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Raj Thackeray's 'loudspeaker' campaign targeting Muslims in Maharashtra backfires

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
MNS chief Raj Thackeray at a media conference in Mumbai on May 4. He reiterated that the MNS would play hymns to Hanuman on loudspeakers if mosques continued to use them for azaan.

MNS chief Raj Thackeray at a media conference in Mumbai on May 4. He reiterated that the MNS would play hymns to Hanuman on loudspeakers if mosques continued to use them for azaan.

A police patrol car outside a mosque on May 4 in Mumbai. Security was tightened outside mosques after Raj Thackeray’s press conference.

A police patrol car outside a mosque on May 4 in Mumbai. Security was tightened outside mosques after Raj Thackeray’s press conference.

Raj Thackeray’s attempt to regain political relevance by targeting Muslims through his loudspeaker campaign does not find any takers in Maharashtra.

Raj Thackeray’s campaign against loudspeakers has not only faltered but is actually working against him. The 53-year-old leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) broke away from his parent party, the Shiv Sena, in 2005 and formed the MNS in 2006. Apart from a heady period, when his party fared well in local body elections, the MNS has remained a low-flying party and of late has narrowly averted some crash landings.

Raj has been trying to resurrect his party and his own political career but is choosing to piggyback on old ideas rather than attempt original thinking. His loudspeaker campaign showcases this tendency. By this direct attack on the Muslim community, he had hoped to gain positive political approval for his party, be seen as a possible ally by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hit out at the Shiv Sena and once again be considered a serious contender in the soon-to-be-held State-wide local body elections.

But his scheme was crudely designed. It relied upon what Mumbaikars would call a ghasa peeta plan of action, something that had been done to death: Muslim bashing and, in this case, an attempt at a veneer of social responsibility to make it seem acceptable.

In a nutshell, Raj said loudspeakers should not be used in mosques for the azaan , or daily call to prayer, and if they were used then Hindus should recite the Hanuman chalisa through loudspeakers in front of those mosques. Almost as an afterthought he linked his crusade to noise pollution, but his driving motive was transparent enough.

Expectedly, there have been some interesting outcomes of the loudspeaker campaign. Heading the list is Raj Thackeray’s own political career. To put it plainly, it has slumped even further. He mismanaged his own plan, believing he could fool the average citizen into believing it was social consciousness that drove his campaign. His counter plan of playing the Hanuman chalisa discredited him even more because it further exposed the real motive of his campaign, demolished the anti-noise pollution facade of his argument, and reinforced the fact that he remains a street fighter ready to disrupt the city for his cause.

He did have some degree of success because of his reputation and many mosques refrained from using loudspeakers. Raj’s deadline for this was May 3, which was Eid. On May 4, of the 1,141mosques in the city only 135 used loudspeakers for the azaan . The police filed first information reports (FIRs) against three Muslim men for breach of noise pollution guidelines. They were from the Noorani Masjid and the Muslim Kabrastan Masjid in the Mumbai suburbs of Bandra and Santacruz respectively. The FIRs are in keeping with the existing Supreme Court guidelines on noise control. The guidelines restrict use of loudspeakers between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The FIRs say that these two mosques used the loudspeakers prior to 6 a.m.

On May 8, the Juma Masjid of Bombay Trust issued a statement saying it “wholeheartedly accepts the Supreme Court order to avoid the use of loudspeakers for azaan from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m”. The morning azaan, which is around 5 a.m., is the one that is affected by the court’s guidelines and the mosques affiliated to the Juma Masjid have apparently agreed to abide by the rules.

An app for azaan

In a heart-warming move, an azaan app for mobile phones is being created so that every user can hear the azaan in their homes. Tweeting her approval, the anti-noise activist Sumaira Abdulali quoted from the Juma Masjid Trust’s statement saying: “We are devising an azaan app for mobile phones that will enable every user in every area to receive the sound of the azaan in the comfort of his home. After 2 decades campaigning against #noise pollution I couldn’t be more delighted!”

Anti-noise campaign

Sumaira Abdulali has been instrumental in the #GodsAgainstNoise campaign. Her non-governmental organisation (NGO), Awaaz Foundation, began the campaign in August 2016. On April 27, which is International Noise Awareness Day, she questioned the generally held belief that it is “traditional” to use loudspeakers in religions.

She said: “Many people claim that reciting of prayers and celebrations on loudspeakers is ‘traditional’, failing to remember that loudspeakers were invented in 1861, with the telephone! A public address system of the kind we are now familiar with followed at least three decades later.”

Speaking purely as a noise control activist, she said: “Given the inexorable march of technology, mobile phones, radio and television can convey messages far more effectively than loudspeakers in 2022. As urbanisation makes cities denser and people in different life situations are forced to hear their neighbours’ activities, the use of newer technologies becomes even more important. In favour of newer technologies, loudspeakers have been replaced in many parts of the world. In many countries, churches and other religious places convey their messages through dedicated TV channels or networks on mobile phones. In May 2021, Saudi Arabia restricted the use of loudspeakers for azaan because of their high decibel levels. Loudspeakers were first used on the minaret of a masjid in 1936 in Singapore. In the millennia before, the azaan was called by unamplified human voice of muezzins.”

Awaaz has long fought for noise pollution control and has seen the usurping of laws for political mileage. “Loudspeakers are a political tool and they are being used to disrupt the peace and health of the common man and to incite volatile sentiments for political and commercial gain. As the common man suffers, the political game of one-upmanship to create more noise pollution continues,” Sumaira Abdulali says.

To defuse the tension generated by Raj Thackeray’s campaign, the Mumbai Police held a meeting with temple officials, in which they asked the temple authorities to follow noise control rules and apply for permission to use loudspeakers. Out of the city’s 2,404 temples, 12 applied until May 4. Of the 1,141 mosques, 773 applied and 739 were granted permission.

The BJP gleefully jumped on to Raj Thackeray’s bandwagon. He initially took it as a pat on the back from a potential big brother partnership but was soon disenchanted when he realised that for the BJP it was just one more opportunity to try and discredit the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi.

People have seen the loudspeaker campaign for what it is—a pre-local body election gimmick. Realising this, the BJP has backed off. The two independent legislators—the hitherto unknown but now infamous couple—Navneet Rana, an MP, and Ravi Rana, an MLA, have also given the BJP some bad press. The party is now silent on the loudspeaker issue and the Ranas.

The current situation has again brought the Thackeray-versus-Thackeray battle to the fore. When Raj Thackeray first broke away from the Sena, many in the party hoped that he would soon return. Indeed, after Bal Thackeray’s death, Uddhav Thackeray did indicate that his cousin was free to return to the fold, but his offer was spurned. There was even a campaign to reunite the cousins politically, but it failed. The MNS and Raj have been in political decline and there are no indications that either will revive. Raj Thackeray’s most recent crusade at resurrecting himself and his party has only dropped his ratings further.