Kumbh Mela 2019 more a grand platform for politics than religion; parties pitch camps to spread ideology among pilgrims, tourists
Apart from being the largest spiritual gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, given the footfall and media attention it attracts from across the world, is also a grand platform for political discourse. While outfits promoting Hindutva politics have had a regular presence at the Kumbh Mela, other parties, like the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, have also pitched their camps at the site to spread their politics among the pilgrim crowds.
Political parties always set up camps at the Kumbh Mela, except the BSP, which does not approve of politicising such religious affairs.
The most active camp is that of the VHP, which plans to organise another Dharma Sansad to push for the Ram Temple at Ayodhya.
Although set up for political reasons, the camps are mostly used by pilgrims and tourists seeking directions.
Prayagraj: Apart from being the largest spiritual gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, given the footfall and media attention it attracts from across the world, is also a grand platform for political discourse. While outfits promoting Hindutva politics have had a regular presence at the Kumbh Mela, other parties, like the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, have also pitched their camps at the site to spread their politics among the pilgrim crowds.
A cut-out poster of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, put up barely 50 metres from the Sangam ghat, is a popular selfie point for visitors. According to reports, the Yogi Adityanath government has planned a cabinet meeting at the mela district on 29 January, where all Uttar Pradesh ministers will discuss the religious and cultural issues of the state.
If the Mahakumbh 2013 witnessed Hindutva outfits drawing a consensus on the then Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, as the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on their agenda this time is to push the long-standing political disputes tied to religious sentiments towards a conclusion.
Dedicated to dharma, no time for chai
Among the busiest political camps at the Ardh Kumbh Mela 2019 is that of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), located at Sector 6 of the mela district, with a frequent crowd of seers and office bearers. Saffron-clad VHP workers occupying mattresses laid out in tents can be seen engaged in preparations for visits of prominent office-bearers from across the country, who come to propagate the outfit's mission.
VHP groundworkers never doubt their mission. "Yahan hum dharma prachar ke liye hain. Hamare paas baakiyon ki tarah chai peete hue dhoop sekne ka samay nahi hai (We are here for religious campaigning. We don't have the time to sip on hot tea while soaking in the winter sun like others)," said a VHP activist from the nearby Pratapgarh district.
Sabarimala, Ayodhya at Prayagraj
On the occasion of Paush Purnima on 21 January, Chief Minister of Haryana Manohar Lal Khattar and Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Trivendra Singh Rawat visited the Ardh Kumbh and held discussions with VHP office-bearers, apart from meeting heads of various akharas and ashrams. The chief ministers from the two BJP-ruled states also expressed their opinions on the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. While Rawat said the temple should be constructed as per the wishes of seers, Khattar called it a "social problem" that should not be politicised. He said the dispute could be resolved either through mutual understanding among all stakeholders, or through a Supreme Court ruling.
Chief ministers from other BJP-ruled states are also expected to visit the Kumbh Mela.
Moreover, preparations are on for a two-day Dharma Sansad (religious parliament) of seers and leaders starting from 31 January, which will have chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat, among other dignitaries, in attendance.
VHP workers organised a meeting of the pranyasi mandal (trustees) on 17 January, where the agenda for the Dharma Sansad was finalised. Prominent among this agenda is the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, which hasn't seen much headway in the past four and a half years of the BJP government, despite the VHP organising a Dharma Sansad in Ayodhya on 25 November last year.
Expansion of the organisation and construction of the Ram Temple at Ram Janmabhoomi have been put down to be the main points of discussion at the Dharma Sansad, according to VHP general secretary Milind Parande. "We will discuss the outcome of the two-month-long awareness programme on the temple and frame a strategy in this regard."
Another critical religious issue that the VHP cadre at Ardh Kumbh are eager to politicise is the Sabarimala conundrum.
"We cannot keep ourselves aloof from the happenings in Kerala. So we will also delve into the Sabarimala movement and look for ways to tackle conspiracies against the Hindu community," Parande said, adding that talks will be held on extending the activities of the VHP in Europe and Latin American countries.
