Sonu Nigam is right – blaring azaan is ‘forced religiousness’. And it doesn’t stop there

‘I’'m not a Muslim and I have to be woken up by the azaan in the morning,’ the singer tweeted. ‘When will this forced religiousness end in India.’

Another day, another Twitter outrage. This time it was Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam who took to the social media network to broadcast his distaste of loud calls to prayer from a nearby mosque, calling it a form of “gundagardi”, gangsterism.

Nigam’s point is correct. In their azaans or calls to prayer, mosques across India often violate sound pollution norms in what has become a sonic arms race. This is nothing new. Fifteenth century Braj poet Kabir asked why the mullah needed to shout out from the tops of mosques. Was God deaf?

Power structure

However, there is a difference in context when it comes to Nigam and Kabir. Modern India is moving towards what could only be described as religious majoritarianism. The way power is structured in modern India, it is relatively easy to pick on minorities using objective laws and principles – even while making sure the same laws and principles are mostly never applied to the majority.

So while Nigam’s point is valid in itself, it is also a rather trivial example of “forced religiousness” in the context of modern India. Taking up public airwaves and road space is an almost banal part of living in India. This includes azaans, pandals on the roads in Durga Pujo and Ganesh utsav, air pollution during Diwali and night-long bhajans during Delhi’s jagratas (which ironically Nigam has sung in). If one were to be picky, these are all examples of “forced religiousness”.

But here’s another example of “forced religiousness”: India’s beef laws. Driven by Hindu religious sentiment, a number of Indian states penalise cow slaughter. While both cow slaughter laws and azaans results in the imposition of religious practises on the unwilling, the scale at which they operate differs hugely. Over the past two years, six Muslims have been murdered by religiously-inspired cow protection gangs. Moreover, cow slaughter laws end up harming bovine-related industries such as dairy, leather and meat. In fact, in states which have harsh cow slaughter laws and extreme sentiment around the gau mata, cow population levels have dropped. Moreover, “forced religiousness” around Hindu food taboos means cheap sources of nutritious food are denied to poor Indian – even if the country suffers from a debilitating malnutrition problem.

So while an obnoxiously loud azaan might break your sleep but beef laws have ended up encouraging murder and economic dislocation across India. Both are examples of “forced religiousness” but the way power flows in India means that while sound pollution laws regulate the former, the state itself passes cow slaughter laws.

Bullying the weak

This sort of dissonance, in applying the same principle depending on the distribution of power, is ubiquitous in India. For example, while almost all of India’s industries operate in an informal grey zone, it is only the Muslim-dominated meat industry that was targeted for compliance by the new Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh. The so-called Haj Subsidy – which isn’t even a subsidy – was ordered to be completely removed by the Supreme Court, even as public money is provided for Hindu religious pilgrimages.

Similarly, while politicians are debarred by law from asking for votes in the name of religion – this rule doesn’t apply to Hinduism. Politicians can campaign in the name of Hinduism since the Supreme Court itself held that Hindutva is a “way of life of the people in the subcontinent”. Moreover, the court held that even asking for a “Hindu rashtra” – Hindu nation – was fine and did not fall foul of secularism.

The biased application of laws and principles is the main feature of majoritarianism. The line between democracy and majoritarianism is a thin one. Both depend on brute popularity to validate the state, the difference being that democracy recognises basic rights. India, though, seems to be faltering on its practise of democracy and moving rapidly towards majoritarianism. So while minor instances of “forced religiousness” such as azaans become issues which the state cracks down on – the Bombay High court has banned loudspeakers in mosques – the same principle is flouted by the state itself in major instances such as beef laws and in the conduct of elections.

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