Why is it fine to clang cymbals on a NY street but not Namaaz in India?

Nobody now hears of Maha-aarti conducted to coincide with Friday prayers by Muslims; because Maharashtra Govt allowed additional space to mosques. Why are bhajans & chants on New York streets allowed?

ISKCON Rath Yatra in New York 
   (Photo courtesy: Peter Ferreira)
ISKCON Rath Yatra in New York (Photo courtesy: Peter Ferreira)

Sujata Anandan

This whole thing about Diwali firecrackers and Namaaz on the roads or not tires me out no end. The debate about pollution, noise or air is quite another issue, but debates on religion, prayers and celebration are getting tediously communal.

How does one deal with it? I recall years ago when John Major was British prime minister and villagers from a quiet British countryside bitterly complained to him about their quiet Sunday mornings disturbed by loud aartis performed in a Hare Krishna temple in the vicinity. Major refused to intervene. Everyone had the right to celebrate their religion the way they wished to, he told them. If the cymbals disturb your hymns, sing louder but as a government we cannot stop anyone in their prayers.

That was a fine and correct stand to take by any government; but even then, I wondered if members of ISKCON should have so rudely and uncaringly disturbed the peace 0f the people in their neighbourhood. They need not have woken up the village every Sunday morning with the clash of cymbals, they need not have used loudspeakers to reach people who were late to make it to the standing room within the temple premises, they need not have tried to drown the church choir.

Some years later, back home I noticed during the 1992 riots in Mumbai that Shiv Sainiks had introduced Friday evening maha-aartis in temples to coincide with the Namaaz that necessarily spilt onto roads because of government’s refusal to allow mosques to build extra floors to accommodate the worshippers.

One had never heard of Friday evening maha-aartis before then and it was a deliberate provocation to Muslims. I refused to allow politicians to dictate my religious practices. Not surprisingly, the maha-aartis stopped once the Shiv Sena came to power) and their government gave additional floor space index to mosques to keep the Namaazis in. No one heard of maha-aartis again.

Now the battle is between animal sacrifices, azaans and fireworks during Diwali. For a long time, bigots have been demanding a ban on animal sacrifice during Bakrid. I would support the demand but on grounds of cruelty to animals, not religion. For the same reason I would demand a ban on the the hill-top ceremonial goat sacrifice by the Saptashrungi temple on Dassera in Nashik.

Till recently devotees there would fire in the air to mark the ceremonial sacrifice. While the firing has been restrained after some worshippers were injured, despite the temple administration controlled by the government with an additional district judge as president of the trust, exhortations to give up the practice of animal sacrifice have not been heeded.

I believe we should change with the times and clanging cymbals and temple bells are as unnecessary as loudspeakers calling worshippers to the mosques.

Instead, why don't we use technology like smart phone alerts to do the same and play aartis collectively on our phones so they will be loud enough in the temple premises and still not disturb sleeping residents or the choir in a neighbouring church. If like the Shiv Sena, the government gives additional FSI to mosques, worshippers will be out of sight and so out of mind.

Which leaves us with the fireworks. I am ambivalent about this part of any celebration. Governments are already facing fierce resistance to bans as they do with goat sacrifices but if bigots believe a fireworks ban is akin to taking the joy out of celebrations, they should be reminded that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese and fireworks brought to India by the Moghuls.

Original Diwali celebrations were only with lighting of the lamps but if today people want to have some fun with fireworks, then they are entitled to it provided there is no bigotry and communal propaganda to the celebrations.

I thus find it downright riotous that people should object to worshippers offering namaaz on open grounds when they are given no infrastructural help to do otherwise.

It is equally tiresome to have them make political statements about fire crackers when it is more about the pleasure of seeing a rocket go up in the air with the flick of a single matchstick or a colourful star burst--indeed the Japanese call crackers fire flowers. Do we have a traditional name for these in Sanskrit?

However, now the political polarisation in this country is such that a meat seller will deliberately put up a board about his shop selling non-halal meat when it shouldn't matter to non-halal meat eaters how the goat was slaughtered. At the same time those preferring halal meat could just avoid buying from that shop.

I want to go back to that India where my mother- a devout Hindu- found comfort sitting on the steps of a dargah and no one found that odd.

I want a return to that India where a Muslim idol seller knew more about Hindu gods, and his buyers installed those images according to his dictate. I want to go back to the times when I stole mutton samosas from my friend’s lunch box and all that my pure vegetarian mother said was "so long as you wash out your mouth and gargle before drinking from our glasses”.

I pray for the resurgence of that India where Khalilullah uncle’s son married his neighbour, a Narsinhullu's daughter in a double ceremony and everybody celebrated twice over, an India where no one demolished mosques and built temples on the blood and screams of innocents.

Yet I am compelled day in and day out to hear of Hindu-Muslim divides, warned against inviting Muslim electricians to fix my short circuit or visit an apartment block because there are goat sacrifices there. And yet Muslims constitute less than 15 percent of the population after all these centuries.

Phir bhi Hindu khatre mein hai!

(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald in Mumbai, Views are personal)