Silence Is ‘Mandatory’, Not Matter Of ‘Choice’ – OpEd

That Indian Playback Singer Sonu Nigam’s public tweet deploring the use of loudspeakers for azaan by mosques, loud artis in temples and gurudwaras was met with incensed rage by irate Muslims was a given.

Much on the same lines were expected the overwhelming responses of the liberal ‘fence-sitters,’ even from the Hindi film industry, who refused to ‘judge’ — despite overwhelming evidence yet openly flays and castigate statements as the one made by, this time around, Sonu Nigam! And, once again, the law on the situation is given the convenient miss. It just isn’t glamorous to see things in black and white as the law is.

The legal position on the use of loudspeakers by mosques, churches, temples, political parties, partying parties et al., in Mumbai, is boringly clear as crystal. After the Bombay High Court directed the civic body BMC to demarcate Silence Zones in 2009, the same were notified for Mumbai city and boards, announcing the same, put up at each location.

The civic body also uploaded maps that identified 1,503 Silence Zones, which comprise areas within a 100-metre radius around hospitals, educational and religious institutions. A division bench of the Bombay High Court consisting Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Ahmed Sayed said citizens can claim compensation if their complaints about noise pollution are ignored by enforcement authorities.
Now, by the logic and the letter of the law, it is clear that all religious institutions in Mumbai are categorized as Silence Zones and have to abide by noise pollution rules.

Sonu Nigam’s tweets have been construed as an attempt to wedge disruption in ‘the peace’, which is actually convenient acquiescence to the ‘anomaly in law’, the extraneous use of loudspeakers in a mosque or any other religious institution being outright illegal.

Syed Sha Atef Ali Al Quaderi, vice president, West Bengal Minority United Council as quoted in a report spewed, “If anyone can shave his hair, put a garland of old torn shoes around his neck and tour him around the country I personally announce an award of Rs 10 lakh for that person. I would have reacted the same way if one had talked ill about the sound of bells coming from a temple as well. If we all become so intolerant about each other’s religions, we will soon have a bunch of atheists in our country. People like Nigam should be driven out of the country.”

Now, that squarely comprises an attempt to curb one’s (Sonu Nigam’s) Freedom of Speech and Expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. However, few would, at this point of time, stand by Nigam’s Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.

Azaan summons the faithful to peace and tranquillity but when made through loudspeakers turns into a cause of concern and is objected to by several quarters. Why, Navi Mumbai resident Santosh Pachalag had earlier petitioned, in 2014 through a Public Interest Litigation, the Bombay High Court against ‘illegal use of loudspeakers’ by mosques in his area.

An RTI plea revealed that 45 of 49 mosques in the area didn’t have permission to use loudspeakers and, on the petition, the Bombay High Court directed the police to remove ‘illegal’ loudspeakers from mosques. Also, in a heart-warming gesture, many in the Muslim community too welcomed the verdict. Several religious institutions, in violation of the Noise Pollution (Control and Regulation) Rules, 2000 have used loudspeakers much above the permissible decibel levels (50 dB during day and 40 dB at night for Silence Zone and 55 dB during day and 45 dB at night for Residential Areas).

Earlier, in 2005, the Supreme Court had issued guidelines that included restrictions on the use of loudspeakers in public spaces at night to bring down the decibel levels. The-then Chief Justice of India RC Lahoti who headed the bench banned the use of loudspeakers between 2200 and 0600 hours in public spaces. The court also issued guidelines to the police on how the same should be implemented.

The guidelines included restrictions on the use of loudspeakers in public spaces and norms for the use of high-volume sound systems, generators and vehicles. There was a ban on the use of noisy firecrackers late at night during festivals like Diwali and a ban on using loudspeakers between 10 pm and 6 am.

The CJI, writing for the bench, also said the decibel level of megaphones or public address systems should “not exceed 10 dB (A) above the ambient noise standards for the area, or 75 dB (A), whichever is lower.”

In Om Birangana Religious Society … vs The State And Ors. on April 1st, 1996, Judge Bhagabati Prosad Banerjee had elaborated, “So far as right of religious organisations to use loudspeaker or amplifier is concerned that right is not an independent right under Article 25 of the Constitution of India. Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India provides that subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this part, all persons and equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”

“It is a matter to consider whether the public are captive audience or listeners when permission is given for using loud-speakers in public and the person who is otherwise unwilling to bear the sound and/or the music or the communication made by the loud-speakers, but he is compelled to tolerate all these things against his will and health. If permission is granted to use microphones at a louder voice, such a course of action takes away the rights of a citizen to speak with others, the right to read or the right to know and the right to sleep and rest or to think any matter.”

The judgement clearly details the reach of Freedom of Speech and Expression as guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India, which is invoked each time one resists noise or cacophony generated for religious, personal, professional or political reasons.

Judge Banerjee said, “Freedom of Speech and Expression includes, by necessary implication, freedom not to listen and/or to remain silent. One cannot exercise his right at the cost and in total deprivation of others’ rights. A right cannot be conferred by the authorities concerned upon a person or a religious organization to exercise their rights suspending and/or taking away the rights of others.”

Sonu Nigam, meanwhile, two days after the controversy over his tweet, a police complaint and being branded as anti-Muslim, shaved off the hair on his head saying, “Everyone has a right to his opinion and I only spoke about loudspeakers. I said it for temples, gurudwaras and mosques, why is it so hard to comprehend?”

It evidently is, isn’t it?


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Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor, legal counsel and documentary film-maker with over three decades of media-legal experience across India. He is the founder of DraftCraft – an India-based think-tank. Through strategic writings and columns across global media; niche workshops held for the benefit of police personnel, lawyers and media students as well as key lectures held at corporate venues and in Law and Mass Media colleges and universities across India, he analyses and initiates 'live' processes that help deliver social justice through the media and legal channels. He trains students, journalists, lawyers and corporate personnel to ideate, integrate and initiate the process of social justice which “isn't the sole responsibility of the State”. He holds legal aid workshops and creates permanent legal aid cells for the deprived across India through positive activism and intervention. He furthers the reach of social responsibility by initiating strategic process by offering consultancy services to corporates in the rapidly-growing CSR scenario. To further the reach of social responsibility, Gajanan Khergamker works closely with state entities, law universities, educational institutes, research think-tanks, publications and media houses, corporates and public-spirited individuals. His areas of interest include public affairs, inclusion, conflict of interest, law and policy, foreign affairs and diversity.

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