Author: Nistha Sinha, 2nd year LL.B. student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
KUMBH MELA: A Gathering Amidst Rising COVID Cases
Brihaspati (Jupiter) completes one revolution approximately every 12 years (on Earth). This 12 year cycle is celebrated as a large pilgrimage of Hinduism at four river bank sites i.e. Allahabad (Triveni Sangam), Nashik (Godavari), Haridwar (Ganga) and Ujjain (Shipra), known to be one of the largest religious celebrations in India called the Kumbh Mela. A ritual dip in the river marks the festival, apart from a celebration of community commerce with various Melas (fairs), educational and religious discourses by saints, mass feedings of monks or the poor, and entertainment spectacle. The practice of dipping into these rivers signifies atonement or penance and it is a widely held belief that it washes away sins.
Approximately 60 million Hindus gathered for the Kumbh Mela in 2001 according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Often considered as the “world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims”, it is claimed that the festival witnesses one of the largest peaceful gatherings in the world. It has been listed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Further, it was estimated by the Kumbh Mela authorities that the largest one-day attendance at the Kumbh Mela was 30 million on 10 February 2013 and 50 million on 4 February 2019.
As India grapples through the devastating second wave of COVID19, one must look at science and religious traditions from a different outlook. The world has been forced to evolve due to this pandemic, what used to be normal prior to the coronavirus situation is no longer the norm. So, it was much of a shock to see the Government endorse and state sponsor a festival that went against every Covid19 regulation laid down by the government itself. The question that arises is whether there could have been a different, precautionary approach towards this centuries old tradition? There is a very common radicalized myth that Science and Religion are at the opposing ends of the spectrum and that they cannot co-exist. This is a flawed notion. Under normal circumstances, the Kumbh Mela is held over three months. Although, this time around, due to concerns over COVID-19, the Kumbh Mela formally began as late as April 1. There were claims that the event was “comparatively modest” despite the huge number of people gathering around Haridwar. Apparently, the 2021 event was “reduced” to just one month and “scaled down” midway due to the uproar of the pandemic. Is the bare minimum enough to fight against a virus that has paralysed the world and brought it to a standstill? Most basic COVID-19 guidelines like social-distancing, wearing a mask and so on were openly violated; all happening right under the watchful eyes of the state machinery.
Amidst a critical Covid situation as India reported more than 200,000 Covid cases for the first time since the pandemic began, the government of Uttarakhand, where Haridwar is located, was heavily criticised for allowing the Kumbh Mela festival to go ahead. It has been hailed as a super spreader event with contact-tracing unsuccessful even to this day, resulting in a large number of positive cases. Upto around 70 lakh devotees participated in this mammoth religious congregation. The Chief medical officer for Haridwar, Dr SK Jha, noted that between the 10th and 14th of April, more than 1,600 cases had been confirmed amongst devotees. Although these statistics arise from the few that chose to get tested. Apart from the reported cases, many devotees are unaccounted for. Thus, leading to fears that the numbers are probably even higher. Further, the disease may have been successfully spread across the nation by many of those who have returned home.
The state of Madhya Pradesh reported that 99 per cent of those devotees who returned from Kumbh at Haridwar, have tested positive for the coronavirus. Several states have mandated the COVID-19 test or quarantine for the returnees from Kumbh in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases. India recorded 11,000 cases on June 18th, 2020 and in the next 60 days, it added 35,000 new cases on average every day. In comparison, on 10 February 2021, when the second wave just started to gain momentum, the nation confirmed 11,000 cases and in the following 50 days, the daily average was around 22,000 cases. It took a turn in the next 10 days when cases peaked with the daily average reaching 89,800.
Despite the warning signs that were visible in February according to Dr. A. Fathahudeen, (part of Kerala state’s Covid taskforce); the government, the state, the system and the citizens failed to get their act together. Perhaps everybody had their guards down due to the off-peak season, with the number of cases falling, that almost swayed the public to believe that they had overcome the coronavirus. It seemed like the repeat of the Tablighi Jamaat case at Nizamuddin (Delhi) which had sparked enormous debate last year. The similarities between the two are relentless with both being religious congregations in the midst of a pandemic, having indirectly contributed to the rise in cases.
