Huge crowds gathered at Haridwar for the 2021 Kumbh Mela. Photo: Reuters
Kumbh Melas are held every 12 years. The last Haridwar Kumbh Mela was held in 2010. The actual due date for the ‘current’ Kumbh at Haridwar was 2022, not 2021. So how did it get advanced by one whole lethal year at a time India’s second Covid wave was expected? And when epidemiological studies indicate that second waves of infection are always worse than the first. Let me tell you the reason.
It was ‘advanced’ by a year, to 2021, because the ‘astrological configurations’ of the “Sun entering Aries” and “Jupiter entering Aquarius” were available for 2021 this time. This happens once every 83 years, and it happens because of the need to reconcile astrological configuration charts to calendrical years. The calculative arcana of this ‘adjustment’ is beyond my capacity. I suggest none of you try it if you don’t want to give yourselves a headache.
So, not only did the Government of India, and the Government of Uttarakhand not cancel the Kumbh Mela, which they could easily have done, so as not to endanger the lives of millions of people by causing a super-spreader event for COVID-19; they also need not have let it take place this year at all, simply because this is the 11th, not the 12th year, since the last Kumbh Mela at Haridwar. They could have used this time to create the conditions where holding an event like the Kumbh could have made some kind of sense, maybe, in 2022.
Instead, they did much worse. In consultation with the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad, they ‘advanced’ the date from 2022 to 2021 – knowing fully the dangers of the pandemic – because some astrological mumbo-jumbo told them that this was desirable. Because, you know, ‘Aastha/Faith’, that beloved article that makes the Supreme Court reward criminal trespass with a building plan, is also what makes the Governments of India and Uttarakhand do what they must to put people’s lives in danger on a grand scale.
A history of contagion
The Kumbh Mela is a historically documented site of the spread of contagion. Governments in India have sometimes pulled off the efficient and compassionate management of the staggering public health problems of an event like the Kumbh. The 2013 Maha Kumbh, said to have been the largest gathering of its kind in history, passed off without any adverse event, and this is attested to by an in-depth study of the epidemiological issues, as well as preparedness for calamities and disasters, undertaken by the Harvard School of Public Health. But there was no raging pandemic at the time.
With Covid raging since 2020, one doesn’t need to have a PhD in public health to guess that an occasion like a Kumbh Mela shahi Snan could be a possible epicentre of a second contagious wave, which, given the conditions of the Kumbh, would most likely turn into a tsunami of disease. That is exactly what has happened in the past few days.
Everybody in India, and frankly, the world, is now at risk because of the result of some foolish decisions by some ignorant men in Delhi and Dehradun.
None of this should have come as a surprise, requiring Narendra Modi’s belated and half-hearted counsel for the rest of the Kumbh to be ‘symbolic’ .
Chinmay Tumbe’s recent book, The Age of Pandemics: How They Shaped India and the World, includes a specific discussion of pandemics and successive Kumbh Melas. Also useful is David Arnold’s article 1986, ‘Cholera and Colonialism in British India’ and Kama Maclean’s 2008 book, Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954. The history of the Kumbh Mela and disease has been well documented over the years. The World Health Organisation has a monograph about cholera that has a section on the Kumbh. There is even an article in the Indian Medical Gazette from 1895 on the ‘Natural History of Haridwar Cholera Outbreaks’, and a more recent paper, ‘A comprehensive review of the Kumbh Mela: Identifying risks for spread of infectious diseases’, published in Clinical Microbiology and Infection in 2015.
So was it ignorance on the part of the prime minister and his advisers that led them to proceed down this dangerous path? Or a deliberate political decision taken despite knowing the risks?
Timeline shows government knew of risks
In an indication of its awareness of the public health risks, the Uttarakhand government had hemmed and hawed over the holding of the Kumbh Mela, and the way it could be held, over the past year.
In July 2020, the then chief minister of Uttarakhand, Trivendra Singh Rawat (BJP), assured the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad that the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar would be held as per usual (when he was in no position to predict what might happen in the future, and thus not in position to offer such reassurances). “However, the manner in which it has been traditionally organised may see some changes depending on the coronavirus situation at that time,” PTI reported him saying.
