in Karnataka, if the Karnataka Government tomorrow decides to revoke the ban, the legislation will be viewed not as the rightful restoration of political rights of a particular community, but rather as a political favour extended towards them.

The second phenomenon that can be observed is how communal hate speech, which has grown to receive much state impunity, has in fact become instrumental in achieving a sense of political capital and relevance in electoral politics. Such open declarations and appeals hint at the changing shape of Indian secularism and the processes of secularisation in the country, where the urban space is emerging as a key space of expressing not only religion but now also a sense of dominance of one community over the other. In the present case specifically, the communal reactions that the order has stirred hints towards a right-wing sentiment that is gaining much traction, and that deserves an urgent calling out. One that increasingly pitches one community against the other and almost proclaims how one community’s noise matters more than the other’s.

Lastly, as suggested earlier, one is almost tempted to look at the UP government’s notice in isolation. However, one cannot help but place the enactment of the order amidst a broad pattern of disenfranchisement at play in India. For instance, the push for a nationwide citizenship verification process via a National Population Register (NPR) and a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) aimed at identifying “illegal migrants,” has raised concerns that millions of Indian Muslims, including many families who have lived in the country for generations, will be stripped of their citizenship rights and disenfranchised.

Similarly, the breach of covid protocol by the Tablighi Jamaat in April 2020, during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, was called out in the media. And yet only a year later, Hindu devotees thronged to Haridwar to participate in the Kumbh Mela festival during a deadly second wave with hardly any criticism.

These patterns are quite concerning and as the loudspeaker or the Hijab rows demonstrate, or the more recent controversy on heritage sites such as the one brewing in relation to the history of the construction of Qutub Minar in New Delhi, urban spaces in India are beginning to emerge as key sites of this communal confrontation.