MUMBAI, India – Some Catholic leaders are accusing the government of India of a double standard for allowing millions of pilgrims to participate in a large Hindu ceremony, while strictly imposing COVID-19 rules on the worship of religious minorities.
The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism. The faithful congregate in the northern city of Haridwar and take a dip in the waters of the Ganges, which they believe will absolve them of their sins and deliver them from the cycle of birth and death.
The Kumbh Mela, which runs through April, comes during India’s worst surge in new infections since the pandemic began, with a seven-day rolling average of more than 130,000 new cases per day.
Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed with patients, and experts worry the worst is yet to come.
Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed at a time when infections are skyrocketing because the government isn’t willing to anger Hindus, who are the party’s biggest supporters.
“Imagine there is a single asymptomatic COVID case among the pilgrims. He or she would have infected many others around him,” said Father Anand Mathew of the Indian Missionary Society (IMS) and the director of Vishwa Jyoti Communications in Varanasi.
“The government hypocrisy and double standards are very evident in this. Schools, colleges are closed. Night curfew is on. Shops are open only for few hours. There are restrictions on wedding, funeral services. We had to cancel our Good Friday services in our ashram, because we would not be able to abide by the COVID-19 protocol,” the priest told Crux.
“But the Hindu religious fair in Haridwar must go on. The Uttarakhand government has also aerially showered flower petals on the pilgrims. But VIPs were told not to participate in the holy dip. Their health is important, not the common people’s health,” Mathew said.
“Secularism in India meant not negation of religion, but equal and respectful treatment of all religions. Now these developments prove that we are no more secular. It’s a major concern for those of us who are struggling to protect the Constitution of India,” he added.
Amid concerns the Kumbh Mela festival could turn into a superspreader event, Uttarakhand state’s chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, last week said, “The faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”
Health experts had appealed for the festival to be canceled, but the government went ahead saying safety rules would be followed. There are concerns that pilgrims could get infected and then take the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.
Authorities in Haridwar said the length of the festival has been shortened from previous years, but it has been extremely difficult to implement social distancing measures. Coronavirus tests are mandatory for those entering the area.
However, police have said that if they try and enforce COVID regulations and social distancing, it could cause a stampede.
“We are continuously appealing to people to follow COVID-19 appropriate behavior. But due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible,” senior police officer Sanjay Gunjyal said.
Divine Word Missionary Father Babu Joseph, the former spokesperson for the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India, said to hold the Kumbh Mela “in this large scale” during a spike in coronavirus infections “is a gross neglect of civic responsibility.”
“It’s here that other religious communities have shown salutary examples of compliance with the state norms while celebrating their respective festivals,” he told Crux.
“It also seems to show either the state’s complicity or ineptness when it comes to handling of mob pressure,” Joseph added.
He also said the government’s suggestion that they weren’t able to control festival goers wasn’t trure.
“Given the kind of state law enforcement apparatus, it is possible and necessary to enforce discipline, even in mob behavior, or else we shall continue to witness mob rendered ‘justice’ as in a number of cases across the country,” he said, alluding to anti-religious minority actions taken by various militant Hindu nationalist groups.
“When people are driven by excessive religious fervor their reason usually gets clouded,” he explained.
“I am afraid something similar is happening at the Kumbh Mela where strong religious motif guide people’s behavior, all norms of safety and security are up in the air. I hope the state authorities intervene at the earliest and create a safe environment for the devotees to perform their rituals while keeping the highest standards of safeguards at this critical time when our country is battling with the pandemic,” the priest said.
The surge in India comes as the country’s vaccination drive appears to be struggling. Multiple Indian states have reported a shortage of doses even as the federal government has insisted that there’s enough in stock.
After a sluggish start, India is now vaccinating 3.6 million people on average daily, which is more than the United States. It has so far administered more than 103 million shots, the most in the world after the U.S. and China, but much lower than many countries per capita — still less than 6 percent of India’s population of nearly 1.4 billion people.
This article incorporated material from the Associated Press.