On Hindu religious occasions one often hears people “doling out cheap jazz or cinema music… I am surprised to hear that the canker has now spread to the precincts of Muslim religious institutions. May be that what is sought to be propagated in this instance is not profane music but a call to the faithful for offering daily prayers, but the objection remains.” Thus observed a Calcutta High Court judge in Masud Alam and others vs Commissioner of Police and another in 1956. He was dealing with a case in which the use of amplifiers in a mosque had been banned by the police, in response to the objections of non-Muslim neighbours. Giving his verdict against the Muslims, the judge said, “one remembers with pleasure the romantic sound of an early morning moazzin from the turrets of an upcountry mosque on a misty morning, but to transform this into a noisy fanfare is neither artistic nor necessary; I find nowhere that the religion of the Muslims enjoins it.”
This case was decided at a time when big mosques had just begun using microphones for congregational prayers, against public opinion. In my childhood, people used to oppose its use, saying “the devil speaks in this machine”. So the Calcutta High Court just tried to keep the devil away from the mosque. But the scenario became entirely different within a few years of the Calcutta High Court judgment. Gradually, all mosques began using amplifiers. Today, mosques big and small, in cities and villages, take pride in rendering a “religious service” to the people through the use of loudspeakers. During Ramzan, mosques sound alerts for sahri (the pre-sunrise meal) and iftar (fast-breaking at sunset) by setting off sirens or making announcements over loudspeakers.
Temples in India had embraced the microphone culture long before mosques. Amplifiers are used to broadcast bhajan-kirtans (as well as night-long recitation from the scriptures) that are held not only in temples, but also in makeshift pavilions erected in parks and on public lands. This was also once challenged in the Calcutta High Court, which, consistent with its mosque decision of 1956, ruled that using an amplifier in a temple or for a Hindu religious ceremony elsewhere is not an essential practice of the Hindu faith (Om Birangana Religious Society vs the State and others, 1996) and can lawfully be stopped by a competent authority.
Loudspeakers are used in Sikh gurdwaras to broadcast gurbani (the singing of Granth Sahib hymns) as well, but there is no reported judicial decision regarding this practice. Loudspeakers are generally not used in churches, but a Pentecostal church in south India was once dragged to court for using a microphone during mass. On the neighbours’ complaint, a prohibitory order was issued by the local authorities. The Christians challenged this in the Madras High Court, alleging that it violated their fundamental right to religion. Failing to get relief, they went to the Supreme Court. Rejecting the appeal, the apex court observed: “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.” It is indeed a matter of common sense that the use of an amplifier — an electronic device invented in the 19th century — cannot be an “essential practice” of any of the religions that appeared on the globe hundreds of years earlier.
The Supreme Court’s clear verdict was that, in its 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.” (Church of God (Full Gospel) in India vs KKR Majestic Colony Welfare Association and Others, 1999). This decision of the apex court constitutes the law applicable to all temples, gurdwaras, mosques, churches and the like. It also covers all religious functions, regardless of the community they may be organised by, outside houses of worship.
The question is why these binding judicial verdicts are being flouted, day in and day out, by all religious communities. The answer lies in the weak environment protection laws of the country, which provide ample room for this state of affairs. The Central Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules made under it, as well as the local laws, only restrict the volume, pitch and reach of loudspeakers — the voice must not reach “beyond 50 feet” or so. In a country like ours, such restrictions can never be voluntarily adhered to, nor meticulously implemented by the authorities. Who is going to measure the volume of a particular loudspeaker, gauge whether its sound is reaching beyond 50 feet or check whether it is affecting an infant or patient living 51 feet away?
Loudspeakers are used in our society not only for religious purposes, but also to celebrate weddings and for electioneering. As long as this goes on, religious places alone cannot be restrained from using them. In my opinion, the Supreme Court verdict should be translated into parliamentary legislation that emphatically imposes a blanket ban on the use of loudspeakers in all places of worship and in all public places, whether for religious purposes or otherwise. Only this will, in the apex court’s words, make us a “civilised society”. I can confidently say that it will not violate the religious rights of any individual or community since, as aptly put by the Calcutta High Court, “prayer is intended to be a silent communion with the creator and does not call for a tumultuous prelude or a noisy accompaniment.”
The writer is former chair of the National Minorities Commission and former member, Law Commission