UP’s azan crackdown: State files misleading affidavit in HC; police intimidates Muslim locals

A worker stands in front of the closed doors of Delhi’s Jama Masjid on the eve of Ramzan, during a nationwide lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In Uttar Pradesh, the Islamic holy month has seen several districts report accounts of violence against Muslims calling the azan. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
14 May, 2020

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.

“Azan kaun bola?”—Who called the azan?—Rahman recalled the intruders had asked. He told me that Zainuddin, an elderly resident of the area who was with him in the mosque, had given the call, but “to save Zainuddin, I responded that I did it.” They threatened him not to repeat the azan. Rahman informed them that he had taken permission from Jata Shankar, the station house officer of the local Sikriganj police station. “After hearing this, they started beating me,” Rahman said. “They hit me at least four or five times, and took out the Quran from the rack and threw it on the floor”—a blasphemous act under Islam. “Three Qurans were thrown outside and two inside the masjid.”

Upon hearing the ruckus, Sonu Ali, a 25-year-old who lives nearby, rushed to the mosque. He saw the violence, and in an effort to ensure that the assailants could not flee, Ali closed the masjid gate and went to inform the police. He said he saw the assailants and identified at least five of them by name—they were all Thakur residents of the village. But the assailants managed to escape. “Later, they returned with twenty five to thirty people and started hitting me and my brother,” Ali recounted. “My father, Azmat Ali, tried to save us. Those goons then hit my father with bricks, bamboo sticks and stones. My father’s head got broken and his leg got fractured.” According to Rahman, “There were two police personnel on duty around hundred metres away from the masjid,” but they did not help Ali and his father. He said it took an hour for the police to intervene, only after Rahman, Zainuddin and Saleem Ansari, a member of a masjid committee that oversees its affairs, pleaded with them.

The next day, the police organised a compromise meeting between the two communities, which approximately fifty Thakur and twenty Muslim residents from the village attended. According to Ali, the Thakur community formed a majority of the village residents, comprising nearly half of the local population, while the Muslim households constituted less than fifteen percent of the village, with only four Muslim families living near the mosque. At the meeting, Rahman said the Thakurs “made a written agreement that such things will not be repeated again,” but no criminal case was registered against the assailants. Though the Thakur residents had argued against it, azan was formally permitted in the village.

Rahman added that the police also decided to deploy a dozen members from its personnel in the village. Shankar, the Sikriganj SHO, had no hesitation in admitting that the mosque had taken prior permission to use a loudspeaker for azan. “We had permitted the masjid authorities to use loudspeakers a long time ago,” Shankar said. He added that the police did not register a first-information report against the attack because nobody filed a complaint. “The villagers were ready for a compromise talk,” he told me.

“Influential persons from both sides and senior police officials attended the compromise meeting,” Shankar said. He said it included Vipul Kumar Srivastava, an additional superintendent of police of Gorakhpur, and Vipin Kumar, the sub-divisional magistrate of Gorakhpur’s Khajani city, which has jurisdiction over Bankata. “Both communities made a decision, a written one, that such actions which can disrupt the harmony of the village will not be repeated in the future,” he added. Sant Prasad, the Khajani member of legislative assembly from the BJP, initially claimed that any allegation of an attack on Muslims for azan was “fake news.” When I pressed further, he conceded that an incident had taken place, but downplayed it, noting that “it was a minor incident and it was solved on that day itself.”

By the accounts of the local police and state administration, the issue had been resolved in the village. But according to Ali, “the police have no say in front of the Thakurs.” He said that his family decided not to lodge a complaint because the Thakur community was too powerful in the village. “The majority of the people in this village are Thakurs,” Ali explained. “We live on the south side of the village. There are only four Muslim families on the south side. If we filed a case against them, they will not let us live in peace.”

Azan had resumed in Bankata, but Ali’s fear was not unfounded. He was not alone in feeling it. On 2 May, Rahman told me, “Today, I had gone near the river bank to relieve myself. On the way, I met the five Thakurs who attacked me that day.” He said they threatened him again, “Yeh mullah logon ko aur maarna hai”—We need to beat these Muslims more. “I was really scared after hearing this,” Rahman continued. “They are powerful. They can get away with it easily.”