In September 2020, Trivendra Singh Rawat said that there would be restrictions on attendance.
In December 2020, the ‘saints’ of the Akhada Parishad expressed their ‘dissatisfaction’ with the state of preparation for the Kumbh Mela. It is possible the Uttarakhand government was reluctant to go ahead with what may finally have been seen as a disaster in waiting and was using ‘unpreparedness’ as a valid reason to not go ahead at the last moment. However, the Parishad threatened to stage the Kumbh Mela on their own steam.
On March 9, 2021, Trivendra Singh Rawat resigned and his successor, Tirath Singh Rawat, immediately said that there would be no ‘rok-tok’ – no restrictions – on pilgrims, and that with Goddess Ganga’s blessings, faith will triumph over disease.
After resigning, Trivendra Singh Rawat expressed misgivings over the turnaround on restrictions at the Kumbh Mela. The Hindustan Times quoted him saying that “given the rising number of Covid-19 cases in India, there is a need to be more cautious in organising mega religious fair like Mahakumbh”. This suggests that one of the elements that led to his dismissal may have had to do with differences of opinion with the Central BJP leadership, and factions within the Uttarakhand BJP, about how to handle the Kumbh Mela
In April, as the event began, even the Ministry of Heath & Family Welfare at the Centre sent mixed messages. On April 6, ANI, a news agency particularly favoured by the government, put out a report suggesting that senior government officials had expressed concern about the Kumbh Mela turning into a ‘super spreader event’. The report was picked up, and published with minor variations, by many portals and magazines, including India Today.
The very same day, however, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare put out a tweet saying that the India Today report was ‘fake news’. The denial was terse, it did not even say whether or not a government official had been misquoted. What it did convey was the impression that the Government of India was in total denial mode about the possibility of the Kumbh Mela becoming a serious public health emergency, and that it would go to the extent of cancelling a statement made by a senior government official.
The Chinese government may have been responsible for a degree of understatement of actual figures at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they took steps to contain it, and they certainly did nothing to amplify it. However, the regime that rules India has taken steps that have led to a huge rise in infections. This could have been avoided. Unlike the Chinese regime, this time, the Indian state cannot even pretend to say that it was caught unawares by the outbreak of a disease. Not only was it in command over all the knowledge necessary to know that there could be a second wave, but also, by letting the Kumbh Mela happen – by actually making it happen during a time when it did not even ‘need’ to happen – it actively took steps to create the conditions for a second wave.
That different government agencies and entities are working at cross purposes, sending contradictory messages (such as the Prime Minister himself, very belatedly asking for ‘symbolic’ participation in the remaining rituals of the Kumbh Mela, while simultaneously exhorting large numbers of people to come out to vote for election rallies in Bengal) is bad enough. What is worse is doing nothing when something is required to be done, or doing too much when nothing is required to be done, or just fudging numbers and telling straightforward lies (such as about death rates in Uttar Pradesh in the last few days). All told, the Government of India, and the Government of Uttarakhand, have messed it up in a very big way. But whatever else they may or may not have done, and regardless of whether 83 years have or have not passed since the last ‘off-cycle Kumbh Mela, there really was no justification for advancing this event by a year.
And all this, when the vaccination programme has barely gotten underway. There is no way by which anybody can justify the holding of mass gatherings of the scale that the Kumbh Mela entails at this time. The same goes for elections, which an Election Commission possessed of a spine and/or a brain could have easily insisted on postponing, or at least on curtailing large gatherings and rallies. But that was not to be.
Why let astrology trump public health?
So, have Kumbh Melas been advanced by a year before? Yes they have, in 1938, and in 1855, when similar ‘astrological configurations’ were in place.
Are we living in 1938, or in 1855? Was there an airborne viral epidemic around in 1938? There was actually a cholera epidemic around in 1855, and the Kumbh Mela that year did amplify the disease hugely. This people knew even then, though their understanding of epidemics was much less than it is today. The International Sanitary Convention of 1866 in Istanbul specifically looked at reports of disease spread from the Kumbh Mela locus. The international consensus that emerged in 1866 on Indian pilgrimage sites along the Ganges river as the sites where Cholera developed, and from where it reached – first Mecca, then Egypt and the Mediterranean seaports of Europe, before entering major European cities, is documented in the transcripts of the International Sanitary Conference held for seven months between February and September 1866 in Constantinople/Istanbul, the then capital of the Ottoman Empire.
