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World must tell India’s government to stop religious gatherings during COVID

Even as the authorities pay lip service to COVID-19 concerns and claim to “restrict” the scale of the events, the gatherings continue to fuel the crisis.

Written by Kavita Krishnan |
May 2, 2021 9:17:05 pm
Devotees gather to offer prayers during the Kumbh Mela 2021, at Har ki Pauri Ghat in Haridwar. (PTI Photo)

In an interview with The Indian Express, Anthony S Fauci, advisor to the current US President and several of his predecessors, has offered a range of suggestions as to how India might manage the “very difficult and desperate” COVID-19 crisis in which it finds itself.

On the very morning Fauci’s interview appeared in the paper, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended an event at Delhi’s Sis Ganj Gurudwara commemorating the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur. Photographs of the event show at least 200 people packed into a closed room, many of whom are without masks.

Is this the same country that faces the “very difficult and desperate” situation Fauci recognises? Or even the same city of Delhi, where a former Indian ambassador with COVID-19 died in the parking lot of a leading private hospital, waiting in vain for a bed? Where hospitals put out SOS messages every few hours announcing that their oxygen supply is running out? Does the world know that even today, as India’s streets and parking lots and parks are taken over by funeral pyres, India’s rulers continue to allow and encourage large gatherings that violate every basic COVID-19 precaution in the book?

Fauci’s gentle suggestions are all practical and useful. But he is making the mistake of assuming that while India’s rulers may lack the resources and competence, they have the basic will to stop this catastrophe. He, and other influential world actors, urgently need to ask India’s government to desist from actively and cold-bloodedly producing COVID-19 deaths, and fuelling the crisis.

In the month of April, the state of Uttar Pradesh insisted on holding elections to the rural local bodies, forcing school teachers to perform as election staff. As a result, 700 teachers are reported to have lost their lives to COVID-19. There ought to be an international outcry about these deaths.

The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has had the time to threaten to invoke the draconian National Security Act to arrest anyone “spreading rumours of oxygen shortage in the state”, but is silent on these deaths. The Supreme Court, responding to a petition by teachers, restricted itself to some strong words (“Heavens will not fall if counting is deferred by three weeks”) but did not stop the state’s Election Commission from conducting the counting of votes.

On April 27, for instance, as millions of Indians gasped for breath, 30,000 people gathered in the town of Haridwar for a ritual bath in the river Ganga, as the last part of the Kumbh Mela. It ought to be an international scandal that the Government of India, even after realising the full scale of the COVID horror, made no attempt to prevent this massive gathering from taking place. The Kumbh Mela, hosted by the state of Uttarakhand, had begun on April 1, with leaders from the PM’s own party disregarding all COVID-related concerns, declaring that the virus would not harm Hindu devotees. As late as April 17, the PM made a token private appeal to the religious heads that the observance of the remaining phases of the event be “symbolic” keeping in mind the COVID-19 situation. In total, an estimated 9.1 million people traveled to and from Haridwar to attend this event, helping to spread the virus all over India in the month of April.

Nor was the Kumbh the only large religious gatherings held in April. Even as the authorities pay lip service to COVID-19 concerns and claim to “restrict” the scale of the events, large temple festival gatherings were held in Anantapur and Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, in Kalaburagi in Karnataka, and in Bhubaneswar in Odisha. When the Left government of Kerala did the right thing and curbed the Thrissur temple festival which was to be held on April 23, leaders from Modi’s BJP party accused the government of “intolerance” and “false propaganda” against the festival.

Eid ul-Fitr falls in mid-May this year, coinciding with the projected peak of the Covid second wave, offering another occasion when unwary crowds are likely to gather. Thanks to governments that peddle quack COVID “cures” – ranging from “Coronil”, to ‘kabasura kudineer’, cow dung and cow urine, and lemon drops in the nose — most Indians are not even aware of the true nature of the virus and its connection to unmasked crowds.

No matter how many mops you use and how fast you mop, you cannot dry the floor if the taps are kept running. The world needs to wake up and tell the Modi regime to turn off the taps, and stop encouraging mass religious gatherings.

The writer is secretary, All Indian Progressive Women’s Association and Politburo member, CPIML Liberation

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