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The Whataboutery Following Sonu Nigam's Complaint About Azaan Shows That As A Society We Are Tone-Deaf And Proud Of It

And that should be a wake-up call to all of us.

18/04/2017 11:35 AM IST | Updated 18/04/2017 11:47 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Singer Sonu Nigam is losing his beauty sleep (and his composure) over the daily azaan.

And it's predictably arrayed the predictable forces along predictable lines. There are those who will blast him for being intolerant, of stoking unrest and picking on a minority. First they came for the beef, now they are coming for the azaan.

And there are those who blast those who blast him for being intolerant, calling this yet another example of pandering to a minority, of tolerance gone awry in the name of secularism. This, they will say, is what is wrong with India. No one can voice an opinion because they will be labeled anti-(pick your minority).

Sonu Nigam might be looking for a few extra TRPs or genuinely having a bad azaan day but this debate is neither new nor topical.

The problem is we cannot have a conversation about noise because it becomes a conversation about "forced religiosity" and it becomes yet another exercise in whataboutery.

Nigam gets it wrong, not because he is not entitled to some peace and quiet but because the problem is not about "forced religiousness" as he puts it. No one is forcing him (or any Muslim for that matter) to be religious. But it is broadcasting the call to prayer to alert everyone around. Just as the family next door to us broadcasts its bhajan evenings for the whole neighbourhood, so we can all listen to songs in the praise of their chosen God, set to familiar Bollywood tunes and then sung off-key for our collective listening pleasure.

Or for that matter the noise of Diwali where whether we, and our pets like it or not, the crackers deafen us from dusk to dawn, the louder the better.

A 2014 report noted how the loudspeaker had become an instrument for communal polarization amplifying not just the sound but also the tensions.

The problem is, we cannot have a conversation about noise because it becomes a conversation about "forced religiosity" and it becomes yet another exercise in whataboutery. What about the bhajans and mata ki jagran says one side. But what about the azaan says the other. Instead of finding middle ground we use each other's noise to crank up the volume on our own. There's always an excuse. The azaan only lasts a few minutes. The mata ki jagran goes on for hours. On the other hand, the azaan is every day. The mata ki jagran is not. But it's not about any of this. It's about our perception of the other and what we feel they are entitled to. It's about the perk we feel they are getting that we are being denied. It's a dialogue where no one is listening to the other at all.

An Indian Express report in 2014 noted how the loudspeaker has become an instrument for communal polarization amplifying not just the sound but also the tensions. The Express looked at some 600 communal incidents in Uttar Pradesh. In as many as 120, the trigger was the use of loudspeakers in a mosque or a temple.

A temple committee in Saharanpur sent out this message on Whatsapp.

"Mitron aaj to tumhare mandiron se speaker utar rahe hain, ek na huye to kal yeh tumhare ghar main ghuske tumhari izzat utarenge. Isliye bolta hoon, apni taakat dikha do. To sab milte hain, shaam 6 baje Bageshwar mandir". (Friends, today, they are removing speakers from your temples; if you do not unite, tomorrow they will enter your homes and humiliate you. This is why I say, demonstrate your strength. Let us meet at 6 pm at the Bageshwar temple).

"Why do Muslims object to mandirs using loudspeakers? They don't want Hindus to express themselves. They want to subjugate us. We are being denied the right that they enjoy."

Muslims had complained about Shiv Katha blasting for the temple during Ramzan namaaz. Balraj Singh of the Bajrang Dal tells the Indian Express: "Why do Muslims object to mandirs using loudspeakers? They don't want Hindus to express themselves. They want to subjugate us. We are being denied the right that they enjoy."

It's not there cannot be a debate about azaan and the loudspeaker. And it's not that there is not. In 2014 a Navi Mumbai resident petitioned the court on that issue and found that 45 out of 49 mosques in the area did not have permission to use the loudspeakers. The High Court directed police to remove the "illegal" loudspeakers and community activist Saeed Khan welcomed it, saying the "competitive religiosity" of two mosques had made a mockery of the silence zone around the Saboo Siddique Hospital in Dongri.

If every temple in India gets a loudspeaker to level the playing field with every mosque, the message it sends out is something much more sinister than a call to prayer. It's reminding a minority that they are in the end, a minority and can quickly be drowned out in the collective majoritarian roar.

What seems like a straightforward narrative of equal treatment quickly becomes something more perverse when one side has overwhelmingly larger numbers. If every temple in India gets a loudspeaker to level the playing field with every mosque, the message it sends out is something much more sinister than a call to prayer. It's reminding a minority that they are in the end, a minority and can quickly be drowned out in the collective majoritarian roar. Sonu Nigam tossed in a bit about opposing loudspeakers in temples and gurdwaras as well. He's covering his religious bases but as his tweet chain suggests, it's really the azaan that gets his goat. And his silence about mata ki jagran and Shiv Kathas suggests that some kinds of "forced religiosity" irk him more than others.

If the call to prayer is not prayer itself, should it therefore be protected under religious freedom?

This debate thus becomes one not about noise and tolerance but about what's called the "acoustic occupation of space". As Alison Dundes Renteln writes in an essay about the tension between religious freedom and noise laws in a pluralist society there are many kinds of arguments that are used on both. If the call to prayer is not prayer itself, should it therefore be protected under religious freedom? But then are church bells chiming loudly every half hour, or even on the quarter hour, religious or secular? In the West the debate has often been about whether the mosque could be built in the neighbourhood. The debate over the azaan is just another way of voicing that discomfort.

The fact that we want to all turn up our volume to counter each other's, shows that as a society we are increasingly tone-deaf and rather proud of it.

This debate about religious freedom and quality of life for everyone irrespective of religion is a fascinating one with no easy answers. But by framing the call to prayer as an invasion of privacy we are treading on dangerous ground. If we were really concerned with noise pollution we would do much better cracking down on traffic honking rather than on azaan calling. That suggests the sensitivity about the azaan is for many something more troubling.

But the fact that we are unable to have this conversation without resorting to whataboutery, the fact that we want to all turn up our volume to counter each other's, shows that as a society we are increasingly tone-deaf and rather proud of it. And that should be a wake-up call to all of us.

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