Festivals: Matter of life, not death

I present to you some scenes that were witnessed last week after the Nationalist Congress Party’s Mumbra-Kalva (Thane) legislator Jitendra Awhad announced that he would scrap his costliest and glamorous ‘Sangharsh’ dahi handi from this year. He said he would donate the money required for holding the event to drought-affected people.

Scene 1: Residents of the middle-class Panchpakhadi area in Thane, where Awhad has been organising the event on the occasion of Janmashtami (birthday of Lord Krishna) every year, came out in the open to celebrate the scrapping of dahi handi. They felt relieved because they would not be bullied again by event organisers. They were happy that they would not be subjected to the sound pollution and unhygienic conditions the event leads to every year and would save precious water.

Scene 2: Professional govindas, who erect multi-layer human pyramids for winning big cash rewards, felt cheated because the state has given the festival a status of adventure sport. This means they need to follow rules and regulations, and will be subjected to punishment in case of violations (this will apply to organisers as well). They said their practice sessions would go waste because there would be no attractive handis to win this year, as other organisers might follow Awhad’s decision. The agitated lot has demanded clarity on playing conditions and guidelines put in place by the government and the Bombay High Court.

Scene 3: Tricked into a difficult situation, Awhad’s detractors called him anti-Hindu for scrapping the festivities. Some did a balancing act. They welcomed Awhad’s decision, but maintained that the show must go on because it was part of Indian tradition. Meanwhile, the state government kept mum and, as a result, the govinda squads and organisers have decided to seek clarity from the authorities today.

Whatever Awhad’s motivation, he has started a much-needed, timely debate to resolve this particular issue as well as that of festivals of all religions being celebrated on Mumbai’s streets. The scene is no different in the rest of Maharashtra and other states. Cities suffer the most because festivals mean inconvenience to the people across all religions.

I’m sure all religions have sizable members who believe in controlled celebrations. They fear traffic snarls caused by pandals and prayers that are conducted on congested roads. They get troubled by organisers who show utter disregard for sound pollution norms and use all kinds of force to quell activism by affected citizens. Local residents live under constant threat whenever a series of festivals are celebrated and religious processions (Mumbai has people belonging to all major religions) are taken out on busy thoroughfares.

When all pleas fall on deaf ears, affected citizens move the courts, which have given relief time and again. At times, the courts have been called anti-religion. In case of dahi handi, the court has been very strict, especially in not allowing kids below the age of 12 years and making safety equipment mandatory. The courts have done their job well and now the authorities need to implement the guidelines. But smart politicians may have found a way to overrule the courts as well.

According to some organisers, the status of adventure sport allows dahi handi to be organised 365 days a year. They maintain that the court directives will apply only on the Janmashtami day. If that is the case, we need a legal debate to clarify this, or else mothers will continue to lose their children to fatal accidents on a day when they celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna. All stakeholders need to be more sensitive rather than ensuring uninterrupted flow of adrenaline in the veins of revellers. Uncontrolled frenzy needs to be converted into productive energy that induces spiritual satisfaction and not grief in view of the loss of dear ones.

Controlling the situation will finally be left in the hands of the overburdened police force. With no clarity in rules, the police may be subjected to political pressure whenever they find a case fit for prosecution. There is no point in expecting reforms from religious leaders and politicians who toe their line. I’m sure it will be over to the courts again.

The writer is Political Editor of mid-day

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