In other districts of Uttar Pradesh such as Ghazipur, the local police and administration have not maintained even a façade of cooperation on the issue. At the district’s Sikanderpur masjid, the imam had gone to his village ahead of the lockdown, and Muhammad Azharuddin, a 21-year-old, had assumed responsibility as the imam-in-charge. On 19 April, Azharuddin and his friend Asif Ansari, both      students at a madrasa run by the masjid, were performing wudu—a ritual washing under Islam that is performed before prayer—when four police vehicles drove up to the mosque. Two police personnel dressed in civilian clothes entered the masjid, Azharuddin recalled. “I was washing my face and hands when an inspector grabbed my collar,” he said. “He didn’t let me complete my wudu.”

Azharuddin recalled that an inspector from the local Karanda police station was waiting outside the masjid, though he did not recall the officer’s name. “Do you give the azan?” the inspector asked Azharuddin. “Yes, I do,” he replied. Azharuddin said that the police then took Asif and him to the Karanda police station at around 8.30 pm, and beat his friend inside the compound. They were then made to sit on the ground and told that azan is banned during the lockdown. Azharuddin said they were charged under Sections 188 and 269 of the Indian Penal Code—respectively, disobeying an order by a public servant and committing a negligent act that is likely to spread a disease that endangers lives. At around 12.30 am, Azharuddin and Asif were released on bail.

The police, however, claimed that they were arrested for not wearing a mask. “It has nothing to do with azan,” Dharmender Pandey, the SHO of the Karanda police station, told me. “That night, we were on a usual patrol announcing the COVID guidelines,” Pandey said. “We entered the masjid and found that they were not maintaining lockdown protocols. So we took them into custody, charged them with a petty case, and later released them.” Azharuddin pointed out that the charge was absurd because it is not possible to wear a mask during wudu. “For wudu, you had to clean your face, ear, hand and forehead properly with water,” he said.

“We followed all rules and regulations of lockdown and were maintaining social distancing,” Azharuddin continued. “Only a maximum of three usually prayed in the masjid.” He said the police were far greater in number. “They treated us like criminals. On the way to the station, they were asking us about azan.” He recalled that they asked who had called the azan. There is no government directive that mandates wearing a mask within the confines of a mosque or any other building. When asked about these concerns about the arrest, Pandey said, “The arrest has nothing to do with namaz and azan. These people were roaming the street during the day time without wearing a mask and not maintaining social distancing.” He added, “We didn’t discriminate on the basis of religion. Our team even has Muslim officers.” Since that day, Azharuddin said, they have not called the azan on the loudspeakers in the mosque. “I am a student, I am afraid,” he told me. “They can frame me in a fabricated case.”            

A similar scene was witnessed at the Dargah Masjid in Ghazipur’s Dildar Nagar locality. At around 4 am on 24 April, on the morning of the day of Ramzan, two policemen from the Dildar Nagar station came to the mosque on a motorcycle, Muhammed Murtaza Khan, the muezzin, recalled. Khan said he was getting ready for Fajr, the morning prayer, at the time. He said the policemen told him that there was a ban on azan, and that “anyone who dared to do it would be booked under appropriate sections of the IPC.” Khan added, “Since 23 March, only me and the other two masjid staffers used to pray from the masjid and call the azan. Now they are saying that azan cannot be performed using loudspeakers.”

Khan emphasised that the police did not have any written order prohibiting the azan. He said Om Prakash Arya, the district magistrate had not issued “any such order” and that the “local police are just doing gundagardi”—hooliganism. Ansari, the Ghazipur MP, had sent me a photo of a notice issued by the police that he said had been stuck on masjids in the district. The notice was carefully worded—though it did not expressly prohibit azan, it stated that the call to prayer would lead to a spread of the infection, and in such a scenario, not just the person who called the azan but everyone who congregated for prayer would be liable for prosecution.

It also seemed to accuse the religious leadership of inciting the Muslim community to spread the virus by calling the azan to congregate for namaz. After describing azan as a call to congregate at a mosque to pray, the notice stated that “In the present circumstances, instead of stopping the infection, asking people to congregate at a religious place … is a violation of the lockdown … and creates a complete likelihood of spreading the epidemic.” The notice further cited a 2017 Supreme Court judgment, in the case of KC Jacob vs Union of India, to argue that the costs for any public damage caused by the azan would be recovered from everyone who violated the lockdown.

Dilip Kumar Singh, the SHO at the Dildar Nagar police station, said that there was no ban on azan. When I asked him about the notice and Khan’s experience, the SHO appeared to modify his position. “We are just following the lockdown rules,” he said. “You can contact the DM sahib,” he added, before hanging up the phone.

