In an ongoing case before the Allahabad High Court, the Uttar Pradesh government has stated on affidavit that azan, the call to prayer in Islam, has been prohibited in the state since the nationwide lockdown was first announced, on 24 March. In its affidavit, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government also seemed unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between azan and namaz, the daily offering of prayers. While Muslims traditionally congregate mosque for namaz, mosques in Uttar Pradesh had stopped holding namaz in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. Yet, the affidavit noted, “In case Azaan is permitted during the period of lockdown there is all likelihood of public assembly for Namaz in Masjid and the same shall not be in public interest and will prompt transmission of COVID-19 infection threatening human life.”
The alarmist submissions by the state government came in response to a public-interest litigation filed by Afzal Ansari, a member of parliament from the Bahujan Samaj Party representing Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur constituency. On 26 April, Ansari wrote a letter to the chief justice of the Allahabad High Court, to raise concerns about incidents from across the state of local police, administration and goons preventing Muslims from calling the azan. He stated in his letter that there was no government directive preventing azan, and that since the lockdown began, only namaz at mosques was prohibited. He added that he had contacted local district magistrates and police superintendents. “Everyone is talking about some oral order but its source and authority is not disclosed,” Ansari wrote. “No written order for banning ‘Azaan’ is being shown.”
Ansari’s letter was converted into a PIL and taken up for hearing by the high court. In end April, when news broke that azan was being prevented in Uttar Pradesh’s mosques, officials largely denied that the call to prayer was prohibited. But the government’s counter affidavit, filed in early May, took a completely contradictory position, claiming not only that azan had been prohibited for the entirety of the lockdown, but that no mosque called the azan during this period either. Several imams told me that this was a blatant lie, that azan had continued at their mosques for weeks after the lockdown began, and that it was suddenly prohibited in end April. “They lied to the court that azan was stopped from March itself,” Ansari told me. “It’s baseless. If it was banned from March, why would we wait till April to file the litigation?”
In April, from Gorakhpur in the east to Ghazipur in the west, numerous accounts emerged about violence against Muslims for calling the azan. Across these districts, muezzins and imams from local mosques said that Muslim residents had taken to offering their prayers from their respective homes, in keeping with the demands of social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The azan served only to alert the community about the prayer timings. Yet, in several cases, the local police and district administration admitted to enforcing a ban on azan, while in others, Muslim residents agreed not to call the azan through loudspeakers. In effect, the state administration appears to have forced its Muslim minority to choose between their faith and their safety, while their safety remains insecure irrespective of their choice.
The Gareeb Nawaz Masjid in Bankata village, situated around thirty-five kilometres from Gorakhpur city, is usually crowded for Zuhr, the afternoon prayer. But on 26 April, over a month into the nationwide lockdown, there were only two people in the mosque even though it was the first Sunday of Ramzan. Most of the Muslim residents had taken to offering their prayers from home, to comply with the demands of social distancing. The mosque’s loudspeaker had just gotten fixed that day, so Abdul Rahman, the mosque’s muezzin, decided to call the azan on a loudspeaker for the first time after the lockdown had begun. Within minutes of his call to prayer, Rahman said, five or six people barged into the mosque.