The order of the Bombay high court on March 13 this year is unambiguous. It calls for a policy to be evolved on erecting pandals on public roads and pavements, and a complaints redressal mechanism to report violations. This, because barricading public streets for weeks and indulging in high-volume noise have become markers of celebrating traditional festivals.
The state government, which means the BJP and the Shiv Sena together, had time to absorb, interpret and implement the court’s order. It seems to have been busy with other matters for four months. When the HC restated its view last week, the government began scrambling around because festivals such as Gokulashtami and Ganeshotsav are only a few weeks away.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has assured that he will find a way out but political parties have already generated tremendous heat, noise and politics around the court’s directions. Pandal politics is in full swing and threatens to further harm public peace and order.
The Sena predictably slammed the court, questioning if the “verdict has come from a court in Pakistan” and reminding us that the city’s defining festival, Ganeshotsav, was “started by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and not by Dawood” (Ibrahim, presumably). These sentiments expressed through its daily Saamana meant that lakhs of Sainiks and others who depend on it for news would get a biased picture of the court’s order.
The BJP, sensing a political opportunity to capture the popular socio-religious space, set up a committee of Ganeshotsav mandals to carry their woes to Fadnavis. The party tried to intervene in the ongoing case. It also predictably drew equivalence between celebration of these festivals and Muslim practices that similarly inconvenience citizens, such as azaan on loudspeakers and offering namaz on streets.
Meanwhile, the apex organisation of Ganpati mandals representing nearly 1,500 of them, has questioned the need for BJP to create a parallel forum. And idol makers, for whom these are the busiest days in the year, are sore that they have not received permissions for pandals to finish making Ganesh idols. The issue of using public roads and violating noise rules has descended into a polarised debate about Hindus and Muslims, India and Pakistan, and more.
The high court bench made it amply clear last week that the March order did not prohibit pandals totally, but that they “cannot obstruct free movement (on roads), and the right to have roads in a reasonable condition is a fundamental right”. It is a most reasonable view. The BJP’s contention that it “affected the right to profess their religion” was rejected. That a number of Ganeshotsav, Gokulashtami and Navratri pandals belong to or have the blessings of local politicians renders the political parties’ resistance to the court’s order suspect.
The immense inconveniences that citizens are put through for weeks because pandals take over large sections of roads, or loudspeakers blare music (often inappropriate dance numbers) at odd times of the day or night are all well documented. The pandals worsen the city’s terrible traffic congestion, hold up emergency services such as ambulances, and turn walking into a life-threatening adventure for pedestrians. The court’s order meant these would be regulated by a policy drawn up by the BJP-Sena government.
Of course, mosques must follow the Noise Rules during azaan and desist from blocking streets for prayers. If loudspeakers are switched on before 6am, or violate the recommended decibel levels, or streets are blocked, the Mumbai Police has the authority to take action. Despite complaints, the police have repeatedly turned a blind eye. To use the azaan at 5am to appropriate the right to use loudspeaker past 10pm is false equivalence. Both are violations of law.
If the Fadnavis government is sincere about its intentions, it should evolve a policy on pandals that balances public celebrations with citizens’ rights and a redressal mechanism to report violations – and stop playing pandal politics.