The journey from the idyllic banks of the Sabarmati in Gandhinagar to that of the teeming ghats of the Ganga in Varanasi has been a momentous one for Narendra Modi. That historic campaign culminated last week with the performing of an aarti at the Dashashwamedh ghat and an emotive speech by the Prime Minister elect. Critics of Modi decried what they considered an overt flexing of Hindutva muscle and feared that this was a harbinger of a hardliner, communal phase in Indian politics.
Over the past three decades, I have been privileged to film aartis across several Indian rivers. At pilgrimage sites such as Haridwar, Rishikesh and Prayag, at the cascading Cauvery and the meandering Krishna, at timeless Kashi and bustling Indore, I have felt the energy and a sense of spiritual oneness as the multi-tiered flame is passed at sundown from devotee to devotee amid the throb of drums, clanging cymbals and Vedic chants.
As an Indian, I consider offering salutation to our mighty rivers a secular act as they are the givers of life and have sustained our civilisation from time immemorial. The majesty of the Gangotri glacier, where the eternal Ganga originates, has awed me. And in Amarkantak, in the heart of central India, I bowed at the kund from where the Narmada, maiden daughter of Lord Shiva, reportedly sprang.
We, as a people, see no contradiction in addressing our holy rivers as Ma and then desecrating them. Through my travels, I was dismayed to see that both pilgrims and pandits pollute our water bodies by floating thousands of toxic aluminium diyas in them, ironically as an offering of worship. I also observed that the poor, who cannot afford the high cost of cremating their dead, often immerse charred corpses into our sacred rivers hoping, praying that the consecrated waters will purify the deceased and ferry their souls to salvation. Defecating, laundering and bathing by riverbanks has significantly exacerbated the problem, and it is alarming how poisoned these once pristine rivers have become from human and chemical waste that is dumped into them daily. In 2010, the Sabarmati was named the third most polluted river in India by the Central Pollution Control Board, with the highest volumes of E.Coli in the country. Development can no longer be offered as an excuse for despoiling our rivers.
According to Hindu mythology, the mighty Ganga comes annually in the guise of a black cow to bathe in the waters of the virginal Narmada and thereby cleanses her own sins.
It is my hope that Modi, who hails from the land where the Narmada meets the sea, will use his mandate to decontaminate not only Ma Ganga but also all polluted water bodies across the nation.
Religion and rhetoric aside, this would be the greatest act of devotion that any son of the soil can perform for mother India.