Politics and religion are a heady mix anywhere in the world, but this is particularly true in India as it battles to contain Covid-19 while gradually lifting the lockdown and reviving the economy.
With this as the backdrop, getting people to focus on places of worship just before the month-long Hindus festival season may be stirring up a hornet’s nest.
A letter written by Maharashtra’s governor, a constitutional and non-political position, triggered a storm as he asked the chief minister why Hindu temples are still not open for devotees while bars and pubs are opening. Cinemas are to reopen from October 15 as part of the lifting of lockdown restrictions to revive the economy.
A day after Bhagat Singh Koshyari’s letter, workers of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) crowded outside the revered Siddhi Vinayak Temple in central Mumbai to chant slogans, disrupting traffic and triggering alarm bells in political circles.
“I wonder if you are receiving any divine premonition to keep postponing the reopening of the places of worships time and again, or have you suddenly turned ‘secular’ yourself, the term you hated?,’’ said the governor’s letter.
With the Hindu festival season beginning on October 17, observers say Koshyari’s comments could incite devotees to break Covid discipline and try to enter shrines during the festivals. The BJP is demanding that all temples across Maharashtra be opened immediately.
Sensing the potential damage the letter from a constitutional authority could do, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray underscored in his reply the high priority of containing Covid and stressed that the controversy surrounding secularism, which is enshrined in India’s constitution, was unnecessary. The patriarch of the state alliance, Sharad Pawar, wrote to the prime minister to complain about the alleged use of intemperate language.
“It is ironical that while on one hand the state government has permitted the opening of bars, restaurants and beaches, and on the other hand our Gods, and Goddesses have been condemned to stay in their lockdown,’’ the governor’s letter noted.
The BJP has used Hindu nationalism as a key plank to win elections over the years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August led the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a temple in Ayodhya at a site that has been disputed for more than seven decades, and is an enduring source of Hindu and Muslim discord.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded the dismissal of the governor. Senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan tweeted that secularism is a basic and unamendable feature of India’s constitution. The Supreme Court should take suo moto notice and order the dismissal of the governor, he suggested.
Part of the reason is that the Shiv Sena party governs the state along with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. The Sena ended a three-decade alliance with the BJP last year, triggering sharp political animosity between the two.
Both parties also vie for Hindu votes – about 80% of India’s 1.38 billion people are Hindus.
Elections are due in Bihar state later this month. The BJP is a serious contender, and is aspiring to be one in West Bengal, where assembly elections are due in April. A win there would make it easier to later grab a larger chunk of the 42 seats in the lower house of parliament.
Festival season begins on October 17 with Navaratri, Durga Pooja, and Dussehra, culminating with Diwali on November 14. In West Bengal the biggest celebration is reserved for Durga Pooja.
Many states have restricted the entry of worshippers to temples. Yet that has not prevented priests and others from catching the virus. At Tirupati, one of the world’s richest temples, almost a thousand staffers have been infected and a few priests succumbed within a few of months of it reopening.
With 7.2 million Covid-19 cases, India is the worst-hit country in the world after the United States. India’s recovery rate is one of the world’s highest, but officials warn that the festivals and winter months could trigger a fresh wave of infections coinciding with the flu season.
Lowering the country’s guard during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in August led to a fresh spike in cases, reversing the downward trend, said Shashank Joshi, head of the Maharashtra Covid Task Force.
During Navaratri, prayers are offered to the Mother Goddess over nine auspicious nights. People also visit temples and hold community dance events featuring dazzling lights and Bollywood music, attracting large numbers of flamboyantly dressed girls and women.
Mumbai alone has thousands of such dance gatherings. Each venue could have a few hundred to thousands participating. It also means big profits for TV channels and businesses providing special costumes, music and lights, as well as decorators, event managers and singers.
This year public celebrations have been banned because of contagion fears, causing much frustration in some quarters.
Out of the 7.2 million Covid-19 cases across India, Maharashtra leads among states with 1.5 million cases. The state has more than 6,000 temples. Famous ancient temples in Mumbai attract huge numbers of devotees each day during festivals, making crowd control a herculean task, and making social distancing virtually impossible.