Kanwariyas: On A Yatra Towards Heaven While Creating A Hell?

Photo: ndtv.com

Delhi and Mumbai both stood still this week. It wasn’t rain or heat or the Independence Day celebration. One stood still due to fear of violence, the other because of violence.

Since many haven’t heard of the Kanwariyas before here goes a brief primer:
The Kanwar Yatra is a pilgrimage observed by Lord Shiva’s devotees every year, in which they visit pilgrimage centres like Haridwar, Gangotri, Gaumukh to collect Ganga water, and then offer the ‘Ganga Jal’ in the local Lord Shiva temples for pouring on the shiv lingam. Ideally, they cover the distance barefoot and live as ascetics during the journey. The holy water is stored in pitchers and carried by the devotees on their shoulders on a small pole made from bamboo, known as ‘Kanwar’. Thus, they are popularly referred to as ‘Kanwars’ or ‘Kanwariyas’ and the entire pilgrimage is referred to as ‘Kanwar Yatra’.

The yatra takes place during the religious month of ‘Shravan’. Earlier it was a small group of old clad sadhus. They went about the yatra without causing any scenes. Real devotees. Since the 80s a section of young Hindus, especially in north India, has started reviving and celebrating this yatra. Now millions come together from different places, but their route takes them through Delhi, on the banks of Yamuna and other crowded cities in UP, causing a havoc to everyday traffic and major inconvenience to commuters.

Photo: mensxp.com

This year the Kanwar yatra was in the news due to a small incident which led to violence, molestation and vandalism. The incident caused anxiety throughout north India. I have friends who run outdoors. I found myself telling them not to go for their runs during this time. One of them is an army wife no less! Her husband puts his life on the line as part of his job, but she had to stay indoors due to the fear of violence.

In the Supreme Court, several things were observed and commenting upon. In Allahabad the Kanwariyas blocked half the highway, Justice Chandrachud had observed. Justice Dipak Mishra had said, “You may burn your house and be a hero but you cannot damage third party property.” The Indian government’s lawyer Attorney General K K Venugopal said, “Every week we have major riots including educated people. We had Maratha protests and SC/ST protests.”

One would think the police would have taken action. They would have disbanded them right away. The provision for disbanding and punishing an unlawful assembly in Indian Penal Code is for situations like this. Of course, it has been used against students protesting or Garba nights gone awry but when a textbook unlawful assembly shows up the police have amnesia. Even the Attorney General said the cops should be held responsible, he expressed concern about the police’s failure to control the mob. In fact, there are reports of the UP government showering them with rose petals from a helicopter using public funds of course!

Why? A misunderstanding and misinterpretation of religion. We pander to religions so often in this country that the police did what was natural to them. Let the procession move forward or a million more might join in the chaos leading to a full-fledged riot, as it so often happens. According to the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau), communal violence has gone up 41% in the last 3 years. Blame that on the politics but we have always been a society that puts religious freedom above all other rights, including the right to life itself. Many of those who form the pillars of the government are often afraid to ruffle too many feathers. The courts that allowed women’s entry in Sabarimala were told to back down recently citing the logic that it invades the privacy of the celibate deity. A deity, more or less imaginary, has more rights than real women.

A supposedly liberal friend of mine argued with me over criticizing Kanwariyas. I blamed the misunderstanding of religion he blamed crowds. He said it was a crowd problem. I disagree. The crowd is incidental & consequential to a religious practice in this case. Many Kanwariyas went on a rampage in broad daylight, on a road full of witnesses because they knew no one would touch them. Videos can be made, and they can go viral. They still had the audacity to take the law into their hands, fearlessly.

It’s not just the Kanwariyas. Every time anyone raises a voice against crackers during Diwali or waste of water during Holi, or the use of loudspeakers by the mosques, they are put down because of religion. Delhi is so polluted during October and November that it is equivalent to smoking a pack a day. While reasons for the smog are geographical, why add on to the city’s pollution using crackers? Religion isn’t about tradition anymore, it has become more to do with proving a point. The louder you are about your beliefs, the stronger they are.

Even if one is religious, such practices are sanctioned by no religion. If there is a god named Shiv, he is the destroyer of evil. He drank poison to save humanity, how can his worshippers poison the society that gives them a free hand? Wouldn’t they be afraid of his wrath if they were truly religious? Many of the Kanwariyas are nothing more than a band of desperate, frustrated youth left behind in a globalised economy cloaking themselves in saffron to avoid sanction for their actions. They should be seen as what they really are, not what they claim to be.


Radha is a lawyer and preparing for civil services. She is a feminist (no that's not a bad word), environmentalist and potterhead. She loves superheroes but is an agnostic/ atheist.

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