The current government has a habit of remodelling what already exists. Perhaps it started with dismantling the Planning Commission to form the Niti Aayog. Subsequently, it inducted a new tax regime, advanced the date of annual Budget and rechristened the names of cities, et al.
As the Kumbh Mela 2019 gears into action tomorrow, 15 January, its important to see it as a manifestation of this fetish in its very name. Technically, 2019 is an ‘Ardh Kumbh’ year – an event that takes place six years after the ‘Purna Kumbh’ (which is organised every 12 years). But then again, 2019 is also the year of general elections. Visualise the mise-en-scène of this blockbuster: A mega religious event at one of the most prominent pilgrimage seats of the country, situated in the most populous and politically-effervescent state, which is in turn headed by a saffron-clad head of a mutt… All that in the election year.
Taking the liberty to paraphrase poet Amir Khusro, it would be apt to say, “If there exists a heady cocktail of politics and religiosity, Hameen Ast-o Hameen Ast-o Hameen Ast.”
Kumbh 2019 – The Spectacle and The Saffron
‘Divya Kumbh, Bhavya Kumbh’ – goes the tagline of the mega event slated to begin on 14 January in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad). If the ‘Divya’ (divine) pitch has the Kumbh glass only ‘Ardh’ (half) full, ‘Bhavya’ (grandeur) ensures that it becomes ‘Purna’ to the brim.
According to an Economic Times report, Rs 4,200 crore has been allocated for the event. To put things into perspective, the 2013 ‘Purna Kumbh’ was organised at less than third of this amount.
Old timers of the city said that they have not witnessed this level of grandiosity around the mela. “24 ministers of the state Cabinet have been deputed to invite chief ministers and governors across the country. This is like Raja Janak sending out invitations for Sita’s Swayamvar,” said Kamal Krishna Roy, a practicing lawyer at the Allahabad High Court.
“Luxury cottages with tariffs up to Rs 29,000 a day have been set up for tourists,” said Roy, who was the President of the Allahabad University Students’ Union (AUSU) in 1990.
Widening of roads, erecting LED billboards and applying fresh coats of paint are among the measures being taken in Prayagraj ahead of the Kumbh Mela. However, one theme runs common through the entire beautification process – saffronisation, literally and metaphorically.
“Roundabouts, bridges and flyovers are being painted in saffron. Walls across the city, including those of Allahabad University, now have graffiti of sadhus (saints),” said KK Pandey, Editor of a local magazine Samkaleen Janmat.
Pandey also said that a PIL has been filed after a gate constructed by ruler Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century in Prayagraj’s Khusrobagh was razed to widen the road.
"“The gate was of great historical importance. It finds a place in the 1857 battle of Independence and now they have razed it. Naming the city Prayagraj was just the beginning of an agenda of lending a Hindu branding to the city.”" - KK Pandey, Editor, Samkaleen Janmat
What’s Cooking in the Kumbh?
In Hindu mythology, it is said that as the Amrit Kalash (a pot full of nectar) emerged from the Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean), Jayanta, the son of Indra, ran away with the pot (‘kumbh’ in Sanskrit) to prevent it from falling into the hands of demons. As the demons chased Jayanta for 12 days, four drops of the nectar – which guaranteed immortality – fell on Ujjain, Nashik, Haridwar and Prayagraj, the sites where the melas are held.
For mortals involved in the churn of electoral politics, this Kumbh may prove to be the source of nectar known as votes. Or, so analysts think the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping for.
“To project an Ardh Kumbh as Kumbh and to organise it at this scale is a clear attempt to gain political mileage ahead of the general election,” opined Dhirendra Jha, senior journalist and author of the book Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva.
"“One can notice a trend here. The 1989 Kumbh attracted a lot of attention in the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Then again in 2013, ahead of the election, the Kumbh was a big affair.”" - Dhirendra Jha, Senior journalist
Pushpesh Pant, historian and a retired Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor, echoed a similar view: “An event of this scale generates employment, especially for daily wage labourers who engage in jobs like disposing garbage or erecting tents, hoardings, etc. Roads, flyovers and toilets are being built. So, there is a sense among the people of the city that infrastructure is getting a makeover.”
“At a time when the economy is sluggish and there is unemployment, an event like this ahead of the election will generate dynamism, not just in the city, but in neighbouring Kanpur and Varanasi too,” Pant said.
Others believe that this is part of BJP’s strategy to string up a larger consolidation of Hindu votes, which had benefitted the party in the 2014 general election and the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.
“While it started with the Una and Rohith Vemula incidents, the recent drubbing in elections in three states has made the BJP concerned about rural unrest and non-upper caste votes, and they are trying to bring them back into the fold by warming them up to the Hindu identity through the Kumbh,” said Pandey.
The journalist was referring to Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar of the Hyderabad Central University who had killed himself in January 2016, and the Una incident in June later that year, in which four Dalit men were allegedly assaulted in Gujarat.
In an article in The Indian Express, Badri Narayan, a professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Prayagraj, struck a similar chord. Quoting Amit Shah, he said that the BJP President had emphasised on the need to integrate OBCs and Dalits in the Hindutva fold.
