Sonu Nigam's tweet, complaining about being woken up by azaan, the call to prayer from mosques, resulted in widespread outrage on, well, Twitter. Naturally, the selective targeting of one particular religion had to be balanced out. No loudspeakers in mosques and temples, said Mr. Nigam the next day, sounding like it was the noise pollution that he was worried about, not the "forced religiousness" he wanted to see the end of.
"Forced religiousness" might have been intended to echo the Sanghi obsession with medieval Islam, but Mr. Nigam said he was only protesting against being forced out of bed early in the morning by the noise. As we all know, noise pollution from loudspeakers is a problem faced by people of all faiths, and especially those who lack any. Nor is it a feature solely confined to the context of religious worship. Events such as weddings, across all regions and all strata of society, weekend parties and election campaigns fill our public spaces with intolerable levels of noise. It would seem that all of us should have got used to living with noise pollution by now. But Mr. Nigam's very public, almost trollish, complaint seems to be raising the rebel flag among a populace marked by placid resignation. What gives?
Do we really care about any kind of pollution of our environment, including noise pollution? Clearly, the answer is no.
Mr. Nigam is not all of us. He is from show business where late nights are par for the course, making him particularly sensitive to being woken up too early in the morning. More interesting, as well as irrelevant, is his declaration: "I am not a Muslim." As some wag on Twitter pointed out, "noise knows no religion." It is equally true that none of the major religions in this country have learnt to care about the noise they are making with the fervour and piety of their devotion, especially after 1947, when the benefits of Edison's invention began to spread, very slowly, across the newly independent country.
Most public issues (except perhaps on Twitter, which is an instantaneous feed we find ourselves in the midst of) have a historical, sociological and philosophical dimension. We'll take history first.
As a child growing up in Nehru's secular India, my first experience of noise pollution was the recording of "Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam", a three-part Sanskrit hymn intended to wake up Lord Venkatesa, in the mellifluous voice of MS Subbulakshmi. Running to about 20 minutes, it was played on the public address system of a famous temple in our neighbourhood, for the first time at four in the morning and once every half hour till about eight, by which hour not only the Lord but all of his creation was guaranteed to be awake. This happened every single day, all around the year, regardless of the season. Suprabhatam was also played on the radio once or twice a week, an hour after sunrise. Cafeterias and provision stores were invariably tuned to this broadcast to increase their appeal to customers. When the use of personal devices like cassette players spread from the late 60s, people played this hymn all the time, within and outside their homes, like some melody from the hit parade on Radio Ceylon. In Tamil Nadu, the public airing of devotional songs to Murugan, the Tamil deity, sung by playback artistes from the film industry, competed strongly for public space with the Sanskrit hymns. The Aiyappa cult, which has been growing since the 60s, gave rise to its share of amplified public devotion early in the morning, thought it was confined, mercifully, to just four months in the year.
The rise of Hindutva as a political force was an inflection point: all religious devotion was amplified into strident noise, not just the hymns but slogans as well.
The growth and spread of electronic media in the 80s gave us a taste for display of collective religiosity, as well as provided certain shrewd businesspeople an unprecedented market opportunity. There was simply no getting away from the "Hanuman Chalisa" or "Jai Jagdeesh Hare", which reached us from every small temple across our towns and cities, as well as from the too-loud television sets in the homes our pious neighbours. The rise of Hindutva as a political force was an inflection point: all religious devotion was amplified into strident noise, not just the hymns but slogans as well. Over the decades, this stridency has also turned pervasive, leaving no corner of our land, not even the pristine mountains, free of its noisy presence.
The sociological dimension is very simple: the perpetrators and participants in this case are all "not Muslims." In comparison, the azan is actually sounded as per a very rigid schedule and prescribed frequency of chanting. It's never on loop or shuffle mode. Given the spread of technology, the time is not far off when the azan is sent as a WhatsApp text message to the faithful with an audio file as optional attachment. Such practices are already common among Muslims in European countries.
"I am not a Muslim" is all very well, but... which of us can claim, "I am not a heedless fool?"
The philosophical (or ideological) dimension is inexorably fraught. Do we really care about any kind of pollution of our environment, including noise pollution? Clearly, the answer is no. Our persistent failure to deal effectively with such collective problems that will affect not only the current generations but also those to come must count as one of the ugliest features of our contemporary existence. The religious fervour so avidly and relentlessly fostered by our rulers serves as a cloak to hide many such flaws. It engenders an ugliness all its own by wantonly othering the Other in a majoritarian show of strength. Of course, such muscle-flexing is impervious to reason or logic. Mr. Sonu Nigam's false-hearted tweet seems to be of a piece with this general display of bullying intolerance.
All said, when the cloak comes off, the flaws will still remain. "I am not a Muslim" is all very well, but in the face of these life-threatening problems, which of us can claim, "I am not a heedless fool?"