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No noise pollution is permitted on the grounds of religion

No noise pollution is permitted on the grounds of religion

Introduction: Larger good of the people is paramount
Author: Raju Z Moray
Publications: The Indian Express
Dated: December 6, 2001

Incantations calling the 'beuevers' to prayer often also wake up the 'nonbelievers', way ahead of normal schedules. God is great but must that be proclaimed on loudspeakers? Whether it is the azaan of the muezzin or the midnight mass conducted by Christian priests, supporters argue on the basis of their "fundamental rights". Anyone who dares voice opposition is dubbed a heretic or worse, an opponent of secularism. It would be worthwhile to examine what these rights are and what are the limitations placed by law on the exercise of these.

Article 25 of the Constitution states that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practise and propagate religion. Article 26 states that every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs in matters of religion. However, these constitutional entitlements are subject to public order, morality and health. Reasonable restrictions put on the enjoyment of these constitutionally guaranteed freedoms would not be unconstitutional or illegal if such restrictions promote or support public order, morality and health. As Chief Justice Chagla of Bombay High Court expressed, 'A sharp distinction must be drawn between religious faith and religious practises. What the State protects is religious faith and belief. If religious practices run counter to public order, morality or health, the practices must give way before the good of the people."

Whether using microphones for azaan is an integral part of Islam and whether this is an absolute right and free from any restriction has also received judicial consideration. The Calcutta High Court has held that "it cannot be said that the religious teachers who laid down the tenets in respect of namaaz and azaan, had in any way desired the use of microphones." It was held that "on a true and proper construction of the provisions of Art 25(1) read with Art 19 (1)(a) it cannot be said that a citizen should be coerced to hear anything he does not like or does not require." In a very progressive interpretation, the Court observed that "the freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Art 19(1)(a) includes the freedom not to listen and/or to remain silent. One cannot exercise his right at the cost of and in total deprivation of others' rights."

In Mumbai every Friday public streets are obstructed for prayers despite a 1988 ruling of Bombay High Court holding that such obstructions of a recurring nature cannot be permitted. Justice Sujata Manohar, in that landmark case, had held that "Every community has a right to worship in accordance with its religious practice. But this cannot be done in violation of law or in a manner which contravenes statutory provisions made for public benefit." Appeals against this ruling have been dismissed by the Supreme Court thereby confirming the Bombay High Court's view.

The 'Church of God' case decided last year is another landmark decision. The Supreme Court held that "in an organised society, rights are related with duties towards others." The Calcutta High Court's views were approved. The Division Bench placed reliance on the observations of a Constitution Bench about Articles 25 and 26. The Constitution Bench had observed that "No right in an organised society can be absoluted. Enjoyment of one's rights must be consistent with the enjoyment of rights also by others." The Division Bench unequivocally held that "no community can claim a right to add to noise pollution on the grounds of religion."

The Supreme Court in the 'Church of God' case proclaimed, "In a civilised society, in the name of religion, activities which disturb old or infirm persons, students or children having their sleep in the early hours or during day time or other persons carrying on other activities cannot be permitted." It can be argued that the Supreme Court's observations refer only to a "civilised society" and do not apply to those who give precedence to religious beliefs over civic discipline. It is our good fortune that we are "civilised" enough not to advance such arguments.

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