As the country reports another record number of deaths, the prime minister speaks about the pilgrimage to the Ganges. Hindu groups call for a halt, following the death of one of their leaders who died from COVID-19 after taking part in it. The Uttarakhand government wants to still go forward, but shuts down swimming pools as an anti-virus measure.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – After images of huge crowds along the Ganges (Ganga) River despite COVID-19 toured the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence this morning to demand that the Kumbh Mela be purely a “symbolic event”.
In a tweet, the Indian leader writes that he talked on the phone with Swami Avadeshanand Giri, the leader of one of the 13 Hindu brotherhoods that planned the great pilgrimage, urging organisers “to keep the Kumbh a symbolic event due to the coronavirus pandemic, now that two ‘Shahi Snaan’ are completed”, that is two of the three dates around which a significant majority of pilgrims participate with the last one scheduled for 27 April.
Modi’s statement comes on the day the country set a new record for cases and deaths due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is progressing at a unprecedented rate. In the last 24 hours alone, 234,692 new cases were reported with 1,341 deaths.
All this is happening despite the fact that the vaccinations rollout is taking place at a sustained speed with 117 million people vaccinated so far.
However, in a country of 1.3 billion people, the virus continues to spread like wildfire, and hospitals in many cities are in serious trouble due to lack of intensive care beds and oxygen tanks.
Given this situation, more and more people are calling for an to end to the Kumbh Mela, which in principle should last until 30 April.
This comes as more and more pilgrims are contracting the virus in Haridwar, the city in Uttarakhand where the festival is taking place.
Swami Avadeshanand Giri, the religious who spoke with Modi, tested positive for COVID-19, while Kapil Dev, the leader of another important Hindu group involved in the pilgrimage, died from COVID-19 in a local hospital.
About 2,800 people have tested positive in six days; but this is just the tip of the iceberg since only a fraction of the Hindu pilgrims gathering along the Ganges for the ritual bathing have been tested.
Until yesterday, the Uttarakhand government, which is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ruled out cancelling the Kumbh Mela even though the surge in COVID-19 cases forced local authorities to impose more restrictive measures to contain the outbreak.
The paradox is that, since yesterday, swimming pools are off-limits while ritual bathing in the Ganges with thousands of people is not.
With his tweet Modi tried to bridge the gap between two positions: the Kumbh Mela will go ahead, but the reference to it as a “symbolic event” suggests that no more new pilgrims should be allowed to come from the rest of India.
The statement is deliberately ambiguous, so as not to displease the more extremist groups that are an important part of the BJP electorate.