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A Secular State’s Pilgrimage

Kumbh Mela as a History of Managing Faith

— Written By Aditi Gupta
Student at DU, pursuing Masters in Political Science

In Prayag, Allahabad for modern India, it’s the biggest show on earth, conceived by Hinduism’s antique memory, co-scripted by mythology, history and tradition, and enacted by keepers of wisdom and seekers of moksha. It’s the costume drama of nirvana and the passion-play of the East and the naked dance of ascetism and the hara-hara delirium of the hippie and the raw picturesque of pure faith rolled into one oversized panorama of India in its divine diversity – even in the digital age. (Prasannarajan, 2001)

Any literary reproduction of the spectacle that is Kumbh yearns to be at the very least overwhelming, to be as true to the essence of its experience as one is qualified. For some it is “a microcosm of India”, “the biggest congregation of humanity at one place and at one time”, “world’s most massive act of faith”, and “an ancient religious gathering gridded in the cartographic imagination of postcolonial town planners” for others. Every description of ‘Kumbh Mela’ – curiously translated to “the festival of the urn” – is fraught with peculiar insights on its ontology and offers a plethora of observations with regard to its politics, and yet none of them are too far away from offering an almost mythical account.

The genre of festivals that constitute the Mela have a perilous history of religious nationalism and syncretism, cultural hybridization and orthodoxy, social cohesion and discord, political subversion and supervision, and economic formalization and negligence. Uncovering this mass pilgrimage, therefore, requires us to situate it within theatres of parallel histories – to chart the ways in which it has developed and changed over time and space, and in people’s narrations and imaginations. Entire cities, as we know them, have materialized out of the successes and failures of preparing for this great festival of elixir. Some have even argued that the Mela has turned Allahabad into a sovereign socialist republic of the sacred.

The Kumbh has commanded worldwide media and academic attention for being the largest religious gathering taking place at a twelve year interval, with rotational occurrences in between, and its arduous administration. The state government of Uttar Pradesh in India won the Innovations in Government Services and Programmes category and overall gold medal at the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) 2014 International Innovations Awards for its management of Kumbh Mela 2013. The Mela is used in classroom discussions as a case study of religion, temporary urbanism, infrastructure engineering convergence, health governance in resource-poor settings, humanitarian aid, and emergency medicine.

A shared vision for the Kumbh Mela administration has been ‘to ensure a safe, secure and comfortable stay for the visitors’ and ‘to amalgamate technology and tradition in a seamless manner, preserving the sanctity of the Mela’. State management of the Mela, in the past, has meant creation of a temporary Kumbh City with fair-price shops, ‘checkered-plate’ roads on riverbeds and pontoon bridges, network of power connections, water facilitating structures, prompt medical infrastructure and toilets of order. Though, major areas of concern of the administration have altered over time. Where the newly independent State was preoccupied with issues of crowd management and infrastructure development, more recently it has come to inculcate a ‘green’ awareness campaign and sanitary reforms – a shift from prioritizing safety and security of pilgrims to reducing the ecological impact of celebrations and sustainable development of the region.

Kumbh Mela of 2019 is being prepared to feature 800 special trains running from various stations of Allahabad district in addition to the regular trains run by the North Central Railway, IBM Intelligent Video Analytics for crowd control at the railway stations and its adjoining areas, a disease surveillance unit to coordinate with medical units to keep the place safe from infections, floating terminals and airboat service for the Ghats to facilitate safe passenger movement, an app developed by UP police in addition to Kumbh police website for a wide range of services, and installation of toilets and luxury tents.

“It is a major celebration combining the power of marketing, the power of advertisement and the power of politics”, commented Professor Badri Narayan, social scientist and director of Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute. “Like never before, the tourism industry will get a chance to cash in. The same will be the case with the hospitality industry, travelling sector, retail sector and some parts of the manufacturing sector. Kumbh 2019 will be commercialisation of religion”, noted Industrialist and former president of Eastern Chambers of Commerce and Industry, GS Darbari.

