The five-day Ambubachi Mela began in the Kamakhya temple here from Monday, bringing with it the footfalls as well as the bhang abuse.
Authorities remain unsure how to control rampant consumption of bhang — as cannabis leaves in smoke form are known in Assam — by thousands of sadhus and sanyasis who have arrived from all over the country despite laws banning such consumption.
The Ambubachi Mela, which also marks the Hindu belief of annual menstruation of the Mother Goddess — the ruling deity here — as also Mother Earth, draws several lakh devotees, with the authorities this time expecting about eight lakh. The temple doors will remain shut for four days with devotees waiting until the reopening on Thursday.
“Clamping down on use and consumption of bhang is difficult especially as it involves religious sentiments,” said Kamrup (Metro) additional deputy commissioner Fakharuddin Ahmed, who also looks after health aspects of the city district. “But despite that we have been working with the Kamakhya Debuttar Board to minimise bhang use especially in view of the large number of women, children and elderly people visiting the Ambubachi Mela.”
District tobacco control nodal officer Samiran Barua on Monday imposed fines on two persons under COTPA (Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act) for smoking in public places. “We have been talking to sadhus in small groups, trying to tell them about the hazards of public smoking,” he said.
“The authorities should do something, otherwise it will only work as a demotivating factor for the majority of devotees who don’t consume bhang,” said Ruchira Neog of Voluntary Health Association of Assam. Many citizens of Guwahati avoid visiting Kamakhya temple during the Ambubachi Mela. “While the place gets too crowded, the air is filled with ganja smoke,” said Dipali Chakravarty, a Guwahati homemaker.
Chiranjeev Kakati of NESPYM, a leading NGO that works among youth against drug abuse and runs a de-addiction centre, said the government should apply both COTPA (which applies to tobacco) and Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act of 1958 (which covers canabbis abuse) to make Kamakhya smoke-free and maintain its sanctity.
“There is no reason why both COTPA and Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act should not be used. Kamakhya temple is a public place where people from all over come to offer prayers and not inhale ganja smoke,” said Kakati, who is also a member of the National Action and Coordination Group for Ending Violence Against Children.
While bhang, being made of cannabis leaves, is not a banned item under the national Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act of 1958 bans sale, purchase, possession and consumption of bhang in any form. This Act of the state also has a provision of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1,000.
Lily Rajbangshi, chairperson of the Assam State Anti-Drugs and Prohibition Council fears imposing the Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act might hurt religious sentiments. “It is true that ganja smoking is dangerous and has been banned under the Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act. But given the fact that it involves such an ancient and famous temple, it might hurt a lot of sentiments. I think the government should find a way to make Kamakhya temple ganja-free,” she said.