Public celebration of festivals was meant to be a time for reverence, merriment, food, bonding or reconnecting with traditions. But sadly, increasingly, festivals have come to mean noise, public disorder and inconvenience, demonstration of political heft, obscene sums of money, one-upmanship and hooliganism, and religious or community hostilities.
Whether it’s the Ganapati or Durga puja pandals which encroach on narrow congested roads, or loudspeakers that blare away after 10pm during Navratri and awaken people at 4am-5am during Ramzan, or blocked roads during visarjan and Moharram and Jain rath-yatra processions, or slaughter of goats in housing societies or street corners during Bakrid, those involved in them believe everything is in order. But there are a vast number of others, religious and reverential, for whom such celebrations are a nuisance.
It is time then to deliberate on how to eliminate or reduce the nuisance value and restore meaning to the public celebrations. Does this mean evolving and laying down a code of conduct for all participants irrespective of religion or nature of the festival? Perhaps yes. Offline and online trolls are likely to mock and vilify the idea, but for citizens to live a life of minimal nuisance during festivals in a congested and strained city, a common code of conduct will help.
In the last few years, the noise pollution aspect has been addressed by the Bombay high court which has heard a clutch of petitions on the subject. The monetised and dangerous version of the dahi handi has been challenged in the courts as also the right to slaughter goats in cooperative housing societies with a mixed group of residents. On more than one occasion, the high court has made its mind known on the nuisance aspect of festivals.
“No religion says that festivals are to be celebrated by obstructing roads or in breach of law by causing nuisance and annoyance to a large number of citizens,” observed the division bench of Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Vijay Achliya last October, days before Navratri. The judges added that the order to follow the law was not meant to curb the celebration of religious festivals, and was equally applicable to celebrations of all religions.
For those who may have taken cover under Article 25 of the Constitution, the bench clarified that “No person can claim their right under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution (freedom to profess one’s religion) to celebrate festivals by obstructing roads…Religious festivals have to be celebrated in a meaningful manner”.
Reading together the courts’ many pronouncements over the last few years gives an idea of what a code of conduct can be but a social code is best drawn up outside the court. It is for social and political leaders to build public opinion and evolve a collectively acceptable code, perhaps even in the state legislature. This code can lay down the broad framework or parameters within which all major festivals must be celebrated in the public domain. A code would also make it easier for the local police to ensure more order – and fewer nuisances.
But what to do when many political leaders see boisterous celebration of festivals as a political investment and care not about the breach of law or nuisance? The onus lies on socially powerful and influential opinion-makers as it did in the last decade about bringing a law against superstition.
There have been arguments that public celebration of festivals however unruly, noisy, and harassing must be left alone because they bring cheer to the informal cities within the city and because they were once markers of resistance to the British during the movement for Independence. These are specious grounds to ignore the commercialised and politicised celebrations of recent years. Even Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who started the public celebration of Ganapati festival in 1893, might have argued for a code of conduct now.