The uproar on social media arose again with people bringing out how religion had a key role to play in this crisis. Although this has little to do with religion and more with Politics. There were various other religious congregations that were held this year without following appropriate Covid protocol and precautions including Ramadan and Baisakhi celebrations. These are equally liable for the devastation that India is currently facing. Although, only the Kumbh Mela was state sponsored and endorsed.
The Indian Railways made headlines when they announced Kumbh special trains and to clear traffic at Haridwar railway station for the ease of devotees attending Kumbh Mela-2021. According to an Amar Ujala report, some of the major routes on which Indian Railways was going to run the Kumbh special train services were between Howrah-Dehradun-Howrah via Haridwar, Howrah-Yoganagri Rishikesh-Howrah, Patna-Kota-Patna. Although the Uttarakhand government did try to seem politically correct and do the right thing by initially planning to make it mandatory to do prior registration at a portal and furnish a Covid-19 negative report. But with the huge number of devotees that participate at Kumbh, it should have been a matter of common sense that this was doomed to fail. This not just endangered the lives and health of citizens but also the administration and law enforcement who were stationed on duty throughout. Further, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, went on to justify his support for the Mela. He seemed to indicate that the open air venue of the Kumbh Mela would ensure social distancing norms would be maintained as opposed to the closed space debacle at Tablighi Jamaat. Although photographs from the Kumbh this year indicate otherwise, further revealing that enormous crowds had gathered without any precautionary protocol at the river banks, as has been witnessed at Kumbh Mela for years. The CM went on record to make this outrageous, unscientific statement, convinced that it is a legitimate defense to the Covid situation:
“Most importantly, Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona”.
At a historic time such as this, as the world looks onto Science and Medicine for providing solutions to this crisis, statements made by Indian political leaders have been perpetuating misinformation amongst the masses leading to chaos and violation of precautionary protocols. The second wave of the pandemic had already hit India by March 21 (2021). It was about this time that information about mutant variations was already available. Despite innumerable red flags, several national dailies carried full-page advertisements of Prime Minister Modi and Uttarakhand Chief Minister welcoming devotees to the Kumbh. The ads also indicated that it was “clean” and “safe” to attend, jeopardising the lives of a large number of people. Further, the Chief Minister went on to publicly make statements like “Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus” Statements like these by leaders have the potential of creating a false sense of security amongst masses against the threat of a deadly virus that is still looming. Should leaders and public figures not be held accountable for spreading misinformation? It was also reported that the Chief Minister inaugurated many completed projects worth ₹120 crore for the Kumbh. That amount would have been justified had Covid norms and precautions been followed rigorously throughout the Mela. Clearly, that was not the case. The medical infrastructure in India has been lacking since the pandemic first began. The Kumbh just proved to be another huge weight on an already overburdened system of healthcare. They are liable and ethically must be held responsible for the steep rise in cases amongst the devotees along with all those who came into contact with them. One must question the government’s priorities.
Following the death of the head seer of the Maha Nirvani Akhada from Madhya Pradesh due to Covid-19 on April 13, the Prime Minister went on record to say that the Kumbh must be held as a “symbolic event”. Although the timing of making such a statement seems miscalculated since the damage has already been done. This just seems like a half-hearted attempt at damage control. The Wire had reported that there were 13,546 active COVID-19 cases in Uttarakhand on April 17th as compared to 837 on April 4th.
India is a multicultural state and secular as per its constitution. So, where do we draw the line when it comes to mixing religion and politics? Vote Bank politics is second nature in the Indian political climate. The BJP which is at the centre and also, as a matter of fact, is the ruling party of Uttarakhand, has been known to base their political ideology around Hindu nationalism. Therefore, the Kumbh Mela obviously would have gained special attention for it to be state sponsored and endorsed. The world community finds itself amidst an unexpected pandemic. Therefore this is not the right time for the public authorities to display such callous administrative measures and irresponsible double standards. As the country faces a shortage of oxygen cylinders, beds, vaccines and an overall failure of medical infrastructure; does religion hold more importance or value than human life itself?
