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Amid Azaan-Bhajan row know what Indian law says about use of Loudspeakers

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date

Mumbai: As the communal tensions is growing across the country, a new front has been opened in Maharashtra by Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) over use of loudspeaker for Azaan.

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Thackeray has challenged the use of loudspeakers in mosques to broadcast the azaan (call to prayer), saying that if any mosque does so after May 3, Hindus will simultaneously blast the Hanuman Chalisa over loudspeakers.

Nashik Police Commissioner Deepak Pandey issued a directive on Monday, April 18th, directing all religious institutions in the city to apply for permission to use loudspeakers by May 3rd.

In response to Thackeray’s call to action, the Commissioner also issued an order prohibiting anybody from playing bhajans or other music on loudspeakers within a 100-meter radius of any mosque under the Nashik police commissionerate’s authority 15 minutes before or after the Azaan calls.

Following meetings between the state’s Director General of Police (DGP) and the Mumbai Police Commissioner, the Maharashtra government is expected to publish new restrictions on the use of loudspeakers in the state.

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Law to regulate the use of loudspeakers in India

While India has an air pollution legislation that was adopted in 1981, it primarily deals with emissions and does not address noise pollution.

The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000 are the statute that applies in this case.

These rules, which were enacted under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, provide for noise restriction, the formation of silent zones (such as around hospitals), and the prohibition of loudspeakers, car horns, fire crackers, and construction equipment.

Anyone – including places of worship and religious institutions – cannot use loudspeakers or public address systems unless they acquire formal authorization from a relevant local authority (Rule 5).

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-This authority is usually the local district magistrate or police commissioner, however it can also be a senior police officer with a rank of deputy superintendent or above.

-Even in circumstances when authorization is granted, there are certain general limitations.

-Loudspeakers, public address systems, and any other sound generating equipment, musical instrument, or sound amplifiers are prohibited from being used between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., except in closed spaces such as auditoriums, conference rooms, and community halls.

-The noise level at the edge of a public space where a loudspeaker is being used cannot be more than 10 dB(A) over the ambient noise regulations for the region or 75 dB(A), whichever is lower.

-A privately owned sound system’s peripheral noise level at the boundary of the private location where it is being utilised cannot exceed 5 dB(A) over the area’s ambient noise requirements.

The Schedule to the Noise Pollution Rules 2000 provides the various ambient noise limitations set by the applicable state government in various areas:

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-Industrial Areas – 75 decibels (A) during the day, 70 decibels (A) at night

-Commercial Areas – 65 decibels (A) during the day, 55 decibels (A) at night

-Residential Areas – 55 decibels (A) during the day, 45 decibels (A) at night

-Silence Zones — 50 decibels (A) during the day, 40 decibels (A) at night

As a result, silence zones are not literally silence zones, as it would be impossible. Instead, they are regions of at least 100 metres around hospitals, educational institutions, courts, religious locations, or any other facility designated as such by the competent authorities, where much lower noise levels must be maintained than elsewhere.

The Noise Pollution Rules of 2000 make an exemption to the loudspeaker restriction throughout the night, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. State governments can select up to 15 days per year, from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., when loudspeakers can be used for cultural or religious celebratory events under Rule 5(3).

SC on use of loudspeakers by places of worship

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The Noise Pollution Rules 2000 appear to have been a response (at least in part) to a Supreme Court lawsuit that came from a worrying collection of events.

In 1998, a 13-year-old girl lit herself on fire and died from her burn injuries after being raped. Her calls for help were said to have gone unanswered due to the blasting music from a loudspeaker in the neighbourhood. Anil Mittal filed a petition before the court that same year.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the case was only handed down on July 18, 2005, after considering a challenge to the 15-day exemption to the prohibition on loudspeaker usage during the night.

The court did not have to adopt any new rules because the Centre had previously issued the Noise Pollution Rules in 2000.

It did, however, issue instructions reiterating the Rules’ restrictions and directing the Centre and state governments to make provisions for the seizure of loudspeakers or other equipments that violate the Rules, as well as to take any other steps necessary to enforce the Rules if they have not already been done.

Are Nashik Police and Maharashtra government in accordance with the law?

The Nashik Police Commissioner’s directions dated April 18 appear to be in compliance with the Noise Pollution Rules.

To begin, they emphasise that any place of worship must obtain permission to use loudspeakers, as stated in Rule 5.

Second, considering the religious sensitivities that a scheme like the MNS’s would raise, the regulation prohibiting the playing of bhajans or songs during the azaan recital appears acceptable.

In a prior instance, the Allahabad High Court ruled that a prohibition on the use of loudspeakers in an area where there had been conflicts between Hindu and Muslim groups was necessary to protect law and order and tranquilly.

In this case, the Nashik Police Department is not outright prohibiting either side from using loudspeakers, but rather ensuring that there is no confrontation, which appears to be an acceptable limitation in the interest of public order.

Third, the Maharashtra government has the authority to conduct noise-reduction measures and guarantee that noise levels do not exceed the set ambient requirements (Rule 3). As a result, it will be able to provide instructions for the use of loudspeakers, whether for Azaan or bhajans.

However, there are a few things that Maharashtra’s authorities should bear in mind while creating any rules or directives.

They can’t possibly recognise any kind of ‘right’ for any group, whether it’s a mosque, a temple, a church, or a gurudwara, to use a loudspeaker for prayers.

The Supreme Court had previously stated in the noise pollution case (In Re Noise Pollution) that no one has a fundamental right to use a loudspeaker to exercise their freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution because every citizen has the fundamental right to live in peace, comfort, and quiet in their own home.

The use of loudspeakers for religious reasons, according to the Bombay High Court in 2016, cannot be justified by Article 25’s basic right to practise one’s faith.

Even if it was a basic norm to have the Azaan recited by a muezzin from a mosque, the Allahabad High Court clearly said in 2020 that there was no prescription in Islam for broadcasting the Azaan using loudspeakers.

The Maharashtra authorities will also have to keep in mind that the up-to-15-day exemption to the use of loudspeakers during the night (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) must adhere to another Supreme Court decision from 2005. Any exceptions must be state-wide (not enforced by district or city) and cannot allow for the use of loudspeakers between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.

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