Nonchalance at Socialists' camp
The Samajwadis intend to mobilise the intellectual class of the city through a 'Samajwadi Chintan Shivir' at Tulsi Marg in the mela area. Their comparatively smaller camp sports a banner displaying photographs of Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav and party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. While literature on the ideas of party idols Ram Manohar Lohia and Janeshwar Mishra is circulated at the camp, party workers can be seen engaged in discussions on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
SP spokesperson Dan Bahadur Singh said their purpose is to make pilgrims arriving at the camp aware of Socialist thinking "as propagated by Ram Manohar Lohia". They plan to host discussions on the thoughts and ideals of Lohia by inviting intellectuals, academicians, senior citizens and youngsters to the 49-day fair.
The tradition of a Samajwadi camp at the Kumbh Mela was initiated by late SP leader Janeshwar Mishra, also known as 'Chhote Lohia'.
However, SP workers have yet to connect with the pilgrims visiting the fair. Their camp is more of a hang-out for veteran Socialist thinkers who had been associated with Raj Narain, Jayaprakash Narayan and Janeshwar Mishra, as they reminisce their days of yore.
"JP Narayan gave me the title of 'Neti'. The present generation knows me by this name," Narayan Kunj Bihari Agnihotri, an aged Socialist thinker from Pratapgarh, said as he chatted at the SP camp with octogenarian Ratan Lal Pushpjivi and septuagenarian Anant Bahadur, both Socialist veterans from Madhya Pradesh.
An equally desolated camp is that of the Congress Sewa Dal, an affiliate of the Congress party, at Sector 15 of the mela district. On the occasion of Makar Sankranti, Sewa Dal members had offered tea to all visitors, which drew some attention. Pilgrims, or others at the Kumbh Mela who are just curious, often peep into the tents and clear their doubts with the workers.
"Yeh toh door door se kisi party ka tent nahi lagta hai. Nehru ke ghar mein inka ye haal hai (This does not look like a political party's camp even from a distance. This is the state of affairs of the party in Nehru's hometown," said Pankaj Singh, a 40-year-old pilgrim from Patna.
Mukti Koli, a farmer from the trans-Yamuna area of Koraon at Prayagraj, who was helped by Sewa Dal workers, comments on their lacklustre camp: "I think the Congress either doesn't have funds, or it just does not utilise them at the right place."
Uttar Pradesh Congress committee spokesperson Kishore Varshney claimed the Congress Sewa Dal has been setting up camps at the Kumbh Mela since before Independence to help and guide pilgrims. "On the first day, our workers helped show the path to pilgrims. We also re-united several aged by taking them to the lost and found camp," Varshney said, also claiming that 3,000 workers had been roped in on the orders of party president Rahul Gandhi.
Contrary to the BJP, no top rung Congress leaders have visited the Sewa Dal camp yet.
BSP away from Manuwadi politics
A banner with images of the BJP's national and the regional stars, Modi and Adityanath, on either side welcomes visitors at the party's camp at Sector 6, close to the VHP camp. On the first day of the Kumbh Mela, the BJP camp was a busy one, with Union ministers Smriti Irani, Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Niranjana visiting the fair. The activity here mostly involves party workers and leaders, while pilgrims and tourists only interact to seek directions.
Only one party with a strong presence in the state has stayed away from the mela district — the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). This is because it believes that such an event should not be allowed to serve as a platform to promote politics.
RK Gautam, BSP zonal president for Allahabad-Varanasi, explains why: "We are against Manuwadi thinking, so we never set up camps at such religious places to avoid confrontation. The BSP, too, wants the fair to be completed successfully, but the way the BJP is trying to hijack it by mixing religion with politics is a matter of concern."
The central and state governments have together pumped in Rs 4,236 crore to organise the Ardh Kumbh 2019, more than double the budget allocated for Mahakumbh 2013. While the impact of the massive spending is evident in the beautification and infrastructure development across Prayagraj, the mela website this time looks more like a promotional page for the saffron leadership.
The author is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com
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