The recent communal rows have grasped India in a vice grip. Communal violence erupted in several areas across the country, including a series of attacks on Hanuman Jayanti – Ram Navami processions in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat and West Bengal and the Azaan row in Maharashtra.
Amid widespread public outrage over incidents of riots, various political and social groups have demanded a curb on the use of loudspeakers at religious places.
Against this backdrop, here’s a compilation of various court orders on loudspeakers:
Timeline of court interjections
• The Supreme Court banned the use of loudspeakers and music systems in public places between 10 pm, and 6 am (except in cases of public emergencies) in July 2005, citing the serious effects of noise pollution on the health of those who live in such areas.
• Different PILs have been filed in the high courts (Gujarat and Jharkhand, for example), recently seeking a ban on loudspeakers in mosques.
• On October 28, 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that loudspeakers could be used till midnight on festive occasions for 15 days a year. A bench comprising then Chief Justice RC Lahoti and Justice Ashok Bhan upheld the constitutional validity of a statutory rule allowing states to relax sound pollution norms, including the loudspeakers use till midnight on festive and religious occasions.
• Judgment dated April 1, 1996, imposed certain restrictions and conditions on using microphones in West Bengal. One of the important conditions laid down was that there would be no use of any microphones between 9 pm to 7 am except by the public authorities for discharging their emergent public duties and/or obligations. The West Bengal Pollution Central Board was directed to maintain a noise level register indicating the level of noise permitted by using microphones on any occasion or in any area.
• In July 2014, the Bombay high court directed the police to remove loudspeakers from those mosques in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai that had not obtained the required permissions for them from the authorities.
• In August 2016, the Bombay High Court ruled that loudspeakers’ use was not a fundamental right. The Bombay High Court observed that no religion or sect could claim that the right to use a loudspeaker or a public address system was a fundamental right conferred by Article 25 of the Constitution of India.
• In 2017, The Madras High Court observed that freedom of religion is a fundamental right which cannot be interfered with but stressed that the Supreme Court guidelines on the sound system used by mosques for giving prayer calls should be followed. The PIL alleged rampant seizure of loudspeakers used for ‘azaan’ or the prayer call by mosques in Pollachi taluk in Coimbatore district by officials without verifying whether the sound levels were within the permissible limits or not.
• On June 26, 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court set a five-decibel limit for loudspeakers. It directed the state government that the loudspeakers use, even during the daytime, would be contingent on the user giving an undertaking that the noise level would not exceed 5 decibels.
• In September 2018, the Karnataka High Court banned loudspeaker use after 10 pm. The high court directed that the guidelines laid by the Supreme Court specifying permissible sound levels should be followed when authorities ban loudspeakers.
• In July 2019, the Punjab and Haryana High Court banned the loudspeakers use in public places, including religious bodies. The court said that public address systems could only be used with prior permission, and the noise level should never exceed the permissible limit.
• In response to a PIL seeking a statewide ban on the use of loudspeakers in mosques, the Gujarat High Court in 2020 had written to the state government to reflect upon the same.
• On May 15, 2020, the Allahabad High Court held that azaan could be recited by a muezzin (an Islamic priest) from minarets of the mosques by human voice using no amplifying device or loudspeakers. The Court held that usage of such devices for an ‘Islamic call to prayer’ is not protected under Article 25 (Right to Freedom of Religion) of the Indian Constitution.
• The Uttarakhand High Court, in July 2020, modified its earlier order pronounced in June 2018, limiting the noise level to five decibels, calling it an “accidental error”. The Uttarakhand High Court thus effectively paved the way for lifting the ban on the use of loudspeakers at religious institutions in the state. The court order modification came in response to an application filed by the Jama Masjid of Bazpur area in Udham Singh Nagar district seeking directions to permit the use of loudspeakers.
• On January 11, 2021, the Karnataka High Court directed the state government to act against illegal loudspeakers at religious places in the state. It directed the state government to immediately issue directions to the police and the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board to initiate action on the use of amplifiers and loudspeakers in religious places in the state in violation of laws on noise pollution and the directions issued by the Supreme Court.
• In November 2021, the Karnataka High Court asked the state government to explain the provisions of the law under which loudspeakers and public address systems had been allowed in mosques and what action was being taken to restrict their use.
• In 2022, Uttar Pradesh Police took down 11,000 loudspeakers and reduced the volume of 35,000 loudspeakers to the permissible levels. As of April 29, the total number of loudspeakers removed is 37,000. Uttar Pradesh Police is following the High Court order, which has set specific decibel levels for loudspeakers.
• The Bombay High Court said that it would hear on June 14 a plea filed in 2018, seeking initiation of contempt proceedings for alleged non-compliance with directions issued against the “illegal” installation of loudspeakers at religious places.