Decibel democracy

The volume of the marketplace will ultimately determine the decibel levels on our streets

Not many remember this story. In January 1998 a 13-year-old girl was raped but her cries for help were drowned by blaring neighbourhood loudspeakers. The raped girl later committed suicide by setting herself on fire. The story did move Mumbai engineer Anil Mittal who moved the Supreme Court of India to see if Indian law had anything in it to prevent the girl’s tragedy being repeated.

Many others had long wished they could do something about fortnight-long festivals that lasted deep into the night, often into the early hours of the morning, even as children struggled to mug up answers to questions they were expecting in the examinations the next day, or perhaps even worse, patients for whom a break in sleep because of the cacophony could spell the difference between life and death.

The apex court was indeed moved by Mittal’s arguments. "No one shall beat a drum or tom-tom, or blow a trumpet or beat or sound any instrument, or use any sound amplifier at night (between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.) except in public emergencies," Chief Justice RC Lahoti ruled. The Chief Justice said the case raised "certain issues of far-reaching implications in day-to-day life of the people in India." That was then.

Earlier this month, the court seemed to have struck at its own decision, for the moment at least, allowing Gujarat’s now world famous Navratri garba extravaganzas to go on till midnight, and in their wake, also allowing the Ram Lilas, which in urban India used to last till almost midnight.

If any one else has any other religious festival over the next few months, they can blare their music systems and light their crackers to their hearts’ content or till their eardrums burst or until the Supreme Court finally decides on the issue once and for all. Once the government provides it with the latest medico-legal information on the harm that noise pollution does to the human brain and to the environment in general.

As a civil society and freedom of faith activist interested in several cases currently before the Supreme Court, I would be the last person to try and antagonise the highest court in the land with a sarcastic commentary on its latest pronouncement. Christians in general, and the church establishment in particular, are particularly wary of the judicial processes in this country, partly because for want of legal education we do not fully understand the intricacies of the system of judicial equity in a democracy, as also the fact that so few of us are in the practice of law. Afraid that courts may collectively take umbrage and rule against us in a myriad cases, we have always been the first to profess our absolute trust in the judicial system of India.

But despite this, I must dare explore the contours of this decibel democracy as established by law. The impact of the first ruling – the ban on late nights after 10 p.m. – was not just about deflating the gusto with which Durga Puja is celebrated in all Bengali enclaves from Tripura to Jammu and Jaisalmer, or toning down the Ganesh Puja in which Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad vie with one another for the title of Tallest Idol Immersion in the Smallest Water Body Capital of the World. It had an impact on practitioners of all faiths.

The Muslims, already under pressure for the five-times-a-day loudspeaker azan, muffled Ramzan festivities before sehri, the pre-dawn breakfast. The Sikhs were not really affected. All their festivities are held in broad daylight, as are Sikh weddings.

The Christians faced a peculiar problem. They are a community with the least number of holidays recognised by government. Easter is always on a Sunday, a holiday, but for the traditionalists, Easter dawns at midnight intervening between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. But even if Easter is always a Sunday holiday, there is no way you can usher in Jesus’s birthday in the afternoon of December 25. Christmas for us begins at midnight – when the babe was born in the manger to the lowing of cows and the braying asses, the choir of angels singing in bright starlight out in the fields – a cacophony if ever there was one!

Archbishops in several metros did hastily postpone Christmas Masses to the morning of December 25 and ordered their priests to follow suit, but many a brave mother superior and parish priest defied archbishop and superintendent of police alike to hold the Midnight Mass in a tent outside the small church.

Perhaps this year Masses will indeed be held at midnight, even in Mumbai. But I digress.

The arguments were not located in the manger, but in the marketplace. When the first ban came, Sivakasi, the firecracker capital of the world, and otherwise a small town in Tamil Nadu, cried tears of blood, estimating losses running into billions of rupees. But they, poor home-grown sods, lacked the advocacy strength of their non-resident Indian and expat-driven garba industrialists of Gujarat.

NRIs, expats and homebodies, million-rupee-a-night vocalists and billion- dollar-a-season manufacturers of colourful cholis and rustling ghagras moved into action, commanded brilliantly by Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and currently its chief ambassador in the West where he otherwise may not visit because they refuse him visas till he serves a jail term for supervising the massacre of Muslims in 2002.

Taking India, the UK and the US into account, as well as the still existing enclaves in Africa and the Caribs, the Navratri garba is indeed a billion-dollar industry.

The prayers, if not the advocacy skills, of the Navratri garba industry have carried the day, the apex court has granted them an exemption till it comes up with a judgement without the mistakes it admits it may have made in the last one.

Until such time, Modi exults. And democracy may be gauged in decibels.

Archived from Communalism Combat,October 2005  Year 12    No.111,  Cover Story 3




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