On Janmashtami, politicians made a mockery of court rulings that placed restrictions on the height of human pyramids and the participation of children in competitions that involve the breaking of a pot — dahi handi — hung from a rope strung several storeys above the ground.
Despite surveillance by the police, the teams — called Govinda Pathaks — broke safety restrictions. About 150 people were injured in the festivities — fewer than casualties in the previous years when people have died or got crippled after falling off the formations — but a 12-year-old from Kalyan received severe injuries.
The group which went to the court seeking safety restrictions is not worried about the defiance shown by the teams because the false bravado shown by the politicians will fizzle off after the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) — the richest in the country — scheduled in 2017. “It (the defiance of courts) is exactly for the BMC elections. They had no cause that would have got them votes. So they took up the Dahi Handi issue to talk about till the elections,” said Swati Patil of Utkarsh Mahila Samiti, a group set up in 2005. “But our fight will not stop after the elections.”
While she will seek prosecution of the mandals for disobeying the courts’ direction, Patil said she is concerned about the contempt the groups showed for the country’s highest judicial bodies. “The courts are the only places social workers can go to bring such issues into discussions. If they do not obey the courts where do we go?” asked Patil.
Politicians have fought to get the safety restrictions lifted. In 2014, after hearing Patil’s petition, the Bombay high court prohibited participants younger than 18 years from the Govinda teams and restricting the height of the human tiers to 20 feet. A few days before Janmashtami, the mandals filed a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court to obtain a temporary stay on the Mumbai court’s order.
After the festival, the apex court dismissed the mandal’s plea, declaring it ‘infructuous, but after rules were violated in 2015, Patil went to court again with a contempt petition, accusing the state government of ignoring the judgment.
Though govinda teams broke safety rules, the petitioners said that the 90% of the groups obeyed the court rulings. “If we had not gone to the courts more people would have been injured,” said Patil.
Nitesh Nevse, Patil’s lawyer, said that a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Mumbai’s suburbs, who was appointed as the head of the committee set up by the state government to file a report on the festival, broke the rules.
“When the MLA organised an event that violated the rules we filed the contempt petition in the Supreme Court,” said Nevse.
Last week, three days before Janmasthami, the Supreme Court upheld the safety restrictions placed by the Mumbai court.
The case will not end here. In the next few weeks, Utkarsh Mahila Samiti will file applications under the Right to Information Act to find out whether the police have started prosecuting the groups that violated the ban. They will approach the Supreme Court with the findings and plead for contempt proceedings against those who violated the ban.
Patil, who approached the Bombay high court seeking safety restrictions on the festival, decided to campaign for the cause after neighbours told her about young people who were injured in the festival.
“I met families from the slum where I live and they have told me that they do not want their children to participate in the events,” said Patil.
“They told me that, on the day of the festival, they could not sleep at night till their children reached home safely.”
“There may be around 200,000 Govindas but a million more who are their family members. I am worried about the grief of the families,” added Patil.