Kama Maclean, Making the Colonial State Work for You: The Modern Beginnings of the Ancient Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Vol. 62 No. 3 THE JOURNAL OF ASIAN STUDIES, p. 873-905, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3591863 ↑
- DIANA L. ECK, INDIA: A SACRED GEOGRAPHY, pp. 153–155, (Harmony Books, 2012) ↑
- Omar Rashid, Over three crore devotees take the dip at Sangam, THE HINDU, (Feb. 11, 2013, 12.00 AM), https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/over-three-crore-devotees-take-the-dip-at-sangam/article4401726.ece ↑
- National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of India, INSIGHTS IAS. (Apr. 20, 2020), https://www.insightsonindia.com/2020/04/20/national-list-of-intangible-cultural-heritage-ich-of-india/ ↑
- Supra note 3. ↑
- Press Trust of India, 70 Lakh Participated In Kumbh Mela Held Amid Covid Surge, NDTV, (May 01, 2021, 03.26 AM), https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/70-lakh-participated-in-kumbh-mela-amid-covid-19-surge-2425654 ↑
- Vineet Khare, India’s Kumbh festival attracts big crowds amid devastating second Covid wave, BBC, (Apr. 17, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-56770460 ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Madhya Pradesh: 99% ‘Kumbh returnees’ test positive for COVID-19; 22 pilgrims untraced, TIMES NOW DIGITAL, (May 2, 2021, 02.00 PM), https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/madhya-pradesh-99-kumbh-returnees-test-positive-for-covid-19-22-pilgrims-untraced/751901 ↑
- Vikas Pandey & Shadab Nazmi, Covid-19 in India: Why second coronavirus wave is devastating, BBC, (April 21, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-56811315 ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Harshita Tyagi, Railways to run special trains for Haridwar Kumbh Mela 2021. See full train list with halts, timings, TIMES NOW, (Jan. 11, 2021, 06.01 PM), https://www.timesnownews.com/business-economy/industry/article/railways-to-run-special-trains-for-haridwar-kumbh-mela-2021-see-full-train-list-with-halts-timings/705808 ↑
- Devanjana Nag, Indian Railways to run special trains for Haridwar Kumbh Mela 2021, FINANCIAL EXPRESS, (Jan. 11, 2021, 04.41PM), https://www.financialexpress.com/infrastructure/railways/indian-railways-to-run-special-trains-for-haridwar-kumbh-mela-2021-see-train-list-with-halts-timings/2168775/ ↑
- Kumbh Mela 2021:No trains to stop at Haridwar railway station from 11 to 14 April, MINT, (Apr. 3, 2021, 10.42AM), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/kumbh-mela-2021-no-trains-to-stop-at-haridwar-railway-station-from-11-to-14-april-11617425955422.html ↑
- Kumbh Mela can’t be compared to Nizamuddin Markaz, claims Uttarakhand CM, SCROLL, (Apr. 14, 2021, 12.00PM), https://scroll.in/latest/992233/kumbh-mela-cant-be-compared-to-nizamuddin-markaz-claims-uttarakhand-cm ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- ‘Maa Ganga’s Blessings in Flow, There Should Be No Corona’: Uttarakhand CM on Kumbh Vs Markaz, WIRE, (Apr. 14, 2021), https://thewire.in/politics/uttarakhand-corona-covid-tirath-singh-rawat-kumbh-markaz ↑
- BJP Makes a Delayed U-Turn, Modi Says Kumbh Attendance Should Now Be ‘Symbolic’, WIRE, (Apr. 17, 2021), https://thewire.in/politics/covid-19-kumbh-mela-narendra-modi-symbolic ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- ‘Devotees’ faith will overcome fear of Covid-19 in Mahakumbh’: CM Rawat, HINDUSTAN TIMES, (Mar 20, 2021, 08.46 PM), https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/others/devotees-faith-will-overcome-fear-of-covid-19-in-mahakumbh-cm-rawat-101616253395877.html ↑
- Kumbh Mela: Akhara head from Madhya Pradesh dies after testing positive for Covid-19, SCROLL, (Apr. 15, 2021, 09.43PM), https://scroll.in/latest/992390/kumbh-mela-akhara-head-from-madhya-pradesh-who-had-tested-positive-for-covid-19-dies ↑
- ‘Kumbh should now be symbolic,’ says PM Modi after akhada head dies of Covid-19, SCROLL, (Apr. 17, 2021, 09.22 AM), https://scroll.in/latest/992520/pm-modi-urges-to-keep-kumbh-mela-a-symbolic-event-amid-surge-in-coronavirus-cases ↑
- BJP Makes a Delayed U-Turn, Modi Says Kumbh Attendance Should Now Be ‘Symbolic’, THE WIRE, (Apr. 17, 2021), https://thewire.in/politics/covid-19-kumbh-mela-narendra-modi-symbolic ↑