What happens when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Uttarakhand cabinet ministers want Uttarakhand to host a ‘bhavya’ (grand) Mahakumbh but one person insists on a ‘pratikatmak’ (symbolic) festival?
Well, that is what happened to the former chief minister of Uttarakhand Trivendra Singh Rawat, who was fired overnight in March for insisting that COVID-19 restrictions should be imposed at the festival.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad and officers associated with the Haridwar Mahakumbh confirmed this to The Caravan.
The BJP leaders explained that the Kumbh mela was politically and economically important and that deferring the festival would result in loss of hundreds of crores and also upset the religious sentiments of many in the country. And when the leader of the state imposed COVID restrictions that limited the grandeur of the festival, he was ousted from his position of responsibility.
Half of COVID Deaths in Uttarakhand Were Post Kumbh
Over 91 lakh pilgrims came to Haridwar to take the holy dip in the Ganga between 14 January to 27 April. Over 35 lakh people had gathered in Haridwar on 12 April and 13.51 lakh on 14 April.
Uttarakhand recorded an 1,800 percent increase in COVID-19 cases between 31 March and 24 April, when the Kumbh was held.
The massive congregation turned into a ‘super-spreader’ event as the state recorded 1.3 lakh COVID-19 cases in just about a month, which was more than half of the state’s case tally till date.
The state recorded 1,713 COVID-19 deaths during this time, which was nearly half of the state’s total fatalities due to the disease since the time the pandemic began in 2020.
Uttarakhand, with a 24 percent positivity rate, recorded 151 deaths on Thursday and 137 deaths on Friday .
The total number of active cases in state stood at 1,863 on 31 March before the festival began and shot up to 33,330 by 24 April.
The Kumbh-COVID Ripple Effect
In Madhya Pradesh, 60 out of 61 persons who returned from Kumbh to Gyaraspur, Vidisha district, tested positive for COVID-19, while in Odisha’s Cuttack 43 percent of the devotees were infected. There has not been any quantitative assessment of the devotees to estimate the spread of the second wave of COVID-19 in India.
Meanwhile, the present chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, has consistently refused to accept that the Kumbh was a super-spreader event.
Narayan Giri, a spokesperson of the Juna Akhara, told The Caravan, “People who do not believe in Dharma, give excuses of COVID-19 and have a communist mentality. They wanted to hinder the Kumbh Mela.”
Akharas Should not be Upset: PM Modi
A senior BJP leader told The Caravan that in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told Trivendra that “the akharas should not be upset with his preparations. It should take place without any ‘controversy’”.
Akharas refer to organisations of sadhus and saints who follow the sanatan way of life. Each akhara houses followers of similar religious customs, views and ideologies, who specialise in both scriptures and weaponry.
The Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP) is an organisation of Hindu saints that presides over all the major akharas in the country. As of January 2019 there were 13 recognised akharas, with Juna Akhara being the largest. Each akhara is led by a mahant, (spiritual adviser). ABAP came into existence solely to facilitate the Kumbh and the akharas are the biggest influencers over the RSS and the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Explaining the timing of the event, president of ABAP Narendra Giri told The Caravan that as per the reading of the panchang, a holy Hindu calendar, the Mahakumbh had to be held in 2021 instead of 2022.
The friction between Trivendra and the akharas over the Kumbh appeared to have cost him the job, according to several BJP leaders, mahants and even Uttarakhand BJP spokesperson Munna Singh Chauhan, reported The Caravan.
‘There Should be a Proper Kumbh’
Initially, the state government had insisted on social distancing and compulsory masking and the akharas had been asked to provide written consent that they had no objection with the government’s initiative of hosting the Kumbh in a limited capacity, in compliance with COVID norms.
This irked many, like ‘Mahamantri ji Hari Giri of the Juna Akhara’, who were adamant that “our traditions and culture should be duly followed and there should be a proper Kumbh”, the media house reported.
It is to be recalled that in December 2020, the ABAP declared that the akharas will organise the Kumbh on their own if the Uttarakhand government does not cooperate.
“No work has been started yet. We are not happy with the attitude of the administration. But Maha Kumbh Mela, 2021, will be as grand and divine as it was in 2010, regardless of whether the Uttarakhand government cooperates,” Narendra had said in December 2020.
Since the CM objected to conducting a grand Kumbh, he was removed by the time the festival started, sources told The Caravan.
When Media Got the Person & Reason all Wrong
Trivendra was born and brought up in the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand remained a member of the RSS from 1979 to 2002, and has held several positions of power in the state.
Here is how he was ousted from the position of power: On 6 March 2021, the BJP national vice-president Raman Singh and the BJP general secretary in-charge of Uttarakhand, Dushyant Singh Gautam, reached Dehradun unannounced, called on him when the state assembly’s budget session was underway and, sensing the urgency, he took a chopper to get to them.
During this meeting, it became quite clear that there had been a ‘change of guard’, reported The Caravan.
The next day he flew to Delhi to meet BJP national president J P Nadda and BL Santhosh, the party’s national general secretary. He was informed that he will not be the CM candidate for the upcoming polls in 2022 and asked him to step down, stated the media report.
On 9 March, Trivendra resigned giving way to speculations. But the media’s guesses of the possible replacements and the reason for his resignation were wrong.
Trivendra was then replaced by Tirath, just a day before the first shahi snan was scheduled on 11 March, the day of the festival of Mahashivaratri. His first order was to shower rose petals on the Kumbh seers from a chopper during the Mahashivratri snan.
He insisted that Kumbh remained open to all without any restrictions. “Nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19 as we are sure that faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus,” Tirath said.
The Cascading COVID Effect
Just two days after he made the statement, he tested positive for COVID.
On 9 April, the RSS announced that RSS’ Bhagwat had tested positive and Narendra, the head of the ABAP, had been hospitalised on 13 April for COVID. Former CM of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav, too, had been infected and Mahamandaleshwar Kapil Dev Das of the Nirvani Akhada died from COVID-19 complications in Haridwar. Nepal’s former royals, Komal Rajya Lakshmi Devi and Gyanendra and Alok Kumar, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s executive chairman, too, had been infected.
By the end of March, the Uttarakhand High Court took cognizance of the crisis and directed the state government to conduct 50,000 tests per day. On 17 April, Modi finally appealed to the various mahants to host the last dip symbolically. However, not all akharas obliged and over 25,000 people participated in the “symbolic” last shahi snan on 27 April.
The Kumbh is believed to be the largest religious gathering in the world. As the coronavirus second wave continues to rage in India, there still has not been any quantitative assessment of the extent to which it worsened the spread of the second wave of COVID-19 in India.
(With inputs from The Caravan)
. Read more on COVID-19 by The Quint.Ex-Uttarakhand CM Rawat was Fired for Restricting Kumbh: Report4.01 Lakh New COVID Cases, 4,187 Deaths in India; Lockdown in TN . Read more on COVID-19 by The Quint.