Street Eternity

  Four Kanwarias, killed by speeding trucks near Allahabad (UP), two crushed to death at Manesar (Haryana), two more at Kotputli (Rajasthan)...  Kanwarias go on the rampage smashing buses and cars... Police resort to lathi charge... Normalcy returns. This happens almost every year. The scene repeats itself, although the details are different each year.

Initial reaction to these 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 antiquated because they explain or resolve nothing. While the truth is, the phenomenon persistently demands an explanation.

The phenomenon is colossal. More than five lakh Kanwarias passed through Delhi this year! Prem Singh Negi, District Information Officer at Haridwar, says: "We had drawn up plans for 60 to 65 lakh Kanwarias converging at Haridwar between July 18 and July 30 this year. We started diverting traffic July 24 onwards." Holy water is collected at one of the four places: at Gomukh where the Gangotri glacier becomes Bhagirathi, at Haridwar where the Ganga enters the plains, at Baidyanath Dham in Jharkhand and 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 and policemen to prevent traffic jams, it requires food, resting places, sanitation facilities and medical aid for 80 lakh people in transit. The elementary infrastructural unit is the Kanwar-camp. These camps are free, temporary walk-in shelters that provide cooked food, bathing/toilet facilities, beds, medicines and hot water to wash tired, blistered feet. The loudspeakers pump 10,000 watts of bhajans mostly parodied on popular Hindi tunes, with little regard for melody.

Kanwar-camps dot the entire route, beginning at the water collection point and extending till the local Shiv Mandir where the holy water is finally offered. They start functioning at least a week before Shiv Ratri (literally, Shiva's night), 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 greenery during every monsoon? 

Durga Colony (Malak Nagar) on GT Road at Sahibabad in UP is a poor locality. Every year the residents constitute a samiti, collect money and organise a week long camp for Kanwarias. According to Satya Prakash, a samiti member, "This year the budget is Rs 2.5 lakh."
Walk four kilometers down the road, into Delhi, and you will find Kanwar-camps whose budget could be as high as Rs 70-80 lakh. Activists of the Hindutva network (front organisations of the RSS-BJP) are the organisers of these camps. Says Rajender Pankaj, kendriya mantri of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), "The food we provide at these camps is better than at marriage parties."

Apart from diligent organisation at the grassroot level, the saffron brigade has created a ‘special purpose vehicle' at the national level. Closely identified with Hindutva fronts, it is called the ‘Dharam Yatra Mahasangh (DYM)'. This organisation was founded in 1995. Names of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and VHP supremo Ashok Singhal are flaunted as patrons. The Mahasangh organises four excursions every year: the Kanwar yatra, the Amarnath yatra, the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra and the Sindhu Darshan Yatra.

Claims Mange Ram Garg, ‘national president' of the DYM: "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, Gujarat and UP provide Rs 25-30,000 for every person (from the respective state) embarking on the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra. Money is not a problem. We manage to set up camps with budgets as big as Rs 1.5 crore for the Amarnath yatra. However, we still want the government to take better care of the pilgrims."

It is hard to miss the organised political force behind the man shouldering the Kanwar (a decorated shoulder pole with bottles of holy water tied to both ends). Any understanding of the phenomena requires a look not only at the ‘food and rest camp mechanism' but a peep into the mind of the Kanwaria. After all, most readers of Hardnews might not really brave the scorching July sun or get blistered feet for the sake of free food or hospitality at roadside camps. The Kanwaria has a different mindset.

 Who is the Kanwaria? Why does he trudge across northern India every monsoon?  Is he an individual, or part of a group, or an amorphous organised cult? Why does he react so violently? How does he relate to the nation (or to one of the fastest growing economies, if you please)?

The Kanwaria is a pilgrim, a Shiva-bhakt. Unlike the Haji or the Char-dham Hindu pilgrim, he is not 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, they converge at Haridwar (or at Gomukh, Babadham, Dhar), bathe in the river, pray. They 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 kilometres to a distance as long as 1000 kilometres. It is performed on foot and the Kanwar is never allowed to touch the earth. The Kanwaria pilgrimage is for the young and stout. As a ‘subaltern youth movement', subtly pampered by the Hindutva brigade, it is growing in size and appeal.

Is the Kanwaria a deeply religious person? No. In most cases he is not a person devoted to religion. Usually from the urban fringes, or poor, low middle class habitats, 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. He embarks on the journey mostly because he is a person who has no work, is completely or frequently unemployed, who, basically, lives in a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. In most cases he 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, help reduce his alienation within the community, give him a sense of self identity. He shoulders the Kanwar in a puerile attempt to be considered capable of shouldering other worthy matters of the larger world, including his own community.

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 organised 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 domestic help in normal settings. He learns that he is something'; he returns 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 deeper sense of alienation? No, they do not. The urge to do something bigger, something more thrilling, 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 and marginalised, killed his creativity and aspirations, persistently refused to ‘use' his young, energised body, and ridiculed his very being and ‘social identity'. He, who has been made incapable of building or creating, destroys and damages in order to redeem his self-esteem.

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. It does not need the Kanwaria as a Kanwaria. It needs him for what he really is -- an unemployed youth from the unorganised sector. His use value is that he keeps the wage-rate depressed, because if he hadn't been there, serving workers would be unionising 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 India had 1,000 million people out of which 400 million ‘could engage' themselves in various kinds of economic activities. There are another 180-200 million Indians looking out for productive work and not finding it. Most of the eight 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 city streets during the yatras. If one of the fastest growing economies in the world can't generate gainful work for this massive mass, then there are very strong chances that the present socio-religious subaltern assertion may become a political assertion in the days to come. To paraphrase Sartre's analysis: the character of that political assertion will be Fascism.

Indeed, the Amarnath yatra entangle is indicative. It is transparent and inevitable.