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Rise of kanwariyas: Why politicians need to act against rowdiness in religion, writes Chandan Mitra

The tragic aspect of this increasingly rowdy behaviour is that it robs such functions of all vestiges of sobriety which should be associated with all religious observances.

opinion Updated: Jul 31, 2017 11:07 IST
Chandan Mitra
Chandan Mitra
The tragic aspect of this increasingly rowdy behaviour is that it robs such functions of all vestiges of sobriety which should be associated with all religious observances(Hindustan Times)

Indians are overly exhibitionist in matters of faith. Many of us appear to believe that unless our respective religions and rituals associated with them are volubly demonstrated in public, we have somehow failed in performing our religious duty. Even festivals, which have no religious ceremony associated, such as Holi and Diwali are observed boisterously through the splashing of colours and bursting crackers at a deafening volume. Similarly Shia Muslims observe Muharram through self-flagellating processions and carrying Tazias down the street. But since loud music is not an integral part of these observances the public disturbance is limited.

In recent years, a section of young Hindus, especially in north India, has started reviving and celebrating the ritual of collecting water from the holy Ganga and ferrying it in canisters to the village temple for pouring the water on the shiv lingam during the auspicious month of Shravan. Although derived from an age-old tradition of walking from one’s village to a pilgrimage site on (such as Haridwar) on the banks of the Ganga and returning to the village on or before shiv ratri, the recent rise of religiousity has transformed a deeply personal observance of faith into a noisy and often offensive display of public nuisance.

In earlier times kanwars, as the pilgrims are called, evoked awe and devotion among the populace. They were respected for undertaking a long and arduous journey on foot, braving heat, humidity and rain, to perform a ritual for their own and the village community’s salvation. Consequently, affluent traders set up camps on the way where pilgrims could rest, have a meal at night before setting off at dawn next day. The physical endurance is what was believed to bestow piety upon them. Although they always walked in groups, they did so silently with a prayer on their lips.

But in the last few decades, kanwars have broken all traditions converting their yatras to and from Haridwar or Garh Ganga (Braj Ghat) into raucous events, travelling in trucks blaring loud music through massive loudspeakers, mainly Hindi film songs of dubious quality. Their behaviour on the roads is anything but devotional. They carry hockey sticks and baseball bats to intimidate and seriously injure other road users, state governments, not necessarily of BJP persuasion, make concerted efforts to facilitate their journey, even closing down the main highways on their route or erecting scaffolding barriers to protect the rowdy pilgrims who are known to turn violent if faced with any obstacle. The month of Shravan (July-August) is viewed with trepidation by most other travellers on north India’s roads. Cities like Delhi and Gurugram too are significantly affected.

Should observance of religiosity be such a demonstrative public affair, especially if it inconveniences others? Most religious teachers tell us that religion is a private affair and should definitely not impinge on others’ beliefs. But the kanwar revellers have no patience for such pious thoughts. Incidentally, even Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a man deeply seeped in religion, had warned kanwars this year not to be unruly or play film songs which border on the vulgar. But the fear of violence seems to petrify the police who continue to treat these self-styled devotees with kid gloves.

Possibly as a demonstration effect, young Muslims have started observing the sombre event of Shab-e-Baraat (night of ancestral spirits) in an equally ruffianish way. At least in Delhi, they come out in droves on noisy motor-cycles at night, waving flags and intimidating other road users by their unruly driving.

The tragic aspect of this increasingly rowdy behaviour is that it robs such functions of all vestiges of sobriety which should be associated with religious observances. Arguably Hindu community pujas such as Ganesh Utsav and Durga Puja have always been noisy, loud music being their integral part. But it is often counter-argued that the muezzin’s call to prayer at the crack of dawn each morning is no less of an invasion of others’ privacy and right to sound sleep. The shabad relayed over loud speakers fron Sikh gurdwaras early in the morning also causes disturbance in the neighbourhood.

Sociologists may attribute such behaviour to India’s warm climate wherein late nights and early mornings are most conducive for observing religious ceremonies. When India was almost entirely a rural society, such activities were not just tolerated but had complete community sanction. Ironically, in those times, kanwars never played raucous music, nor did they travel on motorbikes carrying baseball bats.

Is there no way to roll back the progressive degeneration of public behaviour associated with religious functions? Politicians are loath to act for fear of offending voters, and ignore the vast majority of the electorate that is profoundly inconvenienced by such rowdy outbursts of purported devotion. It is for religious leaders of all faiths, particularly those in the pravachan industry, to counsel their vast number of followers to return observances like kanwar yatra to their pristine, individualised purity.

Chandan Mitra is editor of The Pioneer and has been two-time Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 30, 2017 18:33 IST