Kumbh Mela

Faith Overrides Sense

Subhas Gatade

It was 1527, and Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote a letter advising a Lutheran leader what a believer should do during an epidemic. Europe was in the deadly grip of the bubonic plague at the time. It had killed thousands of people.

Extracts of his letter are relevant even today, especially the parts where Luther talks about what to do during an epidemic: "...Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence."

Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, perhaps does not know of this letter or its contents. Surprisingly, he does not even seem to recall the experiences from last year. In fact, much of what happened during the Covid-19 epidemic seems lost on him. In 2020, public places of worship and religious gatherings became super-spreaders of the virus. That is why, for the first time, religious congregations were banned everywhere from Mecca to the Vatican to arrest the spread of the pandemic.

So, it is strange that Rawat cannot recall how believers took the back seat and ceded space to science during the first wave. Indeed, he has made a specious claim that faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus, in the context of the Kumbh Mela, a gathering where tens of lakhs of people gathered earlier this month.

Rawat revised his predecessor's judgement when he decided to hold this mass gathering at Haridwar in Uttarakhand, the state whose people he is responsible for. Full-page advertisements appeared in major national newspapers inviting devotees to join this programme even as the brutal second wave of the Novel Coronavirus had started sweeping across the country.

The Kumbh Mela is usually covered extensively by the international media for how unique it is. This year, it hogged the headlines for bringing down the creaking health systems of the state and country several notches.

Covid-infections have skyrocketed around the Kumbh Mela. Scores of sadhus are infected. The chief of the prominent Niranjani Akhara has died due to Covid-related complications. It is a new hotspot for the disease.

But the Kumbh Mela is still on and will continue until 30 April. The region is still teeming with lakhs of pilgrims and sadhus. There are videos and photographs of the crowds gathered by the banks of the Ganga, virtually all of them showing scant regard for Covid-appropriate behaviour, seemingly unmindful of the surge in infections.

Yet as we know, this is not the end of the story. The pilgrims and sadhus will go home from the Kumbh Mela, spreading the virus near and far. The Mela could send the already deteriorating Covid situation across the country into a downward spiral.

Recall "Patient 31" from South Korea? Last year, the country went from a few Covid-19 cases to thousands of infections. The source was one infected member who had joined a large gathering of his fringe church during the outbreak.

Would the Chief Minister of an Indian state ever accept responsibility for contributing to turning Haridwar into a new Covid hotspot? Would he ever be questioned or reprimanded for his irresponsible behaviour? He upturned the plans of his predecessor—who belongs to the same political formation as he—to organise the Kumbh Mela as always. Rawat rejected the words of caution from a section of bureaucrats, who warned that a massive gathering could become a super-spreader event.

Perhaps those who are responsible-and many others—know there will be no consequences. In 2016, the government suddenly announced that banknotes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 denominations would no longer be valid. Nothing happened despite the havoc this caused. There was no soul-searching even after scores died, some in queues to exchange old currency.

Similarly, a national lockdown was announced last year with barely any notice, supposedly to eliminate the virus. However, it is now starkly clear there was no long-term plan. Again, the government did not consult any state or stakeholder. The burden of the lockdown fell heavily on the shoulders of ordinary people. Maybe self-appraisal is not part of the repertoire of Sangh pracharaks.

A well-known editor recently raised new questions about the way India is dealing with the pandemic. He said the National Disaster Management Act, (which makes it a criminal offence to circulate a false alarm about a disaster or its severity which could lead to panic) is silent about the "culpability of those who give the public false assurances about the severity of a disaster, leading to complacency".

Many journalists and writers were censured last year for raising questions about the government's handling of the pandemic. However, if the disaster management law was explicit about criminalising false assurances, then many others-even those up the pecking order-would have invited charges upon themselves.

Yes, the Kumbh Mela metamor-phosised into a Covid hotspot, but it was not alone. For example, a small village in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh engaged in a traditional celebration of Ugadi, involving people throwing cow dung cakes at each other. The teams engaged in the festivities violated all norms of physical distancing and wearing masks during the event.

The authorities could have persuaded them to cancel the programme this year to save themselves and others, but apparently did not. There are multiple instances like it, of administrative laxity-maybe the officers did not want to "hurt sentiments" or they were just cavalier-breaking down Covid-appropriate behaviour.

However, the Kumbh Mela is not a sudden festivity, nor is it a sudden blip on the religious calendar that goes as quickly as it comes. No, Kumbh involves months of planning. Lakhs are expected to attend it. Unless the public event is cancelled or the planning for it is drastically changed, it is impossible to execute it without complete government support and cooperation. This does set Kumbh Mela-a gigantic affair as a norm-apart from other, perhaps much more localised, functions.

Now the BJP seems to have realised that neither "Maa Ganga" nor faith will save it from the scourge of Covid-19. So, the leadership have made a delayed U-turn. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now said that attendance at the Kumbh Mela should be "symbolic". No doubt this is a hard-earned realisation, for it has already become a viral hotspot.

If the BJP leaders were not focused on just winning a handful of Assembly elections, and had cared about the lives of ordinary people-including the lives of Hindus-it could have ensured a "symbolic" Kumbh Mela from the get-go. The idea of winning elections and forming governments at any cost seems so deeply ingrained in the party that it feels it can cover up all its governance failures. Their logic goes like this: 'Our victory in elections is proof that we are popular and enjoy public support.'

The latest figures state that there is an alarming surge in cases in India. Every day brings a new spike in cases. The Covid tally is now 1.53 crore cases, and over 1.8 lakh have died. Countries are warning their people against travelling to India. India has, again, the second-highest number of cases in the world, and the fourth-highest deaths. There are not enough life-saving medicines nor vaccine stocks. Hospital beds are running painfully short and patients are being forced to share beds. Therapeutic oxygen is also in short supply.

The government had more than a year to prepare, but it has badly mismanaged its affaiRs  Would it be correct to say that people are not dying of Covid but systemic apathy and callousness?

Remember the days when BJP leaders had declared victory against Covid-19 and hailed Modi for it? A resolution was passed by the BJP in February which said, obviously with pride, that India has defeated Covid under the "able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership" of Modi.

In the Davos Dialogue of the World Economic Forum held on 28 January,2021, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India has "not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the pandemic".

Now that it is on the back foot again, having failed at denial, obfuscation, and disregard of the crisis, BJP leaders and the party have gone mute. The severity of the second wave and the government's unpreparedness has demonstrated the limits of a "strong and decisive" leadership. So, can a politics that is based on faith lead you so far and no further?

Can faith help secure electoral victories even in a multi-faith country if a party smartly deploys people against one another? Perhaps faith does tend to override other priorities, but only in the short run. It cannot prepare a plan of action for the future. That is what peoplelearnt from the experiences of the last year, and now we are learning this again from the disastrous second wave.

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Vol. 53, No. 46, May 16 - 22, 2021