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Fear and bathing at Kumbh

This Mahakumbh will be unlike any other that has gone before. Not only are the crowds at the biggest gathering of humans expected to be even bigger this year, but there’s also a clear and present danger of terrorism. Amitava Sanyal reports.

india Updated: Jan 09, 2010 23:54 IST
Amitava Sanyal

This Mahakumbh will be unlike any other that has gone before. Not only are the crowds at the biggest gathering of humans expected to be even bigger this year, but there’s also a clear and present danger of terrorism. The administration and the sadhus have pulled out all stops to let the Ganga gurgle down as quietly as possible during the three months of the mela. But nothing — not even the stars — can foretell how they will pass.

They have reasons to be worried. Of the four venues of the Kumbh, Haridwar has seen the worst violence. If it was conquerer Timur’s army that caused it 701 years ago to the day, it was internecine rivalry between the akharas, the camps of sadhus first set up by Shankaracharya as warriors of the faith, that caused it 12 years ago.

Few people know it better than Alok Sharma, 43, DIG who, as SP of Haridwar in 1998, lost two of his teeth at the scuffle that left hundreds of sadhus and 50 policemen injured. This time he’s better prepared. At his service will be a force of 16,000 policemen, home guards, commandos and armymen. To prepare against terror attacks, his team has worked out a dozen scenarios and performed drills for Mumbai-style operations at more than two dozen hotspots. Helping the force is a battery of 144 surveillance cameras armed with sophisticated video analytics software.

Sharma, who was also Special SP at the Allahabad Mahakumbh of 2001, says, “We go by traditions — anything else we treat with caution.”

On the their part, the akharas have introduced a tradition this year to guard against violence. For the first time, Hari Giri, mahamantri of the All India Akhara Council, performed a ‘sacrifice’ of an imarti made of pure ghee and a bhalla made of urad daal to appease the gods.

“Why is trouble inevitable at the Haridwar Kumbh? The answer must lie in the stars,” says Giri, who is also mahamantri of Juna, the biggest and the baddest of the 13 akharas.

Prateek Mishrapuri, founder of the Indian Ancient Education Society who initiated the sacrifice, explains, “The Mahakumbh happens at Haridwar when Jupiter enters Aquarius, the sign of Saturn, and Sun enters Aries, the sign of Mars. Both of them are ‘hot’ planets. So any friction leads to a flare-up.”

Administrative head Anand Vardhan, though, is leaving nothing to the stars. He is spending some of his Rs 525-crore budget on extending the ghats, increasing the parking space by 300 per cent and camping area by 30 per cent. He has raised the daily wages of the 9,000 cleaners by 80 per cent to avert a strike.

But he, like Sharma, is worried about the surge of crowds. The team expects the numbers to swell after Shivratri on February 12 and peak at “80-125 lakh” during the shahi snaan (auspicious dip) on Baisakhi, April 14. The largest crowd at the Allahabad Mahakumbh was estimated at 70 lakh, on Mauni Amavasya.

How are such huge numbers calculated? Sharma explains “the maths”: “We prepare for the moment when the glass is full. If ‘x’ is the maximum holding capacity for 5-6 hours, we take 4x as the day’s total. But it never reaches the number.” Vardhan says, “Frankly, it’s an eye estimation. There’s no scientific ground to the number.”

But there’s no denying that it will add up to a massive, madding crowd. And that will disrupt the carefully-laid plans. “Most of the video analytic tools will fail. They need some footage of the ground to distinguish between people. And there will be none,” says Sharma.

It’s not just humans who are impairing the technologies. To avoid tripping by frolicking monkeys, all but 17 of the 144 cameras are linked by wireless Internet. But even that doesn’t make them immune from webs and droppings left by spiders and birds. On this, even the gods cannot help.