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Why The Sonu Nigam Saga May Well Be The Defining Story of Contemporary India

It raises some of the most profound questions facing our political discourse today.

25/04/2017 9:38 AM IST | Updated 25/04/2017 2:28 PM IST
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For anyone living under a rock, or perhaps more unforgivingly, not keeping up with what's trending on Facebook, singer Sonu Nigam recently tweeted a series of messages complaining about being woken up by a neighbouring mosque's azaan. Given that Sonu Nigam is one of India's foremost social commentators, whose nuance and depth is fabled across the country, it was no surprise that our intrepid media immediately plastered the story across its front pages.

The saga didn't end there. In an action befitting Bollywood's best screenwriters, a cleric in some part of Bengal announced a ₹10 lakh reward to anyone who managed to shave Sonu's head. The cunning singer countered with a surgical strike of his own, strategically asking his barber—a Muslim, mind you—to cut off all his hair. With the plans of the cleric foiled in one clean masterstroke, India keenly looks forward to the Supreme Court issuing a judgement 25 years from now on whether the cleric must pay up.

The notion of forced religiousness is behind a question that's been looming over Indian political discourse for long: to what degree would we like religion to play a role in our lives?

The details of this story have been published, revised and published again. They have provided much fodder for office and living room conversation and led to far more op-eds, blog posts and general social media discussions than I can count. So in this piece, I offer you, the humble reader, a concession. I will refrain from providing you with yet another opinion on whether Sonu Nigam was right or wrong. Instead, I aim to point out two deeper questions that this whole circus raises. These questions, I believe, tackle some of the most profound questions facing our political discourse today.

The role of religion in public life

The first question regards an extremely pointed phrase used by Mr. Nigam in the very first tweet that started this whole saga—"forced religiousness". The notion of forced religiousness is behind a question that has been looming over Indian political discourse long before today, or indeed long before 2017. The question is the following: to what degree would we like religion to play a role in our lives? To be clear, the question is specifically concerned with public demonstrations and actions that are rooted in religion.

To give context to this conversation, we must first travel to France. In France, secularism means that the practice of religion is strictly personal and most public practices or rituals are frowned upon (and recently have started being outright banned). By contrast, secularism in India means that public celebrations of festivals and other observances of different religions are encouraged and even sponsored by different levels of government. At what point do we, as a society, wish to draw the line between the public practice of religion and our private lives?

Current opinion in most of the English-speaking media seems to be that practicing any religion is well and good, but one must keep this practice private. It's all very well to do one's prayers and namaz, but no-one has the right to force anyone else to engage in their rituals. However, this principle doesn't hold square with what the reality in India seems to be. We accept sacrificing parts of our public lives to religion all the time. Think of the Kanvar Yatra that is held every fall and brings traffic across the Delhi-Haridwar highway to a complete halt. Or of the calls to prayer that occur multiple times a day during Ganesh Chaturthi. These are simply two of dozens of examples that show that religious interference in one's public life is not exclusive to Islam, and that we seem to accept it almost all the time. To simply close ones and ears, and blithely claim that religion should be private, is to avoid the fact that religion plays a crucial role in organising the lives of the vast majority of the population. How are we to go about having an informed discussion about the importance of religion in other people's lives, and how should we determine the point at which we are no longer willing to be inconvenienced by indulging them?

What makes news?

Secondly, and perhaps this question is related to how we will arrive at answers to the first question: what do we as a nation perceive to be news, and who do we trust to give it to us? The mainstream English-speaking media reported this story as it unfolded. We as the public seem to have decided (or perhaps the decision was made for us by social media and news apps) that the immediate reporting of a story is our first priority. This has led to the practice of widely inaccurate reporting that leads to opinions being formed without any basis in reality. The main cause of the current polarisation in the Sonu Nigam story was the report that an imam in Bengal had put a bounty on Sonu Nigam's hair. Never mind the fact that this "imam" was later revealed to be a random man off the street who is not an imam, not a maulana and has zero religious authority, and who, if the state's Muslim leaders are to believed, has no recognition within the state's Muslim population.

The media has advertisers to answer to, and the more we click on garbage, the more we encourage the media to put it out there.

A simple look at the last two months reveals that this practice of reporting first and asking questions later is widespread. Consider the widespread news of Delhi Police investigating JNU student Najeeb Ahmed for watching ISIS videos. It was later found out that the Delhi Police had done no such thing, and the entire story seemed to have been concocted out of thin air. Or consider the case of Yogi Adityanath "banning reservations" in private medical colleges in UP. Widespread commendations were issued in thousands of WhatsApp groups and Facebook posts, places that seem to shape an increasing amount of public perception, before the director general of medical education in U.P. clarified that these reservations never existed in the first place.

It is easy to blame the media, but we live in a world where engagement determines what is published. The media has advertisers to answer to, and the more we click on garbage, the more we encourage the media to put it out there. Of course, this doesn't take away from the fact that large portions of the mainstream media seem to have absolved themselves from any degree of journalistic integrity, but the basic problems facing the shaping of our discourse are far deeper than a collection of grubby media executives.

The questions that the azaan issue has inadvertently raised have no easy answers. However, if we decide for a moment to look beyond Sonu Nigam's bald head, perhaps we can decide what direction we'd like to move in.

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