False secularism

The Kumbh Mela’s role in the spread of the second wave of Covid-19 underlined with deadly effect the consequences of permitting larger numbers of people to congregate in a limited area. That lesson was well learned at least by Uttarakhand’s new Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, who sensibly led the way by announcing that his administration had cancelled the annual Kanwar Yatra, when some 30 million devotees from north and west India converge on the state to carry water from the Ganga to Shiva shrines in July-August. The Uttar Pradesh government chose to follow suit after a suo motu intervention from the Supreme Court. Both governments should be commended for their courage in taking this step in states ruled by Hindutva parties, where education levels are low, and fervent religiosity appears to play a key role in determining electoral outcomes.

It is ironic, then, that the state of Kerala should choose to move in the opposite direction. This is India’s most literate state, ruled by a communist party that officially professes atheism and which ranks second among the top 10 most Covid-19-affected states. Yet the administration of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has announced a relaxation of lockdown restrictions for three days from July 18 to allow shops selling textile, footwear, electronics, jewellery, and gold to be open till 8 pm to facilitate festive shopping ahead of Eid-ul-Azha (more popularly known as Bakrid) on July 21. This is in addition to shops selling staples such as groceries, vegetables, fish, meat and bakeries, which were allowed to stay open under the lockdown regulations.

By making concessions to Muslims, who have become admittedly an embattled minority in India, Mr Vijayan may be looking to contrast his secular credentials with the crude majoritarianism of northern state administrations. Muslims account for almost 27 per cent of the state’s population. But this is a faulty approach. For one, appeasing the sensitivities of one particular religious community is a pointless business as far as public health is concerned. For another, even if shops are instructed to observe the usual distancing norms, evidence of vast mask-less crowds jostling in marketplaces all over India does not raise confidence that Keralites will conform to safety norms any more than those attending Odisha’s Rath Yatra. The fact that victim zero, who hails from Kerala, was recently discovered to have been re-infected should have raised alarm bells and prompted a tightening of rules.

Third, this is an unnecessary move. Even when set against the cynical arithmetic of politics, the proximate reason for Uttarakhand’s disastrous decision to hold the Kumbh Mela, the decision makes little sense. In the April Assembly elections, Mr Vijayan managed to return to power, breaking a decades-old trend when power ricocheted between the Left- and Congress-led alliances. Indeed, he managed to improve his alliance’s performance at a time when the Sangh Parivar stirred up febrile religious issues such as the right of women to enter the Sabarimala temple. The truth is whether it is a Hindu festival, a Muslim one, or one for any other religious denomination, no administration should permit larger gatherings until this virus vanishes and the population is fully vaccinated. When it comes to Covid-19, secularism or religiosity is irrelevant.


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