A deadly second wave of Covid has gripped India, with cases skyrocketing to over two lakh a day. Mumbai has declared a near-total lockdown, Delhi is under weekend curfew and several other states have intensified restrictions. But at the Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar and at election rallies and road shows in Bengal, lakhs of people have been gathering without much social distancing or even masks.
Protect the spirit of Kumbh: The mela’s message is humanism, the pilgrim is its soul
Both the Kumbh Mela and elections are grand Indian festivals: One is a vibrant expression of faith, another of democracy. One celebrates the pilgrim, the other celebrates the voter. But when politicians organise massive rallies for a show of strength or set aside safety norms at a religious festival, they are jeopardising the health of both the ordinary voter and the humble pilgrim. Millions have participated in two shahi snans so far which begs the question: Where is Covid-appropriate governance? Is it not the duty of the Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat, last heard expounding on an airline passenger’s ripped jeans, to safeguard the health of the pilgrim whose healthcare costs the state will most likely not bear? With elections due in Uttarakhand next year, politicians are fighting shy of calling for the Kumbh to be suspended for fear of alienating the sadhu samaj and the devoted. But by doing this netas are violating the Kumbh’s spirit which puts the pilgrim first.
The Kumbh’s message is humanism, the pilgrim is its soul. There is no deity or priesthood at the Kumbh. Instead the festival is about the pilgrim, it celebrates the relationship between the seeker and the holy river, which becomes a bridge to the gods. River and sun await the kalpvasi (pilgrim) for that personal moment of redemption during the snan. The politicisation of the Kumbh Mela began at the 1989 Allahabad Kumbh when VHP used the occasion to announce its Ram Mandir programmes. Today, the manner in which police and administration are turning a blind eye to Covid violations at Kumbh shows how the festival’s humanist spirit and the centrality that the Kumbh gives to the well-being of the pilgrim are being ignored.
Just contrast this with the response to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at the Nizamuddin markaz during last year’s lockdown. The gathering was instantly dubbed a “super spreader,” police filed a range of cases including attempt to murder, a minister called Tablighis “terrorists” and a shrill media campaign suggested a sinister attempt at “corona jihad.” A Tablighi gathering attracting police action and Kumbh mela happening with official blessings shows a dangerously irrational approach to a public health crisis. Covid safety problems must be applied on everyone regardless of which community they belong to. The Uttarakhand CM’s statement that the Nizamuddin markaz was an enclosed building and thus unsafe, but the Kumbh is safe because it’s being held outdoors doesn’t cut ice.
Lakhs travelling home from the Kumbh could become super spreaders. Who is most at risk? It is the humble pilgrim and his family. The prime minister’s necessary message to the sant leadership to keep Kumbh rituals symbolic would have carried far more weight had it come at least a fortnight earlier. Already Covid cases in Uttarakhand have begun to mount. This week over 1,700 tested positive in Haridwar and a high priest has died. Cases are sharply rising in Bengal too.
The Haj was cancelled last year, Christmas celebrations were scaled down in the West, and Ramzan gatherings ought to be restricted. To put a celebration on hold to safeguard the lives of the faithful is a far greater service to religion than knowingly putting millions at risk of contracting a deadly virus.
Shops and businesses are being closed, citizens are being punished for not wearing masks, people in Mumbai have been forced to do sit-ups for violating Covid norms. But why are the same life-saving rules not being applied to Kumbh Mela devotees? In conducting high-voltage elections campaigns, why are politicians recklessly putting citizens’ lives at risk simply because they need packed venues to bolster their image? But what does democracy essentially mean? It means the voter is sovereign, and the voters’ well-being is central to the democratic system. However, in holding mass meetings in a pandemic, politicians are demonstrating their disregard for both voters and democracy. By refusing to keep Kumbh devotees safe in a health emergency, they are revealing how little they actually care for us, the people.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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