But Arya, the Ghazipur district magistrate, spoke with similar talking points, repeating that the administration was “just implementing the lockdown rules.” When I asked him about the relationship between the coronavirus and azan, the question was met with a long silence. Arya did not, however, deny that there was a ban on the call for azan. When asked how long it would continue, he responded, “We didn’t get any order from the top to resume the azan using loudspeakers. If we get any order from the top, we will resume azan.”

Om Prakash Singh, the superintendent of Ghazipur police, seemed to believe that the azan issue had been blown out of proportion. Singh said that there were restrictions on azan all over the country and that he did not understand why people were raising it as an issue. When I pointed out that only congregation for namaz at a mosque was banned during the lockdown, Singh claimed that azan was a part of namaz. He then returned to the same talking points, repeating that they were just implementing the guidelines by the state administration. He hung up when I asked him for a written order about the ban. Though Singh ignored my subsequent attempts to call him, I received a call from his subordinate. The call was almost an interrogation, with the police officer, who did not reveal his name and only identified himself as Singh’s assistant, even asking personal details, such as my home address.

Accounts such as these led Ansari to write to the high court chief justice. He wrote that the police had threatened Muslim residents that “if anyone dared to make Azaan from the Mosques, he would be booked under ‘National Security Act.’ Several FIRs have been lodged against some Imams of the Mosques without any rhythm or reason.” Ansari noted that the ban violated the right to equality and freedom of religion guaranteed under the Constitution.

“Their point is that Azaan was banned to reduce the possibility of crowd assembling at the masjid,” he told me. “Since the lockdown, Muslims had decided that namaz including Tarawih”—additional prayers offered during Ramzan—“would be offered at their home and the Quran will be read from home instead of the masjid,” Ansari added. “One person will give azan to inform the Muslims about the start and end of the fasting during the holy month of Ramzan and the respective namaz timings. No one will be affected with corona due to azan from masjid.” He continued, “Azan is not a crime. They cannot snatch our fundamental rights. I am fully confident the Allahabad High Court verdict will provide us the justice.” The judgment in the case has been reserved, with no indication of when it will be listed for pronouncement.

Meanwhile, the state government’s response inspires little confidence about the apparent ban on azan being revoked. It also failed to make a compelling argument in support of the ban. The affidavit first referred to guidelines issued by the ministry of home affairs on 24 March, after the lockdown was announced, which stated that “no religious congregation would be permitted.” It also referred to circulars issued by Ghazipur’s district magistrate and the state government on the same date, but those too, only prohibited religious congregations, and not azan. This is repeated throughout the state’s affidavit, which is unable to point to any written document that explicitly prohibited the azan.

Instead, it falsely claimed that there had been no activity in any religious place since the lockdown came into effect. In addition to the imams who said that azan, but not namaz, had continued during the lockdown, the clear lie in state government’s affidavit is also exposed by videos of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Adityanath, attending a religious ceremony on 25 March. On the first day of the lockdown, Adityanath went to Ayodhya for the ceremony, which was reportedly attended by over fifty people, to move the idol of Ram Lalla—the Hindu deity’s infant form—to a new place.

The state’s affidavit also made a seemingly tangential reference to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus among the attendees of an annual conference held by the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organization, in mid March in Delhi. The affidavit identified that attendees were traced to Ghazipur, and that they were quarantined and released, but it did not make any connection between the Tablighi Jamaat conference and the prohibition on azan. For all intents and purposes, it appeared to be a dog-whistle submission alienating the Muslim community.

Ansari was not the only one to write to the high court on the issue. The court also received letters challenging the prohibition on azan from Salman Khurshid, a Congress leader and former cabinet minister, and S Wasim A Qadri, a senior advocate. In his letter, Khurshid pointed to incidents prohibiting the azan in two other districts of Uttar Pradesh, Farrukhabad and Hathras. 

In Farrukhabad, a notice allegedly issued by the district’s Maudarwasa police station surfaced on social media on 26 April. The notice read:  “It is brought to your notice that in view of the contagious corona outbreak and the beginning of the month of Ramzan from 25 April 2020, the district collector … has ordered that there be will no use of loudspeakers for azan for offering of the prayers inside the mosque. It is informed that everyone should offer the prayers in their own houses. If anyone is found violating this notice, strict action as per law will be taken.” The notice appears to be issued by Jai Prakash Sharma, the Maudarwaja police station’s SHO.