In 2021, when we know so much more about disease than we did in 1938 or 1855, a rational, sane, government should have used all its persuasive power to convince a bunch of self-appointed ‘holy men’ that maybe, just for this time, they could put ‘astrology’ in abeyance, and rely simply on the calendrical calculation of a 12 year interval between two consecutive Kumbh Melas.
Was this not one key instance where there could have been a rational, sensible dialogue between ordinary reason and faith – that could have helped save lives? Perhaps, given that all the astrologers of India put together are unable to come up with an explanation, based on their ‘discipline’, for how and why a pandemic of this nature broke out when it did, this would be a little bit of a reason to let ‘astrology’ take a bit of a back seat, just for a while, especially when it comes to the taking of major policy decisions like whether or not to commit government support to a super-spreader event.
1942: When war led to curbed Kumbh
Finally, have government agencies ever effectively curtailed Kumbh Mela observances? Is there a precedent for saying, ‘Lets not do it this year’? Yes, there is.
The Government of India did not make any arrangements to facilitate the Kumbh Mela-Magh Mela conjunction held in Allahabad in 1942. No railway tickets to Allahabad were sold for the duration of the Kumbh, and in the days leading up to it. This automatically restricted the number of pilgrims who could travel to Allahabad. This was done citing the possibility of bombing attack by the Japanese Air Force – because Japan had entered the Second World War in September 1940. Further, no logistical arrangements were made to accommodate crowds at the site of the mela. Attendance at the Kumbh in 1942 was very low. There were no widespread protests by any of the Akhadas to the withdrawal of government support to the Kumbh that year. It was understood, by all stakeholders, that circumstances had dictated the necessity for a different kind of response.
This time, instead of cancelling trains, the Indian Railways ran special trains to Dehradun/Rishikesh for pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar. And the goverment placed advertisements in newspapers and on radio and TV exhorting pilgrims to gather in large numbers.
‘Death is inevitable but traditions must go on’
Simply deciding not to run these trains or not publicising the event could have made a huge difference. But, no. How could it have been so?
There are elections to win, and the support of various holy men is deemed crucial as ever, as are the opportunities to make money off contracts and advertising revenue for an event that can hold millions captive to disease and to mammon. And so, the men at the helm of the Governments of India and Uttarakhand laid a death trap. And they knew what they were doing. Even the ‘holy men’ were fully aware of what was going on.
‘Death’, said Mahant Narayan Giri of the Juna Akhada, on April 17, 2021, ‘is inevitable, but we must maintain our traditions’, while declaring why he and his fellow holy men are not calling for a curtailment of the Kumbh Mela gatherings, and why, for him, it is going to be business as usual at Haridwar.
Less subtle minds will ask why this open invitation to death is not being condemned on every forum. Especially when the Tablighi Jamaat was pilloried for saying much less. Truly subtle ‘Sanatani’ minds will understand why. Good Hindus, emboldened by Karma and the theory of reincarnation, get more than one chance at the game of life. Death may be inevitable, but for the Holinesses, such as the eminence of the Juna Akhada, it is not irreversible. You may die today, but the Karmic debt incurred by you by voting for Narendra Modi, will certainly bring you back tomorrow. So why not, if you want it stronger, dip a little longer, in the Kumbh cauldron. You live, you die, you live, you pass on an infection, you kill some more, you die, you live, you die, and so on.
Some of us may not be so blessed, because, in our belief systems, or, in our non-belief systems, we get just one shot at life. Accordingly, we try our best to prolong the time given to us, to try and preserve our lives and those of others, and to persevere, by wearing our masks, avoiding gatherings, maintaining as much of a social distance as possible from the vectors of this disease and the religiosity, and the governmentally, that takes life, and death, so casually.
But these, dear Indians, dear Hindus, are your leaders and your holy men. They are your mirrors and your death-wish. Take a good look at them. Because they are not looking out for you.
The stars, indifferent in heaven, feel no need to laugh at you. Frankly, no matter what you think about them, they don’t even care about you.
Best of luck.