On March 26, the Changanassery Municipality did not sound its siren at 6.39pm to alert Muslims in the area to end their Ramzan fast.
This was a knee-jerk reaction to a sudden and unexpected wave of online hate campaign against the civic body for giving devout Muslims waiting to break their fast a siren alert.
“This is the job of Islamic religious leaders, not the municipality's,” the anchor of a popular right-wing online news channel said. The anchor described the municipality's decision as “brazen communalism”, called it “extremely obscene”, and said it was the “most telling example of pseudo secularism”.
The UDF-led municipality quickly steeled itself. The very next day, on March 27, it resumed the siren wail at 6.39 pm with the support of the CPM and Kerala Congress (Mani). The resentment of the three BJP councillors was cast aside.
Though the municipality is determined to sound it daily, the siren alert seems tentative for the moment.
A Christian organisation - Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA) - has moved the High Court against the municipality's decision; this CASA should not be confused with the Christian relief organisation Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA).
Pseudo secular cry
According to the CASA, the use of a municipality siren for the benefit of a religious community has never happened in the history of Kerala.
“Something unheard of ever since the formation of Kerala. A government mechanism, the siren of Changanassery Municipality, is being used to tell Islam's followers when to break their fast. And for this two government employees have been deputed,” the CASA says on its Facebook page.
The reference is to a municipality order issued by its secretary on March 23. The order tasks a contingent worker to sound the siren at 6.39 pm everyday from March 23 to April 21 and hands over supervisory duties to the health supervisor.
The order was issued on the basis of a request made by M H Haneefa, the secretary of Puthoorpally Muslim Jama-ath. Besides being an unprecedented move, the CASA says the decision did not have the approval of the Municipal Council.
Siren with a past
Jama-ath secretary Haneefa, a former Changanassery municipal chairman, said the siren alert was an annual ritual that could be traced back to over 60 years. “When we were kids I still remember me and my friends running to the mosque to eat gruel ('kanji') during Ramzan fast when the municipality siren went up,” he said. Haneefa, a former Congressman, is now 72.
Arun Mohan, the 50-year-old CPM councillor of Eroopa ward and an engineer, told Onmanorama that the Ramzan siren was an old practice that existed even before his birth.
Usha, the councillor of the Puthoorpally ward within which the mosque falls, gave the impression that the Ramzan siren was always considered a beauty spot on the municipality. “I have been in the council for the past 38 years and the practice has gone on without a break,” Usha said. “And we want this to continue,” she said.
This was the overwhelming sentiment at the emergency meeting of the council held on Tuesday (March 28). “Except for the BJP councillors, everyone else wanted the siren to be sounded,” Arun Mohan said. The three BJP members, in a show of protest, walked out.
Except for the BJP councillors, everyone else wanted the siren to be sounded
Arun Mohan, CPM councillor
Even the request letter sent by the Jama-ath secretary offers a clear hint that the Ramzan siren was a customary annual ritual and not a brand new tool of appeasement as alleged by the CASA. Here is what the letter says: “The holy Ramzan fast begins from March 23. We hope the necessary arrangements would be made like in the previous years to sound the municipal siren.”
In the beginning was the beat
The mosque is more than a century old and in the olden times, when the population was sparse and the houses were squat and single-storeyed, the prayer alerts, including the time to break the Ramzan fast, were given out by beating a drum ('dahara') placed on the top floor of the mosque's three-storeyed minaret.
With technical advancement, the drum was set aside and the muezzin made the call through a loudspeaker. The 'dahara' is still preserved, hung from the rafters of the minaret.
Gradually, development rendered technology obsolete. Buildings around the mosque got taller and wider, muffling the mike-enhanced muezzin's call. That was when the request was first made to the Changanassery Municipality for the siren alert. “The council's decision to sound its siren, some 60 years ago, was unanimous,” Haneefa, the former municipal chairman, said.
Antiques, dead and living
The siren, which sustains for more than half a minute, is loud enough to be carried over a large swathe of the municipality. Places like Thrikkodithanam, Mukkattupady, Pottassery, Vattamalakkunnu, Aramalakkunnu, Puzhavath Hidayath Nagar and Market fall within its wailing distance.
The municipal siren, though a colonial relic, has not suffered the fate of the minaret drum. It is still put to the same old uses in many municipalities across Kerala.
When it was first installed, it was a means to inform people of the time, and alert them to emergencies. It was useful in an age when instruments that showed time were a luxury and communication systems were primitive. And like LAN phones, it still is useful.
BJP's secret shame
Interestingly, even the BJP councillors do not dispute the municipality's tradition of the Ramzan siren. It is not their case that the municipal siren had never been sounded during Ramzan. “This has been happening for years,” said Prasanna Kumari, the BJP councillor of Perunna East ward.
But what is a first for BJP is the municipal secretary's order deputing two employees to sound the siren at 6.39pm daily. “Never before has such an order been issued,” Kumari said.
Haneefa agreed. “Usually we make a formal request and the arrangements are automatically put in place. No formal orders are made,” Haneefa said. “This time the municipality has a new secretary and he must have thought it proper to issue an order,” he said.
This has now come in handy for the BJP. It is as if the secretary's order has suddenly exposed a secret shame it had been burdened with all this while. “The order has gone viral and the whole world has come to know of such a communal practice,” Prasanna Kumari told Onmanorama.
“We would have kept our eyes closed had the practice been carried out on the sly, like in the previous years, without the municipality's official approval. But now we have no choice but to strongly oppose it,” she said.
Kumari issues a veiled threat of competing demands. “What if this provokes the Hindu community to demand the sounding of the siren early in the morning during mandalam season,” she asked.
The simple answer would be, this demand, too, can be met without a fuss. Take Ponnani Municipality in Malappuram, for instance. This Ramzan, its siren sounds twice a day. And during the just concluded mandalam season, its siren wail went out at 5 a.m. on all days.