THE K umbh Mela, which attracts the world’s largest congregation of devotees, is an event held every three years at one of the four places considered sacred by Hindus in India: Prayagraj in Allahabad, Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Nashik in Maharashtra.
The event, which is included in UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, is organised on the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar; the Shipra in Ujjain; the Godavari in Nashik; and at the Sangam—the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati—in Prayag. It is an event that presents a multifaceted view of the Hindu religion in all its resplendent glory. Sadhus and saints of different sects, who shun public life, participate in the event, making it an occasion for the common people to interact with them. The spectacle continues for several days before the holy men retreat to their realms. The event has traditionally been kept away from politics, and the government in power is expected only to make civic arrangements for the convenience of the pilgrims and to ensure law and order.
The 2019 Kumbh at Prayag in Allahabad, however, has been appropriated by the Uttar Pradesh government to showcase it as one of its achievements. Mega advertising blitzkriegs touting the mela as an unprecedented logistical exercise have appeared in print and electronic media channels. Although no estimate is available at the moment, apparently Rs.5,000 crore has been spent on the mela to create “facilities” for visitors. The official propaganda would have one believe that impeccable facilities have been provided: tents, toilets, pontoon bridges (to reach the Sangam), drinking water and, of course, a “selfie point”. The government also boasts about providing shuttle bus services and e-rickshaw facilities for the needy.
But this correspondent’s first-hand experience is that this is the worst-organised Kumbh in recent times. Lakhs of tents have been erected on the banks of the Ganga, but these are bereft of beds or blankets, contrary to government claims. There are rows and rows of toilets, a symbol of the Narendra Modi government’s big achievement (Swachh Bharat programme), but not a single one has water inside. One has to carry water from a long distance.
The worst experience was with regard to conveyance and crowd management. A day before the shahi snan (a ceremonial bath taken by sants of different akhadas, or religious groups) on February 4, an auspicious day according to the Hindu calendar, the government decided to stop all vehicular movement some five kilometres ahead of the venue. The police were deployed heavily to ensure compliance. Officials said shuttle bus services and e-rickshaws would ferry people close to the venue.
However, as this correspondent herself experienced, not a single shuttle bus or e-rickshaw was seen on the road leading to the Sangam ghat on the afternoon of February 3 or the next day. Elderly and sick people were seen trudging long distances on foot. Men and women carrying heavy bags on their heads and children in their arms, who had come from far-off places, were huffing and puffing their way to the ghat. There were practically no arrangements for their return too after the shahi snan . But this was just the beginning of the nightmare.
Zero crowd management
On the day of the shahi snan , all hell broke loose at the Sangam ghat. Apparently, people who had zero knowledge of crowd management and who had no idea what a shahi snan is had been put in charge. Predictably, it led to a stampede-like situation at many points on the way to the ghat. To facilitate movement to the Sangam, pontoon bridges were laid. But on the day they were supposed to be used, all the pontoon bridges were, inexplicably, closed, that too without any announcement. As a result, lakhs of people heading towards the Sangam were abruptly stopped with bamboo barricades by lathi-wielding policemen.
This correspondent was caught in the milling crowd and was witness to several people getting suffocated and fainting, women crying while trying to save their small children from getting crushed, and people falling in the melee or losing their footwear, shawls and other belongings in the process. Not a single volunteer was visible when the crowd surged.
Lakhs of people who were stopped in their tracks abruptly turned to the main Sangam road which was to be used by the 14 akhadas for the shahi snan of their seers, resulting in complete chaos. While the convoy of akhadas (decorated vehicles carrying sants) got stuck in the jam on their way to the shahi snan with people coming from the opposite side on the same road, policemen tried to make way for them. The saints got so angry at the arrangements that they announced their decision to boycott the next shahi snan on February 10 if crowd management was not improved.
Policemen on duty were a nervous lathi-wielding lot while private volunteers were facilitating the movement of either VIPs or those known to them.
Several saints this correspondent spoke to said this kumbh was jinxed from the beginning because the government, in its zeal to claim credit, had politicised it. First, they said, it was pronounced as a purnakumbh while in reality it was only an ardhakumbh, and thus the ire of the gods was earned as these things were to be decided on the basis of planetary positions. On the very first day of the magh mela, January 14, there was a fire in some tents of the Digambar Akhada in Sector 16. A fire engulfed the Yogi Gorakhnath Mahasabha Akhada in Sector 15 on February 5, immediately after the shahi snan got over. Incidentally, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath belongs to the same akhada, and the fire destroyed the luxury tent that he was supposed to use. An adjacent tent, which was in use by the vice president of the Yogi Mahasabha, Baba Balaknath, was also gutted in the fire. Although no casualties have been reported, the entire luxury furnishings in the two tents were destroyed.
If there was any doubt that Yogi Adityananth was using the Kumbh as a public relations exercise, he held a Cabinet meeting at the Kumbh venue on January 29 and held a media briefing there, announcing the construction of two expressways, one from Meerut to Prayag and another one in Bundelkhand. Not only this, Yogi and his Cabinet Ministers took a collective dip in the Ganga after the meeting, with the media going berserk over the “religiosity”.
But it is not just Yogi who is doing politics from the Kumbh ground. Shankaracharya Swami Swarupanand Saraswati, for instance, has been waxing eloquent on his plans for a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya while criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for failing to build the temple. He also announced that the foundation of the temple would be laid on February 21. He is known to be opposed to the BJP and is close to several Congress leaders. Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who are also camping there have displayed a model of the Ram temple.
Many people who come to the Kumbh Mela for a spiritual experience find this mixing of religion with politics jarring. A group of youngsters from Chennai told this correspondent they only wanted to see the huge congregation of people and take a dip in the Ganga. They said they would have been happy if the government had just attended to the logistical details. The huge promotion is still making its presence felt in the city of Allahabad and surrounding areas. Reports have been coming in of huge crowds that are being stopped arbitrarily at railways stations, bus stands and on roads going berserk and indulging in violence.