India’s Kumbh Mela, Coronavirus and Hindutva Raj

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Khurshid Alam

Ramadan 19, 1442 2021-05-01

News & Analysis

by Khurshid Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 3, Ramadan, 1442)

Even as the pandemic spread like wildfire across India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its henchmen continued campaigning. Politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been busy addressing rallies for votes in crucial states. Many people are without masks. Imposing restrictions has two drawbacks: first, politicians would not be able to address rallies to mobilize support; second, the economy will be adversely affected.

Pandering to the Hindu vote was the reason why the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Festival) went ahead. It attracted more than 3.5 million (Britain’s Sky News reported 10 million) virtually naked devotees to the banks of the River Ganges in Uttarakhand state. It started on April 1 and within five days, more than 1700 cases were reported. The police did not intervene, aware that the fanatic Hindus would be enraged leading to assaults. Better safe than sorry!

The regime’s restrictions on Muslims wishing to offer prayers in mosques during the month of Ramadan stand in stark contrast with allowing the several million-strong Kumbh devotees. Here is how The Wire, an Indian Internet portal, described it. “While the Bombay HC said public health cannot be sacrificed at the altar of a right to observe a festival like Ramzan (sic), and the Delhi HC permitted only 50 devotees to pray at a mosque, the Uttarakhand HC didn’t even consider the possibility that the Kumbh could be called off.”

It went on: “As the Bombay high court noted earlier this week: ‘While religious sentiments of all sections of the society must be respected, the right to life and health of the public at large cannot be sacrificed at the altar of a right to celebrate a festival, however significant it may be for a particular community’.” No such consideration to “the right to life and public health” was evident in the Kumbh Mela. Instead, as Rohit Khanna observed in The Quaint, “The state arranged for 25 extra trains to transport devotees to the Kumbh Mela.” The trains, packed like sardines, also acted as super spreaders: corona on wheels.

In February 2020, even before the Modi regime had imposed any restrictions on gatherings (these were announced at the end of March), the Tablighi Jama‘at was targeted for holding an ijtema (gathering) accusing it of spreading the virus. Expressions like “corona jihad” were used. Soon thereafter, Muslims in some Delhi suburbs were attacked.

While Muslims were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—a law passed in December 2019 that essentially disenfranchises millions of Muslims—it soon turned into an anti-Muslim pogrom. The police refused to intervene to protect Muslims from Hindu mobs. At least 53 people were killed, most of them Muslims, and more than 250 injured. Only Muslim businesses were targeted and destroyed. In one case, an 85-year-old grandmother was burnt alive in her third-floor apartment in Delhi!

The anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi was pre-planned. Mobs were brought into northeast part of the city to deal with peaceful protesters that were accused of being “anti-national” and “jihadis”.

While hatred of Muslims has now become official policy, they cannot be scapegoated for spreading the pandemic in India today. After all, Hindus not Muslims participated in the Kumbh Mela. The Sadhus (Hindu priests) that led devotees to indulge in this highly irresponsible ritual also did not go unscathed. According to CNN India, at least “17 seers [priests] tested positive”. Only when one of them died did it damp down the devotees’ enthusiasm but the damage was done.

As a result of the regime’s hypocritical position, the pandemic has spread throughout India. It now accounts for the second highest infections in the world, behind only the US. Its daily infection rates have soared past 350,000 and the death toll has surpassed 2800 mounting (as of April 26, the date of compiling this report). Compare this to the US that has the largest infections and deaths but its current rates have gone down considerably (daily infections: 4,974 and deaths 48 as of April 24).

Are Indian politicians taking any steps to contain the spread? Perish the thought. They are busy holding election rallies. Getting votes is more important than saving lives. The overwhelming majority of Indians (90.7%) are daily wage earners. Their only utility for politicians is as a vote bank. Beyond that, these faceless masses are disposable commodity.

Soaring infection and death rates have affected both hospitals as well as crematoriums. Already in poor state, the Indian healthcare system is simply ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. Hospitals have run out of not only beds but in many instances also oxygen resulting in many deaths. Covid-infected poor patients are forced to lie in the streets outside hospitals. Others gasp for air to breathe.

Hindus burn their dead. Wood is now in such short supply that people are told to bring their own wood for the funeral pyre. Crematoriums have been working 24/7 to cope with the load. Several crematorium chimneys have collapsed unable to bear the intense heat.

Even before the Kumbh Mela went ahead, India’s National Centre for Disease Control had detected a total of six cases of various strains in Uttarakhand. Three of them belong to the double mutant strain, a more deadly variant. This information was available to both the Modi regime as well as the state government in Uttarakhand but took no steps to avert the spread. The Uttarakhand chief minister even said that “faith will defeat the virus”!

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled a planned visit to India. Several countries (Hong Kong, New Zealand, UK, Pakistan, Iran) have banned flights from India. Canada, that has a very large population of people of Indian origin, did so only on April 22 after repeated calls to halt flights to and from India. Transport Canada, however, banned direct flights from both India and Pakistan.

Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu said 20% of all flights into Canada came from India but infection rates among passengers accounted for 50% of the total. She claimed similar rates for flights from Pakistan. On April 23, Crescent International contacted Transport Canada to provide precise figures for flights and infection rates among passengers from Pakistan. We were directed to Health Canada. Their response was that they would let us know by April 26. Our questions remained unanswered even on April 26.

One wonders how the health minister could make such a bold statement of similar infection rates among passengers from Pakistan as India while her department is unable to provide precise figures? As of April 27, Pakistan’s total infections were 800,022, and deaths 17,187. Figures for India (April 26) were: infections: 17.3 million and deaths: 195,000.

Perhaps Canadian officials should pick up a map and see that India and Pakistan are two separate countries!

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