Media overplay in projecting VHP support to Narendra Modi as the Kumbh’s general outcome is at variance with the reality that it is a diverse gathering that has little connect with Hindutva politics

The Kumbh in Allahabad is thought to have a special place in Hindutva politics. Allahabad is the hometown and karma bhumi (place of work) of the international president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Ashok Singhal. The agenda of the Ram Janmabhoomi began during the Kumbh of 1989.

In the 2013 Kumbh, the VHP backed Narendra Modi for the prime ministership which became headline news on television. The VHP did this opportunistically, seeing Modi as the rising star of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and hoping to benefit from early support to him. It was also a way to pressure the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to make its choice.

Yet the Kumbh is far from being a hotbed of politics. Indeed, even within the Dharma Sansad (Religious Parliament) that was jointly hosted by the VHP and the RSS at the Kumbh, there was no unanimity of opinion on Modi. If anything, influential saints of the Akhara Parishad like Gyan Das, Awdeshanand Giri and Adyokshananda have argued time and again that the Kumbh should not be converted into a political arena. Unfortunately, these divergent voices from different sects like the Kabir Panth, Ravidas Panth and Buddhist Panth have not been heard above the political din.

The Naga seers here had no clue about Modi; many of them did not even know where the Dharma Sansad was being held. The common pilgrims were unconcerned about politics as a whole and paid little attention to the posters of Modi put up at the mela. Ram Sumer of Balia had not heard of Modi, the VHP or the Dharma Sansad. These are concerns outside the everyday preoccupations of the Kalpavasis.

Belief the focus

The Kumbh is diversity at its most spectacular. The throng is a rich mosaic comprising farm labour, the urban poor, the middle classes and the rich. In terms of castes too the grounds are a leveller, hosting the upper and middle castes as much as the Dalits. The Kalpavasis, who make their temporary homes in the akharas of the sadhus and camps of the pandas (priests), form the largest section of the crowds here. They stay immersed in sacrifice (tyag) and meditation (tapasya) and refrain from worldly enticements for the duration of the mela.

A floating crowd comes to the mela for bathing on different occasions between Makara Sankranti and Shivratri. And then there are the street-circus performers, snake charmers, flute sellers, beggars, hawkers, small businessmen and shopkeepers. Together they infuse colour, charm and variety into the mela, making it one of the biggest carnivals in the world. Little wonder then that the Kumbh is a photographer’s delight and a haunt of the international tourist.

For the commoners, religion is a matter of belief and faith. They have neither any interest nor knowledge of the ideological construct of Hindutva. Sixty-year-old Bahron, a bharbhujwa (they roast grains for puffed rice and popcorn) was not sure if Modi was a name or a thing or a caste. He had never heard of this word and he had never seen a television set. When I explained what a TV is, he said, “…oh, that kind of a box. I heard our village Chauhan Sahib has it. I have myself never seen it.”

In Sarauta Panda’s camp, a 50-year-old Kalpavasi, Sikali Devi, a middle class Kayastha from Moradabad, said she had heard of Modi and seen him on TV. Nonetheless, she was too involved with the business at hand to spare time for politics: “Dusk has fallen. This is the time for bathing, performing puja and religious discourses. I neither have any interest nor any time for discussing politics, Modi or not.”

I met a group of youngsters who said they liked Modi. However, they hurried away saying they did not want to miss the discourse of Swami Agrhananda. Even the politically aware in the crowds were disinclined to discuss politics and Modi; they said the mela and rituals such as bathing were part of a unique spiritual experience which they did not want to dilute by discussing politics.

Another group from Gujarat was intently watching the Krishna Leela. Ghanshyam Patel, 65, who stays in Manusmriti Apartments in Vadodara, said: “This time of my life is very precious. I am not sure if I will be able to witness the next Kumbh here.” He went on to explain the Ganga’s mahima (spiritual relevance) to me.

Rama Shankar Tiwari, from Meja in Allahabad district, said he liked the BJP, Vajpayee and Advani more than Modi. But he too was emphatic that the sacred religious month was not to be wasted in politics. He sang the Ganga song, “Saap chorle saap kuchley, Ganga Maiya chorli asar (Leave snake, crush snake, it is Mother Ganga’s lasting bliss”).

Rajasthan resident Umrawati Devi’s response when asked about Modi was: “I am here for worship and prayers, not politics.” Nearby, underneath a tree, a group was singing bhajans, led by Baba Bindeshwar from Chhattisgarh. He said, “All these netas (leaders) are corrupt. We are here to pray and talk about God, to bathe and be immersed in devotion (bhakti).”

The devotees who come to the Kumbh are here primarily for bathing, bhajans, kirtans and for small purchases. Their daily routines are centred on devotion and prayers, and they have little in common with the active participants at the Dharma Sansad and the seers that the VHP and the RSS mobilise. The masses of pilgrims, from Dalits to Brahmins, from the middle classes to the poor, have no interest in the divisive issues raised by the Sangh Parivar. Yet, sadly, our media spots only controversy and political masala in the Kumbh. The TV channels played and overplayed the story of the VHP’s support to Modi, projecting it as a general outcome of the Kumbh. The reality is entirely different, as anyone visiting here can see.

(Badri Narayan is Professor, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, University of Allahabad.)