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Understanding the Kanwaria


Four Kanwarias killed by speeding trucks near Allahabad (UP), two more crushed to death at Manesar (Haryana), two more at Kotputli (Rajasthan) ….. Kanwarias go on the rampage smashing buses and cars ….. police retort to lathi charge ….. normalcy returns. This happens almost every year. The scene repeats it self, although the details are different each year.
Initial reaction to these gory incidents is apathy and disgust. Politically motivated excursions, unwarranted accidents, senseless violence, antiquated crowd management techniques – that’s the way we, urban-english-speaking folk, react. But such thoughts are in themselves reactionary, antiquated and senseless because they explain or resolve nothing. And the phenomenon persistently demands an explanation.

The phenomenon is colossal. More than five lakh Kanwarias passed through the city of Delhi this year! Prem Singh Negi, the District Information Officer at Haridwar says “We had drawn up plans for 60 to 65 lakh Kanwaria’s converging at Haridwar between 18th July and 30th July, this year. We started diverting traffic 24th July onwards.” It is something like having the entire adult population of Sweden converging at Haridwar and then fanning out over the Indo-Gangetic plane. In fact, holy water is collected at one of the four places: at Gomukh where the Gangotri glacier becomes the Bhagirathi river, at Haridwar where the Ganga enters the plains, at Baidyanath Dham in Jharkhand and also at Dhar in Madhya Pradesh. It adds up to 80 lakh Kanwarias for the entire country!

An activity of such colossal proportions demands huge infrastructural support. The activity not only requires roads for the Kanwarias to walk on and policemen to prevent traffic jams, it also requires food, resting places, sanitation facilities and medical aid for 80 lakh people in transit. The elementary infrastructural unit that takes care of the needs of the Kanwaria is the Kanwar-camp. Kanwar-camps are free temporary walk-in shelters that provide cooked food, bathing/toilet facilities, beds, medicines and hot water to wash tired blistered feet. They usually pump out more than 10,000 watts of bhajans parodied on popular Hindi tunes. Kanwar-camps dot the entire root that the Kanwarias take, beginning at the water collection point and extending up to the Shiv Mandir where the holy water is offered to the deity. They start functioning at least a week before Shiv Ratri, the last date for offering holy water. Some camps are operational more than a month before Shiv Ratri. Even a geographically small state like Delhi has more than 500 such camps.

Do these Kanwar-camps spring up spontaneously like the greenery in every monsoon?

Durga colony (Malak Nagar) on the GT Road at Sahibabad is a poor mans’ locality. Every year the residents constitute a Samiti, collect money and organize a week long camp for Kanwarias. According to Satya Prakash, a samiti member, “This year the budget is 2.5 lakh rupees”. Walk four kilometers down the road, into Delhi, and you will find Kanwar-camps whose budget could be as high as 70-80 lakh rupees. Activists of the saffron brigade are the chief organizers of these voluntary camps. Rajender Pankaj the Kendriya Mantri of the Vishva Hindu Parishad says “…. the food we provide at these camps is better than what people eat at marriage parties.”

Apart from such diligent organizing at the grass-roots level the saffron brigade has created a ‘special purpose vehicle’ to do the organizing at the national level. It is called the Dharam Yatra Mahasangh. This organization was founded in 1995. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee along with Ashok Singhal happens to be one of its patrons. The Dharam Yatra Mahasangh primarily organizes four excursions every year: the Kanwar yatra, the Amarnath yatra, the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra and the Sindhu Darshan Yatra. Negotiating with governments ‘for the cause’ happens to be one of its activities. Mange Ram Garg the National-President of the DYM says “…our persistent work has borne fruit. The Delhi government put up the first Kanwaria tent in 1997. Today it supplies tents, water, doctors and medicines for 76 out of the 500 odd Kanwar-camps in Delhi. Seven states such as Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujrat, UP…provide 25-30 thousand rupees for every person from the respective state, embarking on the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra. Although money is not a problem and we do manage to set up camps with budgets as big as 1.5 crore rupees for the Amarnath yatra, we would still like governments to take better care of pilgrims.”

It is hard to miss the political force behind the man shouldering the Kanwar (a decorated shoulder pole with bottles of holy water tied to both ends). But mere identification of this force or an insight into its workings does not explain the phenomenon. An identification of the source of water and an understanding of the nutrient intake may explain the growth of the tree but it does not explain the tree per se. In order to understand the tree one needs to understand its basic cell and the inter relations between cells. Any understanding of the Kanwaria phenomena requires a look not only at the ‘food and rest camp mechanism’ but a peep into the mind of the Kanwaria as well. After all, most readers of this article will not brave the scorching July sun or get blistered feet for the sake of free food or hospitality at roadside camps. The Kanwaria is a person with a different mindset.

