THE WAY IN which India makes difficult decisions is peculiar and one can see it in the issue of making mosques tone down loudspeakers. This is a practice that has come in for a fair bit of criticism because the sound can be a disturbance to others who are not of the faith. And one doesn’t get to choose whether to hear it if you are in the vicinity. In the early 1990s, the Shiv Sena in its earlier avatar as the pallbearer of firebrand Hindutva, before power tempered it, started organising maha aartis in Mumbai in response to the public display of religion by mosques. After the issue had been milked, it moved on. Now, Raj Thackeray, who heads a breakaway faction from the Sena and is desperate to be back in the reckoning as a political player in Maharashtra, has again found a convenient target in mosques. During a speech, he threatened to counter their loudspeakers by blaring out the Hanuman Chalisa. The Maharashtra government has decided to regulate the use of loudspeakers in mosques citing court judgments that have been around for a while, but not implemented.
Ordinarily, in a secular state, religion should be contained in private. It shouldn’t be a public spectacle. But we all know that it is a chimera. Every religion wants to appropriate public spaces in celebrating itself in India. Can anyone remember a Diwali where firecrackers were not burst on main roads? There have been court judgments on that too. The Indian state doesn’t really care about principles because that takes away the power of their discretion. Action is decided on immediate exigencies. Why is Raj Thackeray interested in loudspeakers? Because Hindutva is the only corner to be in for political survival now. Why is the Maharashtra government not ignoring him? Because the election to Mumbai’s municipal corporation is imminent and it has been the cash cow that kept Shiv Sena afloat. They can’t lose it and any traction that Raj Thackeray gets, even if he is a bit player, comes from their voters. And then the domino continues its roll. Now, Uttar Pradesh has issued guidelines on loudspeakers, saying that it shouldn’t be heard outside mosque premises. More states will follow soon, of that one can be certain.
At its core, the issue remains that of divorcing religion from public spaces and that is never going to happen because the entire politics of the present has flowered out of it. For what was the Ram temple movement and the rath yatra, which flagged it off, but thrusting religion onto the road? And every time a political entrepreneur wants to carve out an empire, what else will he turn to but religion because it is the most bankable currency in politics now, subsuming even caste as recent elections have shown? And how does one introduce religion into politics unless it is made a spectacle of. The toning down of loudspeakers is an exception that comes easy because it sends a message of protecting Hindus. Religion is not being removed but amplified.