The dahi handi groups of Mumbai have appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to initiate an ordinance allowing dahi handis (human pyramids) to rise above 20 feet on Gokulashtami, which will be celebrated on 25 August, Thursday. Pinning their hopes on a miracle, the dahi handi mandals have expressed their desire for an ordinance by the President of India, overriding the recent Supreme Court order that restricted the height of their human “pyramids” to 20 feet. They have written to the Prime Minister and the President for the same. But a Constitutional expert told The Sunday Guardian that the issue will have to be scrutinised properly to know if the President can issue such an ordinance. In any case, the process is highly unlikely to be completed before 25 August.
“Under the Constitution, what Parliament can do by law, the President can do by ordinance. The question is whether Parliament can pass such a law. For that, the matter has to be examined on the facts of the case. The existing Constitutional provisions will have to be studied. But I doubt whether Parliament can do such a thing. I doubt whether such a thing can be done in a hurry. It will require detailed scrutiny,” Dr Subhash C. Kashyap, an authority on the Indian Constitution, told The Sunday Guardian from New Delhi.
Noted political scientist and columnist Suhas Palshikar said nothing was possible at this juncture. The Supreme Court is still in the process of hearing the petition. “When the judgement is given, maybe at that stage, the government can do something about it. At that time, the government will have to define the right to healthy life, and make exceptions to it for religious festivals.” He specified that it will be a blanket legislation then and will not specifically apply only to dahi handis. “The demand that the Prime Minister should intervene right now and offer relief is an over-enthusiastic expectation,” he said.
A retired judge of the Bombay High Court, too, expressed apprehension about it. The Bombay High Court had first passed the judgement about restrictions on dahi handi in 2014, while hearing a PIL in the matter. “For making any law on this, they will first have to define dahi handi, and say whether it is a sport or a religious tradition. The object of the Act will have to be defined,” he said while refusing to be named.
This week, the Supreme Court disallowed the Govindas and Gopikas from erecting human pyramids above 20 feet. It also banned anyone below 18 years of age from participating in the festival. Activists, parents of children and some politicians have welcomed the court’s decision to keep children away from the adventure sport. They said the decision will help reduce the obscene commercialisation of the festival and the loss of lives and limbs of the young.
But the dahi handi mandals have flexed their muscle. The BJP has lent them a sympathetic ear. Party leader Ashish Shelar, a lawyer, has been actively involved with the mandals. The mandals are demanding that all political leaders should come together to push for a Presidential ordinance. “We have elected this government. It is our government. It is a government which upholds Hindu culture. There are 10 lakh of us from Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Dombivali. During elections, we took leave, travelled hundreds of kilometres to bring this party to power. Now they cannot ignore us. Ashish Shelar has also helped us. But this court decision is against us,” Bala Padilkar of Dahihandi Samanvayak Samiti told The Sunday Guardian.
The mandals are hoping for a miracle in the next few days. They have started their practice in full swing. “Nothing is impossible if the political parties forget their differences and come together. They can ensure that our Hindu tradition is kept alive without any interference,” he said.
He said the mandals understand the restriction on age, but not on the height of the human pyramids. “20 feet dahi handis are nothing. From before the birth of any of the Govindas and Gopikas here, dahi handis have been towering above 20 feet in every nook and corner of Mumbai. This is our tradition. The government shouldn’t overlook the youth and the sport. With these restrictions, the fun will fizzle out of the festival,” he said, adding that they have written to the Chief Minister, Prime Minister and the President about it.
But the mandals also said that they would celebrate the festival in a legal way. “We respect the court’s decision. We will not go against it. But we will lobby as much as possible to for an ordinance,” Padilkar said.
Meanwhile, a political battle has intensified in Maharashtra over the court judgement, with Raj Thackeray supporting the mandals’ demand of rising above 20 feet. “You go ahead with the sport. I will take care of the court,” he is learnt to have told a delegation of Govindas who had gone to visit him at his residence. The leaders of Nationalist Congress Party and Congress have also come down heavily on the government. Many leaders, primarily from NCP, have been organising extravagant dahi handi festivals in various parts of the city. Many film stars are also invited for such events. Raj Thackeray has asked why courts interfere only in Hindu festivals.
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, while commenting on the Supreme Court order, welcomed the ban on the participation of youngsters below 18 years, but said that the court should take into consideration the feelings of everyone while passing an order. “Festivals should be celebrated like festivals. What is the point of so many restrictions?” he asked. He was talking to reporters at Shiv Sena bhavan in Dadar.
For a change, Shiv Sena, which is BJP’s ruling ally, has refrained from pounding the government on the issue.
Meanwhile, the BJP has given a cautious reaction. It has appealed to the Gopikas and Govindas to celebrate Gokulashtami within the restrictions laid down by the Supreme Court. But it has also said that the state government will put forth additional information before the Supreme Court during the next hearing in October this year. It accused the previous Congress-NCP government of failing to advocate the state’s point of view strongly over the issue.
It is not clear what additional information the government will have within two months, at a juncture where the petition itself has dragged on for over two years, with the intervention of all the stakeholders. Ashish Shelar said that the state government had not yet decided about the information that should be presented before the Apex Court. “We haven’t yet decided the strategy. Moreover, the Govinda Pathaks, too, can file an intervention in the matter there,” he told this correspondent. Education Minister Vinod Tawde said that the government would soon file a mention application in the court.