What is it that tends to turn pilgrim processions in the north, in the Hindi heartland in particular, to public menace? Tens of thousands go to Sabarimala (now in the news for another reason) ever year. Lakhs turn up every day at Tirumala. Never does one come across pilgrims going on the rampage, or states using their police force not in a way that facilitates normal life but emboldens pilgrims to be disruptive. The Kanwariyas—male Shaivites, mostly young—are supposed to be on a religious penance, where they make a long barefoot trek, in an auspicious month, from their homes to their site of worship.
Only there’s little penance on display. Year after year, tents are pitched for them on the roadside from Delhi NCR to Haridwar, where parts of busy National Highways and feeder roads are blocked off. They are rarely seen walking. It’s mostly in decked-up tempos with polluting generators that they travel. Loud, lurid remix music blares whole nights from the pitched tents or tempos. No one dare tell them anything, not even if they start dancing in the middle of the road, or beating cars to pulp. The spirituality quotient is mostly a memory. Aggression and violence are the new hallmark.
A few days ago, a group of Kanwariyas dragged passengers out of a private car and battered the car with baseball balls, all because the vehicle grazed one of them in the midst of rush hour traffic. The police were seen not stopping or arresting them, leave alone naming any of them in the FIR. Penance with baseball bats? The Uttarakhand chief secretary shot off a note to the Union Home Ministry warning about Kanwariya boys carrying such bats, tridents and other weaponry.
UP police has been vacating villages to avoid pitched battles with other religious communities, like it happened last year. Non-vegetarian eateries en route have been forced shut. Meanwhile, Kanwariyas have been showered with rose petals from helicopters. Little wonder hooliganism goes unabated and there’s no divine or civic intervention.