New Delhi: Faced with the reality that ‘Maa Ganga’ washing away the virus wasn’t, in fact, an appropriate way to combat COVID-19 at the massive Kumbh Mela being held at Haridwar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now said that participation in the religious festival should now be “symbolic”.
Modi tweeted that he spoke to Swami Avdheshanand Giri of the Juna Akhara over the telephone and enquired about the health of saints, many of whom have contracted the virus. “I prayed that two ‘shahi snan’ have taken place and Kumbh (participation) should now be kept symbolic. This will boost the fight against this crisis,” Modi tweeted in Hindi.
The Kumbh Mela is a weeks-long festival where tens of thousands of devotees bathe in the Ganga river. The Haridwar Kumbh is held once every 12 years. There are three big days in the festival (shahi snan), two of which are over (April 12 and 14) and one remains (April 17).
There are currently 13,546 active COVID-19 cases in Uttarakhand. On April 4, this number was 837.
Modi may now be claiming that symbolic participation in the Kumbh is the best way to show devotion during the pandemic, but leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been singing a very different tune over the last few weeks.
On March 21, when the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic had already hit India and information about mutant variations was available, several national dailies carried full-page ads of Modi and Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat welcoming devotees to the Kumbh and telling them it was “clean” and “safe” to attend.
Rawat has been at the forefront of suggesting to devotees that the Kumbh Mela is somehow exempt from the pandemic ravaging the country. He has said, for example, that there should no “rok-tok (impediments)” and the mela should be “open for all”. “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,” he had famously said on March 20.
Even more recently, after it became clear that the mela was leading to a spike in cases in Uttarakhand, Rawat refused to relent. On April 13, while insisting that the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz (which hosted only 3,500 people at a time when no government protocol had been put in place and the dangers of the virus weren’t well known) was more dangerous than the Kumbh, Rawat went a step further to argue that there was no threat to those attending the mela.
“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,” he said.
And Rawat isn’t the only BJP leader who has argued that ‘devotion’ trumps the public health concerns being raised by the Kumbh Mela. An Uttar Pradesh BJP MLA not only talked about attending the Kumbh Mela, but also that he is COVID-19 positive.
“There were around a crore people, all protocol was being maintained,” Sunil Barala told NDTV India, without saying how protocol was being maintained for such a large number. The anchor asks Bharala if, in a state where the chief minister himself has tested positive for COVID-19 and several other politicians continue to also get affected, this glib attitude displayed in the Kumbh Mela can continue. When the anchor mentions politicians, Bharala says twice, “I myself am coronavirus positive.”
Even before Modi’s sudden realisation that attendance at the Kumbh could worsen the COVID-19 situation in India, other religious bodies had decided to call it quits. Seers of the Niranjani Akhada sect reportedly decided to leave the Kumbh Mela from April 17 because of the abrupt rise in infections in the state.
The head of the Maha Nirvani Akhara from Madhya Pradesh, Swami Kapil Dev, who was under treatment for COVID-19 after attending the Kumbh Mela, has passed away.
A majority of the 48.51 lakh people who took part in the last two mass bathing rituals were seen openly violating COVID-19 norms, PTI has reported. This is also visible in photos from the events.