Kumbh Mela is a major pilgrimage and celebration in Hinduism. It is celebrated in a cycle of around 12 years to commemorate every revolution Jupiter completes at four river-bank pilgrimage sites: the Prayagraj, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain.
A ritual dip in the waters marks the festival. Still, it is also a celebration of community business with numerous fairs, education, religious discussions by saints, mass feedings of monks or the poor, and entertainment display. The devotees believe that bathing in these rivers is a medium to atonement or penance for past mistakes and that it absolves them of their sins.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 17, 2021, urged that the mega Kumbh Mela “should now only be symbolic amid the coronavirus crisis”. He emphasized that it would boost the fight against the pandemic. Huge gatherings of tens of thousands of pilgrims along the banks of the Ganga in the last few days have sparked national concern as India, hit by the second Covid wave, sees an alarming wave of infections.
In a tweet, the Prime Minister said he spoke to one of the top seers, Swami Avdheshanand Giri of Juna Akhara, over the phone and appealed about the religious festival that attracts millions of devotees.
“I appealed that two “shahi snan” (royal baths) have taken place, and Kumbh (participation) should now be kept symbolic. This will give a boost to the fight against this crisis,” PM Modi tweeted in Hindi.
Responding to PM Modi’s tweet, Swami Avdheshanand replied in Hindi, “We respect PM Modi’s appeal. Saving lives is sacred. I request people to not gather for the ritual bath in large numbers and follow all Covid protocols.”
Over 5,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Haridwar Kumbh Mela area from April 10 to 17, reinforcing fears that one of the world’s largest religious gatherings added further to the speedy rise in coronavirus cases.
— Mirror Now (@MirrorNow) April 17, 2021
A majority of the 48.51 lakh people who were a part of the last two ‘royal baths’ (shahi snan) were seen openly violating COVID norms like wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.
One influential Hindu congregation decided to exit the festival. “The Kumbh Mela is over for us,” Ravindra Puri, secretary of the Niranjani Akhada, was quoted by local media.
The decision came a day after Swami Kapil Dev, the head of another leading congregation, died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
It certainly was. But the mainstream media choose not to show this side of the Kumbh Mela.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat on Tuesday said that the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar should not be compared to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi last year, ANI reported. Rawat commented even as Haridwar reported 1,002 Covid-19 cases in the previous two days.
“The Markaz attendees were all inside a building, and here it is out in the open,” Rawat said. He added that this festival was near the Ganges. “The flow and blessings of Ma Ganga will ensure that coronavirus does not spread. The question does not arise of a comparison.”
This, however, was not the first time that Rawat has tried to downplay the risk of transmission of the virus at the Kumbh Mela. At an interview earlier this week, he had said that the Kumbh was being held at a time when there was more awareness about coronavirus guidelines compared to when the Nizamuddin Markaz took place.
On 2 April 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs blacklisted 950 foreign nationals for their alleged involvement in the “Tablighi event”. In March 2020, members of the sect from about 70 countries attended a Jamaat congregation at its Markaz in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. The event took place weeks before the propagation of COVID-19 guidelines restricting social and religious gatherings.
The central government also issued a directive to Delhi’s Director General (Police) to register criminal cases against foreign nationals under the Indian Penal Code, the Foreigners Act and the Disaster Management Act. While the Tablighis were criminalised, Kumbh Mela devotees are being celebrated.
“This exposes the politics of selective COVID policing, which allows differential treatment of different classes and communities under which are religion-neutral on paper,” writes Karan Tripathi for The Quint.
“The entitlement of the devotees at Kumbh Mela stems from the ‘free-reign given to them by the BJP government in Uttarakhand. When the government and its machinery on the ground decide who be caught and booked under COVID regulations, and who should not, it becomes a tool for state-sponsored discrimination,” he adds.
On 12 April, the Delhi HC told the Centre to allow the entry of devotees to Nizamuddin Markaz during Ramazan. The court observed that there would be no entry cap since there are no sections on other religious places as well. However, the Centre informed the court that no religious congregation could occur at Nizamuddin Markaz. The same has been restricted by the Delhi Disaster Management Association (DDMA) since 10 April.
The DDMA is headed by the Lieutenant Governor instead of the state’s CM giving the central government direct control over implementing the Disaster Management Act in Delhi.