In my childhood, my parents used to refer to the Malayalam Panchangam, the Hindu almanac, for knowing the religious festivals. They are no more now, and I don’t have a Panchangam at home. Nor am I particularly religious. However, I have no difficulty knowing the auspicious days even without the almanac or elderly people at home. I need to only tune in to the breaking news. Religious festivals are now marked with street violence, hooliganism and ugly display of power.
Each community competes with the other in how much brash, loud and aggressive one could be. Stone pelting, desecrating competing religion’s sacred places, shouting provocative slogans at one another, dictating which routes each community procession should take, planning invasion and defence strategy as if it is a bloody war etc. have become the hallmarks of auspicious days instead of piety and charity.
There is no dearth of gods or godmen in India, and our calendars are peppered with some holy day or another. This makes the battlefield wide and open and the war perpetual. Gods of different hues, both Indian and imported, have invaded our streets, leaving scantily any place for humans to live. Why should people prostrate on the road in a vulgar display of their devotion to their god and block the traffic? Why should streets be converted into religious pandals during Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja or Navaratri festivals? Our street corners are encroached by makeshift temples, crucifixes, cupolas, dargahs, and mosques. In some states like Kerala, political parties have devolved into cults. They pepper the streets with memorials of their henchmen and goons killed in political clashes, giving religion tough competition in encroaching public property. Why should airports, railway stations and other public places have temples or rooms to pray?
India is a country of diverse faiths, cults, religious denominations and beliefs. We pride ourselves on being the most tolerant beings on the planet, and hence everyone has a free run. In a rural setting, the festival of a temple, church or mosque will be an occasion to bring all faiths together and also spur the local commerce and economy. So, being tolerant was in everyone’s social and economic interest.
The sound of pious prayer from a lone mosque in the village or the devotional songs played from a temple or a church may not disturb the rural quietude much and may even add to its charm. Aren’t such sounds the part of our nostalgia? However, in a congested city environment, a hundred mosques or temples baying out their devotion through loudspeakers, tearing the silence of the dawn, is an assault on our senses. City streets are meant for commuters, ambulances to take patients to the hospitals, and travel in a free country. What right have a few religious-minded people got to hijack those public spaces?
As per the Constitution, we should treat every faith as equal. Just as the devoted few have the right to believe in their gods, the atheists also have the right to not believe in any god. So, will the atheists or the sceptics be granted the same right as the religious? If so, why aren’t airports providing atheists rooms where they can denounce gods before taking a flight? Why can’t atheists proclaim through loudspeakers at 3 am that there is no god and repeat the declamation seven times a day at the oddest possible hours in the loudest possible noise?
Can atheists put pandals on every corner with a donation box and dance on the streets and before every religious place, singing ‘Akhand Bhajans’ proclaiming the absence of gods or one god? Can sceptics broadcast their faith every alternate morning through loudspeakers and declaim it the next day, as that would be truer to their faith? Why should insanity be patented only by organised religions and cults? How about the faith of cannibals? Lest someone think I am exaggerating, we have cannibalistic tribes in the Andaman islands, who are also Indian citizens. Can we give them the right to practice their faith in our streets? Aren’t they the truest minority in every sense?
If you love your god, please love him or her or them or it quietly. You have no business thrusting your faith on all others. Traditional festivals of ancient religious institutions, a part of our heritage, can be restricted to the institution’s premises. For other religious festivals, please celebrate them at your homes, housing colonies, clubs, churches, mosques or temples without disturbing anyone else. Others need not know how much you love your god or how wonderful your god is, what they wear or which wars they won in some stories. Tell each other calmly, if you wish, to those who want to hear it.
Please spare our streets and disconnect your loudspeakers. If your god is in heaven, please understand that sound waves are not carried through space. If he is within you or everywhere, there is no need to scream so loudly unless you believe he is deaf or you are dumb. It might be in everyone’s interest to legislate the role of religion in public spaces. Else, we may disintegrate into many warring communities through our street wars soon.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy