As Kanwarias throng the cities and towns of northern India, people at large patiently suffer the inconvenience of blocked or choked roads, frustrated commuters, shut schools, and watch as everything slows to a standstill. Such effects are borne with stoic patience. Some of the devotees of Lord Shiva are on a short fuse, as evident from the fate of a car on Tuesday in Delhi’s Moti Nagar that was battered with sticks and baseball bats (Who, by the way, plays baseball in India? Why should anybody carry these while on pilgrimage?). Kanwarias are seen as a form of visible religiosity—a phenomenon few comprehend, let alone decide to confront.
One of the most quoted of Karl Marx’s statements is: “It [religion] is the opium of the people.” When he wrote this in 1843, opium was an important medicine. It was used as a painkiller, palliative, or sedative as also a cure for number of diseases, including cholera. The use of opium soothes nerves, makes one introverted, and generally makes the user quiet and calm.
However, for Orientals, religion is often like a stimulant. Unlike opium, a stimulant excites nerves, makes one extroverted and talkative, and gives a sense of power that is likely to make the user unruly. This can be observed with those whose annual pilgrimage to the Himalayas has become a talking point and more for people en route.
Such things happen with every faith in India. There have been reports of youths indulging in stunts on the roads of Connaught Place in the national capital on weekends, after paying obeisance at Bangla Sahib. Some youngsters do similar stunts on roads on Shab-e-Barat, the blessed night. This is frowned upon by clerics. The Times of India (22 May 2016) quoted Maulana Mateen-ul-Haq Usama Qasmi of Kanpur: “Such revelry is forbidden on a night when Prophet Muhammad is believed to have visited a graveyard and prayed for the departed souls. Those indulging in unlawful activities like stunts on motorcycles will incur Allah’s wrath.” He also exhorted parents to monitor the activities of their children.
When Indians go to religious places, organise religious functions, or go on pilgrimage, piety is sometimes mixed with a desire to flaunt religiosity. Fortunately, violence has till now been infrequent, but the propensity to flaunt religiosity has been obvious for quite some time. Consider the night-long jagrans; anybody who has lived in some localities would know that. Loudspeakers are on full blast. Those worshipping in such a loud manner seem more interested in showing to their neighbours how pious they are.
Call the police; they come and loudspeakers are switched off. After some time after their departure, loudspeakers start blaring again. This has happened with me on numerous occasions.
It is not that only a politician who can trouble you with his rally or yatra; sometimes the pious can make your life equally miserable. In a few, piety is just a pretext to exhibit money and might. “See how much I spend to propitiate the deity I venerate,” he seems to be saying. And if you object to it and call the police, he convinces and “manages” them into abandoning their duty. They also get convinced—arrey bhagwan ka naam hi to le rahe hain (we are taking God’s name after all). Again an exhibition of his power. He is seen as more religious because he organises a keertan, as if spending money on such functions were a yardstick of measuring religiosity. Another yardstick is the sound: the higher the decibels, the greater the piety.
You can’t argue with him; even your request is dismissed contemptuously. Years ago when I lived in a north Delhi locality, I had politely asked the organiser of a jagran to bring down the volume of loudspeakers. He responded curtly: “Yeh bund naheen hoga, aise hi chalega (It will not shut down. It will continue like this).”
Students may be getting disturbed by the noise; people may be feeling uncomfortable; the sick may not be able to speak; but they don’t pay heed. Their response has been the same: “Yeh bund naheen hoga, aise hi chalega.”
This is how it has been going on for ages. There are rules and regulations, there are orders by the Supreme Court and high courts, but the pious are convinced that…well, “Yeh bund naheen hoga, aise hi chalega.”
Not to be left behind, the more plebeian sections of society have found a way to exhibit their religiosity by participating in the yatra now so ubiquitous on roads. It has its perks, for by donning the saffron attire, the auto-rickshaw driver and the press-wallah suddenly go beyond the reach of the law, at least in minor matters. For instance, you can ride a two-wheeler without helmet.
Wondrous indeed is the effect of the yatra!