Last year, several people were injured after clashes between members of the Muslim community and Shiv devotees known as Kanwarias as the pilgrims passed through a village called Khelum in Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh. This year, the UP Police has issued “red cards” to 250 residents and asked others to sign a “symbolic” Rs 5 lakh bond to send a “psychological message” to those they suspect “may cause trouble”. Around 70 Muslim families have chosen to leave their homes. Message received, it would seem. The Kanwad yatra, which has become one of the largest annual pilgrimages in North India, is becoming a mirror for a disturbing change in the nature of the state and how it polices public spaces. Rather than ensuring that the pilgrims maintain public order as they express their religious sentiments and exercise their right to assemble and associate peacefully, those holding political and administrative office seem keen to compete in displays of religiosity while turning the other way when law and order is breached.
The trickle-down religiosity began with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who showered flower petals on the Kanwariyas from a helicopter as he conducted an aerial survey of the pilgrims on July 27. Senior bureaucrats from his government have followed suit. Most recently, images emerged of Meerut zone’s Additional Director-General of Police Prashant Kumar providing a floral shower from a chopper. In Delhi earlier this week, pilgrims were captured on video battering a car with baseball bats, assaulting one of its occupants. Though they are on video speaking to police which was trying to calm them down, an FIR has been registered against “unknown persons”. This despite the fact that the principal secretary of Uttarakhand had written to the home secretaries of Delhi, Haryana, UP and Himachal Pradesh warning them of baseball bats, tridents and other weapons that some pilgrims might be carrying, along with illicit substances. It is not, however, that the administration has been inactive in the states through which the pilgrims pass. It is just that its focus has conspicuously not been on maintaining the peace. In addition to handing out “red cards” and sending “psychological messages”, its misdirected zeal is reflected in its reported directions to eateries serving non-vegetarian food across the route the pilgrims take through parts of UP to either shut down or not to display their wares.
The Kanwad yatra, like any other religious, political or social procession, can utilise public space within the limitations set by the authorities. And it is the responsibility of the administration to ensure that the devotees undertake their journey smoothly, with minimum inconvenience to the residents of areas through which they pass. In this, the government has fallen short.