New Delhi: Hours after Niranjani Akharas, an influential order of Hindu saints, announced the end of its activities for the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Haridwar from 17 April citing the surge in Covid-19 cases, a number of other akharas (sects of Hindu saints) are also expected to wind up activities in a day or two, ThePrint has learnt.
According to sources, senior BJP leaders held meetings with 13 akharas and have requested them to take a decision keeping the Covid situation in mind. Of these, two akharas already announced their exit.
Though restricted to just one month from four, the event has raised eyebrows as it continued in spite of a fresh wave of the pandemic pushing India’s case numbers to new highs daily — in the past 24 hours, 2.17 lakh new cases were recorded, the highest daily tally so far.
About 48 lakh people are believed to have participated in the two ‘royal baths’, called shahi snans, that took place on 12 and 14 April.
On Thursday, 65-year-old Mahamandaleshwar Kapil Dev Das of the Nirwani Akhada of Madhya Pradesh died of Covid-19 while many other seers are reportedly showing Covid symptoms.
“A number of senior BJP leaders of the state have been in touch with several akharas and are persuading them to wind up, citing the Covid surge. The fact that Niranjani Akharas have already announced it is a positive move. Most of the akharas have given us a positive response and within two days it is likely to come to be suspended,” said a senior BJP leader.
However, the akharas need to get all of its leaders on board to suspend the activities, several of whom want no curtailment. “It is a difficult task but talks are on. Within the akharas itself there are opposing voices, so nothing is certain whether they will curtail it,” said another leader.
According to sources, a meeting is also taking place in the Uttarakhand government to take a final decision on the matter. The government has so far maintained that the mela will go on as planned. This has sparked criticism, with parallels being drawn to last year’s Tablighi Jamaat congregation that turned into a super-spreader event.
On their part, authorities in Uttarakhand have justified their decision to organise the mela, promising to ensure precautions are in place by using drones to monitor violations of Covid regulations and restricting entry to people with valid Covid-negative certificates. The event that started on 1 April is scheduled to end on 30 April.
‘Continuing mela doesn’t send good message’
Mahant Dharamdas, president of Nirvani Ani Akhara, told the media that the two akharas that announced the curtailing of the mela should not have done so as only the government can do that. “Only the government can curtail it [the mela]. Both the akharas need to apologise for making such an announcement,” he said.
According to sources, several backdoor meetings of senior BJP leaders with akhara heads were held to discuss the issue in the past two days. “Many states are imposing lockdowns and the situation is quite grim. In such a situation, continuing with the mela doesn’t send a good message. At the same time, cases have been increasing, and continuing the mela till 30 April would result in risking several lives,” said another BJP leader.
According to BJP’s Uttarakhand president Madan Kaushik, the party has also been helping the government in ensuring social distancing norms are followed. “BJP workers have been working round-the-clock as swayamsevaks (volunteers) and ensuring that adequate masks, sanitisers are provided. At the same time, they are making sure that social distancing norms are followed,” he told ThePrint.
‘We follow traditions, not guidelines or govt’
On 15 April alone, 332 people had tested positive at the mela by 9 pm. Chief medical officer, Haridwar district, Dr S.K. Jha told ThePrint that 30-35 sadhus had tested positive, out of the 332 cases, and that testing would now be ramped up from 17 April.
“We conducted around 30,000 tests on Thursday, and we are planning to increase the number of tests after the 17th, which is five days after the second shahi snan, which saw a huge crowd. Most people, if positive, will be detectable then. We have enough beds and resources to deal with a spike in cases,” he said.
Meanwhile, the akharas have seen a steady exodus of sadhus since the shahi snan on 14 April.
“Two persons have been detected with Covid from our akhara yesterday, but there are 10-15 others who have fallen sick and are showing symptoms. Around 1,000 people are left here, but most others have gone home. Day before yesterday, there were 18,000 people with us. Our announcement was just for our akhara, and no one else,” Ram Ratan Giri, secretary of the Niranjana Akhara told ThePrint.
However, the Juna Akhara, among the largest and most influential of the 13 main akharas in the mela, said it would neither leave the mela nor encourage members to leave.
“Our schedule is decided by the zodiac signs. According to our traditions, we are to stay till 27 May. We don’t work according to any guidelines or the government, we will follow our traditions because it is necessary,” said Narayan Giri, spokesperson of the Juna Akhara, adding, “Such calamities have been foreseen and we cannot put aside our traditions because of it. We will participate in all the snans (baths) till 27 May.”
Avahan Akhara, a smaller sect affiliated to the Juna Akhara, has seen many of its members leave in the last few days. One senior member of the Avahan Akhara was hospitalised with Covid-19, president Ponam Giri Sanapati told ThePrint.
“Many of the sadhus from our akhara who were going to stay till the end of the mela have left due to Covid-19 fears. Only a few of us are left here,” said Sanapati. “The rest of us who have remained will go after 30 April. We are affiliated with Juna Akhara and will take the same decision as them.”
A senior member of another sect, the Kinnar Akhara, also said “a majority of people had left” because of the spread of Covid-19, but will come back for the snan on 17 April if the mela isn’t cancelled.
“More than 250 people are with us, but a majority of them have left to go back home because of the Covid situation. If the mela is still on on the 17th, they will come back to participate in the last snan,” the senior member said, requesting anonymity.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)