What is more, 2019 being both the year of the general elections and the Kumbh is destined to create a nexus of religion and politics. This pan-Hindu, mass pilgrimage – which tends to be an upper-caste institution frequented by majority of pilgrims from the Hindi-speaking belt – is set to become a stage for “fuelling large-scale polarization of Hindus through state-supported mega celebrations in an electorally crucial state such as Uttar Pradesh”.

“Big pilgrimages have big implications for those who are in power or aspire to it” (Kama Maclean, Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954)

The event has become a strategic opportunity to whip up a saffron tide ahead of the upcoming elections for the Bhartiya Janata Party government, as is reflected in its finances. The Uttar Pradesh government has drawn up an estimate of more than Rs 4,200 crore for the preparations for Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj and has asked the central government to bear more than half the cost. The last Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 cost less than a third of the amount estimated for this time. The symbolism of the Kumbh may perhaps become a chess piece in party’s commitment to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the Hindutva campaign.

This is an anomaly in the Indian state’s constitutional promise of secularism. The model of context-specific secularism in India, on the one hand, disconnects religion from the ends of politics and politics from the ends of religion; and on the other, “positively interferes in the event that state incurs special challenges due to law and order situation” which is what allows the postcolonial secular state to manage modern religious spaces such as the Kumbh in the first place.

A seminal anthropological study of pilgrimage conducted by Victor and Edith Turner suggested that pilgrimage is inherently subversive (“anti-structure”) because it entails a metamorphosis of a pilgrim’s normally structured existence from a state’s citizen to a wayfarer open and vulnerable to a wide range of experiences. However, pilgrimages present “an arena where government has an unparalleled opportunity to influence the congregated masses” for the structures of pilgrimage are increasingly controlled by government and under the influence of political leaders. Whatever time there is between pilgrims’ departure from the privacy of their homes to their return is made possible through the infrastructure and machinery of a state with authoritarian colonial lineages. Furthermore, in contemporary India, the Kumbh mela records the presence of many prominent politicians who have a stake in encouraging an Indian (or Hindu) public to think of them as being immersed in Indian (or Hindu) culture. This modern Hinduism of advertising faith is made possible through postcolonial State’s over pre-modern religiosity.

Ashish Avikunthak, writing in his Maha Kumbh Journal during the making of “Kalkimanthankatha”, uncovers Kumbh as “a pre-modern religious imagination controlled, ordered, and confined within the gridded universe of a Cartesian structure. Here faith is restrained by an eccentric postcolonial Foucauldian governmentality. Here religious belief is tightly fastened by the rational state. Here religion is gridlocked by the panopticon regimentation of postcolonial governmentality.” Even the gods and goddesses walking the Earth during the Mela cannot escape the penetrating gaze of the police CCTVs. ‘The greatest assembly of humans’, as the Guinness has called it, leaves the places of its inhabitation with superimposed order and extraordinary apparatuses of policing and surveillance.

And yet, despite state’s obviously advantaged control over all modern infrastructure that supports a congregation, it has been observed that the information network that operates through the pilgrimage system is much harder to capture and control. Historian Kama Maclean, in many scattered works, unravels the dynamics of colonialism in India during the early modern Kumbh Mela festivals. While for the British “melas were powerful conduits of disease as well as news, rumours, sedition, and eventually nationalism” –needed to be controlled; for the anticolonial nationalists they were part of “the spiritual domain” – sacred and superior – where foreign interference was intolerable. The Kumbh Mela, in that sense, became a semblance of resistance against the colonial state’s attempts at managing Hinduism.

On these lines, researchers have found pilgrimage centres as excellent prospects for unity, and social and political orchestration. Consequently, political significance of the Kumbh in construction of an imagination of “national” community is profusely reasoned. Benedict Anderson, giving an account of imagined religious communities in a pre-print age, attributed great possibilities for nationalist fervour to pilgrimage. The Mela becomes a portrait of nation before the eyes of the pilgrims – a sea of peoples drawn together despite their differences.

The Kumbh mela is a pitcher of paradoxes, as it were.

The life and understanding of Kumbh is caught between the fabulous tale woven by the believers – which described the Mela’s continuity from time immemorial – and its historiography laid out by researchers – pointing rather early modern origins of this ancient festival. And somewhere in between lies a hybrid universe of the Mela “fatefully fluctuating between primordial impulses and rational compulsions” .

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