Every year, sometime in August, hospitals in Mumbai brace themselves to receive scores of young men who are brought in with a variety of injuries ranging from broken ribs to cracked skulls. It is almost a ritual and though the numbers have been decreasing, they are still large enough to warrant concern.
These young men are Govindas, participants in the festival of Janmashtami which celebrates the birthday of Krishna. There are various types of celebrations around the country – the one in Vrindavan is famous; in Maharashtra, it is marked by the dahi handi (curd container), which references the story of the blue deity’s penchant for breaking a pot of curd and butter. In Mumbai, Pune and elsewhere, young men form human pyramids to reach a pot tied on a rope strung between two buildings and try and break it.
The effort here is not just to reach the pot but to make a higher and higher pyramid. In 2012, a nine-tier pyramid topped 43 feet and no doubt someone would have tried to break that record, except that the courts have stepped in and put a halt to the practice. Taking note of the rising number of injuries and even deaths, the government and the Bombay high court laid down strict guidelines – children below 12, who were used in the upper layers because they were lighter in weight, could no longer take part and the height of a pyramid could not be more than 20 feet. Many groups ignored these strictures and the ruling itself was challenged in the Supreme Court; last week the apex court upheld the judgment and reiterated that only boys over 18 could take part.
This has put a dampener on celebrations this year and stymied the plans of many political parties who had, over the years, taken complete control of the festival. What at one time was a neighbourhood celebration has now metamorphosed into a raucous and high-energy event involving competitive politics, loudly played electronic music, filmy glamour and, not surprisingly, big money. Local politicians, in a display of one-upmanship, set up dahi handis for their band of followers and offer lakhs in prizes in the presence of film stars, which encourage youngsters to reach out even higher. The human cost can be terrible – without safety nets or other measures, such as helmets, those who fall inevitably land up in hospitals with serious injuries; last year one person died. In 2015, thanks to court-imposed controls, the number of injured was recorded at 129, one-third of the figure recorded the previous year. But even that is considered too high and doctors have been demanding that the controls be imposed strictly.
That’s easier said than done. Political parties have invoked ‘religious sentiment’ and have criticised the courts for interfering in tradition. “Courts should not cross Laxman Rekha” said an editorial in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna. But much of the anger is also directed at the BJP-led government in the state which, politicians say, did not put up a robust defence of cultural traditions.
The involvement of politicians in religious festivals is a long-standing tradition in the state. In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak turned Ganesh Chaturthi from a quiet, family affair into a powerful tool for community mobilisation by installing a Ganpati idol in his newspaper Kesari’s office in Pune. It brought together citizens from disparate backgrounds in a show of nationalistic fervour. Since then, community celebrations have only grown and each year the queues to see some of the more high profile idols keep growing and the size of the donations – in cash, gold and even cars – keeps increasing. It is hardly surprising that politicians get involved.
This year, however, the Supreme Court’s restrictions on the height of the human pyramid for dahi handis have discouraged many politicians from organising events. The NCP and Congress have already cried off – the curbs have taken the enjoyment out of the whole affair, they say. The others, however, are going ahead – with elections to the Mumbai municipal corporation coming up early next year, they need to engage with local communities, especially the Marathi manoos, which celebrates dahi handi the most vigorously.
What is more important, safety or sentiment? This is a question that will have to be addressed. Already the Sena has been criticising its ally and talking about how only Hindu festivals are curbed, notwithstanding the fact that there are no other religious celebrations were so many people get hurt. The government cannot be seen to flout the Supreme Court’s orders; at the same time, it has to consider what local communities think. It is a balancing act as difficult as scaling a very high pyramid.
This piece originally appeared in the Hindustan Times.