From being an annual religious event, the Kanwar Yatra has grown to become a quasi-political event that has been fully supported by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
From closing schools to allow Kanwariyas to move unhindered on roads to showering petals on them from state owned helicopters and washing roads on the route-the state government has offered sops by the dozens to Shiva devotees this year.
The showering of petals from helicopters on Kanwariyas began last year and drew considerable criticism from the opposition because top police officials were involved in the exercise.
This year, there was not even a whimper of protest. The event has turned into a poster for Hindutva and the BJP is unstoppable on such issues.
A photograph of a police officer, massaging the feet of a ‘tired kanwariya’, that went viral on the social media, exemplifies the situation.
The ‘Kanwariyas’ – not without reason -were heard chanting “Jai Modi’, Jai Yogi’ this year while “Har Har Mahadev’ quietly receded into the background.
This year, folk songs were remixed and recorded specially for these yatras. The Kanwariyas opted for the noisiest DJ, flouted noise pollution norms.
The Kanwariyas were also provided T shirts with Modi and Yogi’s photographs printed prominently on them, apparently by local BJP leaders.
Till about five years ago, the Kanwar yatras wound their way unobtrusively through the state, mainly western Uttar Pradesh and made news only in event of clashes with other communities.
“The Kanwariyas are becoming increasingly aggressive and intolerant. They have come to believe that wearing saffron gives them a license to behave as they wish and the mob mentality is becoming overpowering, more so because the Kanwariyas are usually in the age group of 20 to 35,” said a district magistrate of a western UP district.
With government unabashedly supporting the event, the number of yatras and Kanwariyas has grown substantially in the past two years.
This year, the highway from Meerut to Haridwar was virtually blocked for their journey and schools were closed for five days in the district.
Camps were also set up along the route, offering free food, refreshments and a place to rest.
The state patronage that is being extended to the event, is apparently aimed at increasing the BJP’s base among the youth.
“Once a kanwar, always a BJP supporter,’ says a local BJP leader in Meerut rather proudly and asked, “Which other government or party will take care of Kanwariyas like we did?”
A Muslim businessman in Bulandshahr, however, said, “If the government goes all out for a religious event then the idea that the state will remain neutral in matters of religion will disappear. Secularism can no longer exist if the government openly favors one section of society.”
The Kanwar Yatras, however, have served to blur divisions within Hindus and even the lower caste youth who join these yatras, believe that they are no less than Brahmins and their participation in the event has given them a new identity. The camps that offer food to Kanwariyas, however, emphasize their caste with banners like ‘Vaishya Mandal’, ‘Jat Mandal’ etc.
A senior BJP functionary, meanwhile, said that Yogi Adityanath had given a new identity to Hindus in western UP through his support to Kanwar yatras.
“In western Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims tend to dominate, our government has told Hindus that they do not need to fear and can continue with their religious activities at a larger scale. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Yogi Adityanath have given the colour of Hindutva to India,” the BJP MLA from Ballia, Surendra Singh said.
(Amita Verma can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)