The deeper question therefore is – Who is the Kanwaria? Why does he trudge across Northern India every monsoon? Why does he react so violently? How does he relate to the Nation (or to one of the fastest growing economies, if you please)?

In the first place the Kanwaria is a pilgrim, a Shiva-bhakt, a Bhole. But unlike the Haji or the Char-dham pilgrim the Kanwaria is not a person at the fag end of his earthly existence. The Kanwaria is a young man (and sometimes a young woman) with most of his life before him. Every monsoon, Kanwarias converge at Haridwar (or at other places like Gomukh, Babadham or Dhar), bathe in the river, pray; collect holy water and start their marathon walk back to their local Shiva temple. The fetched water is offered to the deity on Shiv Ratri. The journey back could stretch from a few dozen kilometers to a distance as big as a thousand kilometers. It is performed on foot and the Kanwar is never allowed to touch the earth. The Kanwaria pilgrimage is a pilgrimage for the young and stout. As a youth movement it is growing in size and appeal.

Is the Kanwaria a deeply religious person? No, in most cases the Kanwaria is not a person devoted to religion. He prays infrequently, and he reads and understands the religion even less. So it is not some saintly inner voice that asks him to traverse the Indo-Gangetic plain. On the contrary he embarks on the journey because he is a person who has no work, is completely or frequently unemployed, a person who lives in a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. He in most cases is a person who has no respect or say in his community. So the arduous pilgrimage of getting Ganga Jal for the local temple appears to be the only worthwhile act that he can do. He knows that it will earn him some respect, it will help reduce his alienation within the community. He shoulders the Kanwar in a puerile attempt to be considered capable of shouldering other worthy community matters.

The longer and tougher the journey the more respect the Kanwaria expects to garner from friends and family. The Kanwaria is pleasantly surprised when he gets treated humanely at rest-camps organized by other devotees. He is urged to eat more, he is offered sweets and delicacies, at times his feet are washed and bandaged by ladies who would not care to employ him as a domestic help in normal settings. He learns and understands that he is something, therefore he returns the next year and brings some of his friends as well. The Kanwaria movement grows. But do these temporary, fleeting moments of care and affection overcome his bigger and deeper sense of alienation? No, they do not. The urge to do something bigger, something more thrilling, something more attention drawing persists. And at the first opportunity it reveals itself. The man who hasn’t been taught to fabricate a nut-bolt combination smashes a bus or burns a car at the first chance that he gets. He takes his revenge on a society that has kept him ignorant, killed his creativity, persistently refused to use his young energized body, and ridiculed his very being. He, who has been made incapable of building, destroys in order to redeem his self-esteem.

But why do the police lathi-charge? Aren’t there better methods of crowd control? Off course there are and some of them are practiced; for example, policemen dressed up as Bhole’s do intermingle with the crowd and try to diffuse tensions amongst the Kanwarias. But such methods are ineffective because the policeman himself is de-motivated. In many ways he is merely a Kanwaria in uniform. He has no sense of pride in his work; he gets bullied around and yelled at by his superiors, he knows that his real practical job is to guard the elite and not to enforce the law, so very early in his career he starts thinking for himself and indulges in corruption. But this wealth gathering does not remove the humiliation and slight that gets ingrained into his psyche when he salutes white-clothed people that he knows are more de-generate than him. So he cracks the lathi at the first opportunity that he gets. He doesn’t care whether the lathi is breaking Kanwaria flesh & bone or any other. What matters is the sense of power that the lathi gives him. Even if momentarily it restores his self-esteem.

Let us get back to the Kanwaria. The Kanwaria seldom thinks about the nation. He is not trained to do that. He finds it hard relating to his family and local community; the nation is too distant and abstract. But the nation has a use for the Kanwaria. The nation does not need the Kanwaria as a Kanwaria. It needs him for what he really is – an unemployed youth. His use value is that he keeps the wage-rate depressed, because if he hadn’t been there, serving workers would be unionizing more and bargaining harder. He is a member of the industrial reserve army, and that is his use value.

Census data collected at the turn of the century revealed that we were a country of about 1,000 million people, out of which around 400 million could engage themselves in various kinds of economic activities. Careful extrapolations on this data suggested that there were another 180-200 million Indians looking out for productive work and not finding it. Most of the 8 million Kanwarias belong to this social grouping. This lumpen proletariat, on the margins of the economy puts on saffron shorts/vests and becomes the mainstream on the streets during yatras. If one of the fastest growing economies in the world can not generate gainful work for this mass, then there are very strong chances that the present socio-religious subaltern assertion may become a political assertion. To paraphrase Sartre’s analysis: the character of that political assertion will be Fascism.

The Amarnath yatra entangle is indicative.

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