Pant indicated that by doing this, the BJP was trying to use the Kumbh as a symbol to create “ Samagra Hindutva (a united Hindutva ).”
The Annals of Akhadas
Even as political analysts attempt to theorise the BJP’s electoral hopes from the Kumbh Mela, there is another election that might play out on the banks of Sangam. A Hindustan Times report quoted Narendra Giri, the incumbent President of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad (ABAP), as saying that the next election for the parishad will be held in Prayagraj in 2019.
Akhadas, one of the key focal points of the mela, have multiple literal meanings. The word, which is most commonly used to denote gymnasiums or wrestling arenas, is also believed to have etymological roots in the Greek word ‘Akadēmía’. The official website of Kumbh Mela 2019 defines it as a distortion of the word ‘Akhand’ (indivisible). In any case, the word gives a sense of congregation or coming together of people and ideas.
Pandey said that these Akhadas came to existence when Shankaracharya (or Adi Shankara), the 8th-9th century Hindu philosopher, set up the four peeths in Puri, Dwarka, Badrinath and Shringeri. They were set up with the aim of protecting Hinduism, Pandey added.
In his book History of Medieval India, historian Satish Chandra suggested this was the period of resurgence of Hinduism, as Buddhism and Jainism were on a decline.
Another historian Romila Thapar, in her book Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, echoed this stand. Shankaracharya, who is described by Thapar as “the new interpreter of Vedanta philosophy” was among the philosophers believed to be instrumental in assimilating various sects of Hinduism in the 9th century.
However, the assimilation has its own set of conflicts. The 13 akhadas – 10 Shaivites and 3 Vaishanavites – have their own tussles of supremacy. As recently as the last ABAP election, Narendra Giri of the Niranjani (Shaivite) Akhada was at loggerheads with Mahant Gyandas of the Nirmohi (Vaishnavite) Akhada. The tiff, which was dragged to the court, ended with Giri garnering support of eight of the 13 akhadas.
Pandey said that Giri, who used to be close to the Samajwadi Party, shifted loyalty to the BJP after Adityanath came to power in UP. It’s of no surprise that Giri can be seen alongside PM Modi, Adityanath and Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya in newly-mounted billboards.
Academician and political analyst Apoorvanand said that these akhadas have got nothing to do with spirituality. “Had they been spiritual people, why would they not protest against this political hijacking of the mela? All they really want is political patronage.”
“The Sangh Parivar set up the Vishwa Hindu Parishad with the very objective of capturing the sadhu space,” Apoorvanand added.
Will the Script Play Out as Planned?
The stage is set, the actors ready and the script envisaged. But, will it play out as per the BJP’s wish?
In a curt response by Jha, he said: “If the mela gets over without any unrest, the BJP won’t gain anything. Its hopes are hinged on the fact that some sort of conflict erupts, which might help consolidate its vote base.”
Despite all the hobnobbing, even the akhadas have attempted to hold the BJP government at ransom.
Last month, Giri had said that Naga sadhus will march to Ayodhya if the construction of Ram temple does not start before the general election. The decision on the temple will be taken during Dharm Sansad at the Kumbh Mela on 31 January and 1 February, he had claimed.
Even before that, Swaroopanand Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of the Dwarka Peeth, and other sadhus had campaigned against BJP ahead of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections.
People in Prayagraj are also pointing at the glaring fault lines in the political arrangement.
“The brazen corporatisation of the event has left it bereft of its ethos and tradition,” said Kamal Krishna Roy. “The huge presence of VIPs will make life difficult for normal devotees. In any case, they walk for 18-20 kilometres and are then left to fend for themselves in makeshift enclosures under the open sky. That is the case on normal occasions and this time, it’s a completely different ballgame,” Roy said, adding that people might still be ready to endure the pain. “They ignore all this for the larger aim of Punya (godly rewards).”
Reports of glaring negligence and mismanagement have already surfaced. Pandey’s Samkaleen Janmat has so far reported the death of four safai karmacharis (sanitation workers) due to cold. More recently, another worker from a lower caste was allegedly beaten up for touching the bucket of a sadhu, the magazine reported .
A petition has been filed in this case with the National Commission of Scheduled Castes (NCSC), a copy of which is in possession with The Quint. “There are instances of manual scavenging. The safai karmacharis are being made to clean up faeces of the sadhus. Amid these caste atrocities, how can they hope for consolidation of Hindus,” Pandey questioned.
Septuagenarian Janak Pandey, a National Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and an old timer of the city, said that lakhs of street vendors have been displaced in the process of beautification of the city. Janak has also filed a case in the Supreme Court against the renaming of the city from Allahabad to Prayagraj.
“If somebody believes that a huge event will cover up all the wrongdoings, he is being foolish. They might highlight (it) to the media, everything that is rosy about this mela. But they do that all the time. Do you want to say there was no media in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh,” Janak asked.
Despite all the investment, if the BJP indeed fails to reap the rewards of this Kumbh Mela, it might find some lessons in the lines of the city’s famous poet, Akbar Allahabadi:
“जब मैं कहता हूँ कि या अल्लाह मेरा हाल देख , हुक्म होता है कि अपना नामा-ए-आमाल देख (When I seek to say, O Lord look at my state, he bids me to take account of my deeds to date.)”
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