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The Loudspeaker Politics of the Right

By Jyoti Punwani
August 07, 2014 14:43 IST
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A mosque with loudspeakersThe RSS uses its resentment against mosques and loudspeakers to stoke anti-Muslim feelings among other Hindus, whenever it can, be it during riots, or before elections, says Jyoti Punwani.

The recent Mumbai high court judgment banning illegal loudspeakers in mosques didn't become an explosive issue for two reasons:

1. The court made it clear that it applied to all places of worship;

2. Muslim community leaders welcomed it.

The judgment came about because some mosques in Navi Mumbai were using loudspeakers without the requisite police permission. If the police refuse to give permission, and the mosques decide to continue using the loudspeakers, it might lead to an explosive situation because assembly elections in Maharashtra are just three months away.

The Indian Express investigation into the 605 communal incidents that have taken place in Uttar Pradesh after May 16 (when the results of the general election were announced), shows that most of them took place in areas due for assembly elections. And, loudspeakers on mosques and the construction of new mosques and graveyards were the cause of 120 of them.

This is not surprising. Loudspeakers on mosques have been a permanent grouse of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They see them as yet another privilege Muslims enjoy in what is, essentially, a Hindu rashtra. Not just loudspeakers, mosques themselves are an affront to the Hindutvavadis.

Opposition to the building of new mosques has been voiced even in relatively peaceful Goa. An RSS activist in Mumbai from the predominantly Hindu northwestern suburb of Vile Parle once boasted to me that his organisation had 'put an end' to attempts by Muslims there to build a mosque. 'They know they have to behave in Parla,' he said.

The RSS uses its resentment against mosques and loudspeakers to stoke anti-Muslim feelings among other Hindus, whenever it can, be it during riots, or before elections.

The riots that broke out in Mumbai after the Babri Masjid was demolished may have subsided in a week, had not the RSS decided to use the charged atmosphere to mobilise Hindus for another round of violence.

Using their old grievances about loudspeakers in mosques and the practice of holding Friday namaz on the roads (wherever mosques were too small to hold the congregation), the RSS and the Shiv Sena started performing 'maha aarti' on the roads outside temples, in December 1992.

Projected as a 'pressure tactic' to get the state government to stop namaz on roads, these maha aartis became a rallying point for thousands of Hindus, and often ended in violence against Muslims. They were a major cause of the second phase of riots in January 1993. Ironically, the first maha aarti was held in Kalachowkie, a Sena stronghold in central Mumbai, where namaz had never been held on the roads as the existing mosques could accommodate the local Muslims! Subsequently, many such areas saw maha aartis.

During one maha aarti at Grant Road, south Mumbai, the participants told the police that the sound of the azaan from a nearby mosque was disturbing them. The police ordered the mosque to stop the azaan. Despite that, the participants attacked Muslim shops in the area after the aarti ended. That the azaan was just an excuse was revealed by a Hindu photographer who testified before the Srikrishna Commission of inquiry into the riots. The sound of the azaan was too faint, he said, compared to the clapping, singing, beating of drums and cymbals during the aarti. He had seen the participants enjoying the aarti totally.

A week later, another aarti was held at the same spot, and before it started, the local shakha pramukh made this announcement: 'Any resumption of azaan on the loudspeaker and we will retaliate by any means.'

Then Congress chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik refused to ban maha aartiS despite requests by the police, and they continued even after the violence had petered out in the third week of January. It was only when a new police commissioner, A S Samra, took charge that a ban was put on them, as well as on the practice of namaz on the roads, and on loudspeakers, except for religious occasions.

Ramzan was a month away, and the city's ulema were advised to fix smaller loudspeakers facing inwards into the mosque rather than outwards, and to turn the volume down -- at least in areas where both communities lived.

However, such was the atmosphere that even during Ramzan, many masjids in Hindu areas did not switch on their loudspeakers. One such was a masjid in Colaba, the first to have signed the agreement reached by the police commissioner. Interestingly, namaz had never been held on the road outside this masjid. And, its imam and the pujari of the nearby Hanuman temple had never had any problems with each other. They would borrow each other's utensils and mikes, and adjust the timings of their religious functions to their mutual convenience.

The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party were voted in by the end of 1994. Ironically, the Sena did what the secular Congress had refused for years: Granted additional FSI to mosques so that they could expand enough for the Friday congregation to be held inside.

But as the next assembly elections drew near, the RSS decided to raise the old bogey again. The beginning of 1999 saw the Bajrang Dal launch an agitation against loudspeakers on mosques. Dal activists reminded the police about their circular issued after the 1992-1993 riots. A rally was held in Azad Maidan, the heart of Mumbai, where speakers openly instigated the audience, largely youth from the interiors, to take on Muslims on the issue of cow slaughter and mosque loudspeakers. One such youth wondered what the fuss was all about; in his village, Muslims neither sacrificed cows on Bakri Eid, nor did their mosque have a loudspeaker. 'Why create tension between us when it doesn't exist?' he asked this reporter.

Today, Muslim community leaders have themselves come around to the view that loudspeakers are a nuisance. For years, intellectuals such as the late Asghar Ali Engineer, Rafiq Zakaria and Sajid Rashid had tried convincing the community that the days of rising with the first azaan were long over. Today, with even poor Muslims owning mobile phones, there is simply no need for a loudspeaker to tell you it's time to pray. Where intellectuals and community leaders have failed, the courts may succeed, they hope.

But there is no such reformist effort from Hindu leaders. They have never tried to stop pujas being blared from loudspeakers. Every year they pressurise the government to exempt Hindu festivals from the ban imposed in 2005 by the Supreme Court on loudspeakers between 10 pm and 6 am.

Indeed, the Maharashtra government had even told the Supreme Court hat such a ban would be impossible to implement because it would hurt Hindu sentiments! And the day the court pronounced its order, the Mumbai police declared that it would apply to mosques too. Was that necessary? No Muslim had objected to the order.

For Hindutvawadis, it is purely a question of Muslim identity. Beards, caps, loudspeakers -- all these were banned by the Bajrang Dal in Mangli, a Maharashtra village as collective punishment in 2002, after one Muslim desecrated a temple idol. After two riots in quick succession in Jogeshwari, a Mumbai suburb where Muslims form a substantial proportion, Shiv Sainiks decided to change the timings of the aarti at the temple there to coincide with the azaan, and also install a loudspeaker in the temple. If you can't wipe out their identity, swamp it.

The same trend is being seen in UP now. With elections due in November, and Amit Shah in charge of the BJP, Maharashtra should gear up for it too. No use expecting the Congress government to pre-empt it.

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Jyoti Punwani