I am a recent migrant to Delhi. And it has taken me some time to get used to the city's quirks. For example, I have gone from wordless horror to a shrugging acceptance of the fact that if a door or a window is left open, monkeys may stroll into your home and commit minor acts of mayhem. Since I am no great fan of the wild — you won't find me swooning over the magnificence of an animal that can bite me or eat me — I keep my doors and windows mostly shut. (And hence survive mostly in a state of near asphyxiation.)
But what does one do when the wild won't be shut out? When they are upon you and around you — menacing and feral and grinning because they know their power? This week I had a close encounter with the wild on the way to Gurgaon via National Highway No 8. The highway was chock-full with Ganga jal. Others were piled onto trucks fitted with disco lights and concert-level amplifiers booming out music that rattled the car windows. Up ahead, the kanwariyas had blocked the road. Men danced drunkenly to the deafening music. Traffic stood petrified. And the police watched mutely.
The kanwariyas destroyed a car after it allegedly brushed against them
Longtime residents of the national capital region tell me that in recent years the kanwariya pilgrimage has come wrapped in hooliganism. Even so, this time they seemed to have upped their game. On Wednesday a terrifying video emerged, showing a group of them wrecking and overturning a car in Delhi's Moti Nagar area. Apparently, the car had brushed against one kanwariya. Two cops stood by and did nothing to stop the vandalism. For it doesn't do, does it, to discipline those who are out on a holy trek? Even if they run amok and destroy public property, they must be treated with kid gloves.
Or showered with rose petals. In another video that went viral on social media, one witnessed the surreal spectacle of an additional director general of Uttar Pradesh Police sprinkling rose petals on them from a helicopter. According to media reports, Rs 1.4 million of taxpayers' money was spent on hiring a helicopter to carry out this noble exercise. In other words, the state machinery was not only allowing hordes of loutish miscreants to hold public spaces to ransom, it was also fawning upon them with outlandish gestures of support. The message was clear: no matter how unholy their conduct, the kanwariyas had the blessings of the state.
There could be many reasons for the kanwariyas' annual show of aggression. It could be a potent mix of Hindu triumphalism and sheer rowdyism on the part of the unemployed or under-employed who see this month-long religious trail as their moment, their licence to flex their muscles, flaunt their religiosity, and break the law.
The question is, how can the state support their belief that they do have the licence to lawlessness? It's evident that no political party or government wants to rein in youths who are roaring their way to Shiva temples, flying bhagwa pennants. They represent a sizeable constituency, after all. Yet letting this or that group — Hindu or Muslim, the majority or minority — behave like marauders in the name of religion is a recipe for anarchy. And governments forget that no matter how cunning they are, eventually they cannot ride on anarchy.
On Thursday, the police arrested a kanwariya for the vandalism in Delhi's Moti Nagar. Given that two policemen had benignly looked on as he and others smashed the car, the tokenism was laughable. Truth is, the mob had its way — in this as in many other instances in recent times. One just wonders how far down the evolutionary pole we will slip if, increasingly, wild mobs rule the day.