When I contacted the SHO, he said that the police station had not issued any such notice. “It is completely fake and the notices were pasted by some miscreants in front of masjids,” Sharma said. “Azan was not banned in Farrukhabad. One muezzin has been allowed in every mosque to recite azan and offer prayers.” He added that the Farrukhabad police had initiated an investigation to find the culprit behind the fake notice.

But the state government’s affidavit offered a different response. While the government insisted that notices prohibiting azan were fake, it also claimed that “the local Muslim community have been following the directions of the Government of India and no religious activities including Azaan are being carried out … and no loud speakers are being used for any purpose w.e.f. 24.03.2020.” It added, “No complaint in this regard has been received by the District/Police administration of Farrukhabad.”

I also contacted Manvendra Singh, the Farrukhabad district magistrate, for a comment. When I said I was a journalist from Kerala, he responded, “Keral pe baith ke Farrukhabad ki baare mein kyun pareshaan ho rahe ho?”—Why are you sitting in Kerala and worrying about Farrukhabad, he asked. When I pressed him for details about the notice and the situation in the district, he cut the call.

In Sikandra Rao, a town in Hathras, Muhammed Shakeel, the imam of the Sarai Umtha Begum masjid, told me he was waiting for Iftar to break his Ramzan fast on 27 April when he saw four bikes approaching the masjid with two policemen on each bike. He said one sub inspector approached him and said, “Azan is happening from your masjid. If you do not stop it, you will be solely responsible for the legal actions.” Shakeel asked them to show a written order. “The police replied that if you have any doubts, come to the police station we will show you everything. The SHO will clear your doubt.” That day, the Maghrib, or evening prayer, marked the first namaz of Ramzan that was conducted without an azan called on the loudspeaker

“During the initial period of lockdown, we had a meeting with authorities,” Shakeel told me. “In that meeting, they said that only three–five people are allowed to pray inside masjid during the lockdown. They didn’t mention anything about azan. There was a restriction on jamaat”—congregation—“for namaz, but azan was allowed.” Shakeel said that a similar meeting was conducted towards the end of April, before the beginning of Ramzan, with the local police, the sub-divisional magistrate and around fifteen other people. During that meeting too, he recalled, there was no ban on azan. “They said that you can have azan but cannot pray with more than two persons inside the masjid. We agreed that only a maximum of five people will do namaz in the masjid.”

Yet, subsequent local media reports noted that a decision to ban azan was taken following a similar meeting between the district magistrate, the superintendent of police and local community leaders. But Shakeel was not called for the meeting. “They had a meeting with three–four people from the community,” he said. “I read about it in the newspaper.” According to Nauman Gauhar, a leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s youth wing in Hathras, “None of the eminent community leaders and influential persons were invited to the meeting.” He said that those who attended the previous meetings were not a part of the one during Ramzan. “Most of us have no clue about the meeting,” he added. “Police had a meeting with three or four dalals”—brokers—“in the town.”

Gaurav Banswal, the superintendent of police at Hathras, told me that the ban was necessary because a lot of people would gather to offer namaz following the azan. “It would be crowded,” he said, adding that “this rule is applicable to temples too.”

“They are saying that azan from the masjid will violate the social-distancing norms,” Shakeel told me. “The government has now opened beverage outlets. Thousands of people were standing in the queue to buy liquors. Does it not violate social distancing? What is the connection between azan and social distancing? We were not having a jamaat namaz with more than five people since the lockdown began. Those people praying from home are doing so after hearing azan from the masjid.”

Ansari, too, emphasised that the Muslim community would not violate social-distancing norms because of azan. “Islam has better crisis management than that,” he argued. Ansari referred to a story from the prophet Muhammed’s life to support his argument that Muslims did not need to congregate after an azan. “There is an example from the Prophet’s life, when they faced heavy downpour,” Ansari said. “People were finding it difficult to go to masjid. The Prophet ordered his muezzin to include two stanzas in the azan asking people to pray at homes. The Prophet had shown a way that if there is such a life-threatening situation it’s better to pray at home.”

Praveen Kumar Laxkar, the district magistrate of Hathras, told me that an order to ban azan came from the top. “Top means?” I asked. “Chief minister,” Kumar replied. Adityanath’s office did not respond to phone calls and an email seeking a comment.