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Pratyasha Rath

There are two aspects to the celebration of festivals in India. One is the intimate association with rituals within the family space that makes sure that the festivities are not reduced to inane spectacles and the inherent sacredness of the time, and the events is preserved. The other aspect is the community based ostentatious celebration which marks a collective identity and is indeed the assertion of a living faith. One without the other, only serves the purpose of alienating us from the essence of our festivities which are not just ritualistic or spiritual but also communitarian. These are threads tying the individual and his/her faith to the larger group identity which is true to the Dharmic worldview of our land.

While the religious aspect of the festivities should be more than enough for framing an argument, there is also the economic angle for the occasional skeptic. Festivals are periods of intense economic activity, where the families at different socio-economic levels, open their purse strings to mark the period of celebration. From automobiles and electronics showrooms to the neighborhood street vendor, it is a period that comes with more promise and hope than other times.

Even with a clear understanding of the centrality of festivities to the practice of our faith and any faith, it is also understood that a pandemic situation is unlike any other. The public health argument in most cases has rightly been allowed to clamp down on festivities and people have more or less, been receptive of it. It was unimaginable for Odias to see Rath Yatra with a near empty Bada Danda, but we have been seeing it for the past two years. While malls remain open, temples remain shut citing crowd control measures and people have also quietly endured that. 

The public health argument has largely been used to relegate religion to a non-essential ‘service’ and even with the signs of the intent behind it, people have still been taking the dictates in the spirit of compliance. But it is increasingly impossible to miss the absolute randomness and arbitrariness with which the political and the administrative class have been using the public health argument. If crowd control is indeed the issue, then religious festivities and particularly Hindu festivities cannot be the only purported culprit. 

Through the past year, the only festival which has been allowed to go unquestioned is the great Indian election festival and the side stunts associated with it. Irrespective of the political parties in power, election campaigning for polls and by-polls have gone on unabated. Last Thursday, Odisha saw a by-poll being conducted in Puri for which campaigning for all political parties went on for weeks. 

Away from the election, the rules for the common person awaiting the festivities are quite different. There have been several restrictions in Odisha ranging from the absurd to the downright bizarre. One restriction which has been much discussed both in terms of its absurdity as well as the brazen abuse of power by the state has been the restriction for the Devi Pratimas (Goddess’ idols) in Puja Pandals to be no more than 4 feet in height. The reasons behind this restriction have ranged from restricting crowds which would be drawn to bigger pandals to more people being needed for immersing the Pratimas. In Maharashtra, it is not just the height of pratimas in public pandals that has been decided but the government has also decided the height of pratimas which can be taken home!! The logic behind that also seems some obtuse conclusion on the size of the Pratima deciding the crowds she will command. 

The Orissa High court hearing one of these petitions filed by a Puja Committee in Cuttack, went on to opine that the ‘idol’ is not an essential practice in the tradition and hence, these rules pose no threat to the festival! Some of these Puja Pandals are decades old, some even centuries old and the jewelry and the decorations for the Devi are usually made to suit a certain size of the Pratima. It is quite clear how this rule could impose on certain traditions. But devotees have not been allowed to opine on it and instead the state, all three arms of it are adjudicating on it on our behalf.

But even this is defended in the name of public health. A fair argument had we not been exposed to election rallies, Bharat bandhs, protests, and felicitation rallies all around us, while some bureaucrat is finding new arbitrary rules to impose. 

These random rules and restrictions go on to indicate the absolute disdain that the political class and the administration has for the freedoms of the people. In a largely duty driven and role abiding culture, excesses of power go unquestioned and more so when there is a public health argument put in place. This has happened not just in the realm of religion but gradually started becoming more evident, through different phases of the lockdown. Unending night curfews, random rules of reopening and access to public places and even clamps on provision of ration based on vaccination status, we have seen bureaucrats on potent power trips.

But religious clampdowns are slightly different, because a larger section of people still prefer to keep quiet, because in many cases there are no personal consequences, or the societal consequences are not immediately realized. But the abuse of power can still be experienced if we choose to look at the economic impact that these wanton restrictions will have. An extended night curfew during peak business weeks, an arbitrary ban on sale of firecrackers leaving a small industry to fend for itself are just some examples.

The cultural assault is of course more sinister and is getting camouflaged under a barrage of apparent good intention. While Hindus in other countries can burst crackers on Diwali and celebrate Durga Puja in all its splendor, Hindus in India will have to navigate bureaucratic approvals, sit through bans, and even face arrest just for celebrating their festivals. And beyond that, get guilt tripped for not being conscious about public health while the cues all around them only serve to increase that dissonance. If rules are pliable for electioneering and protesting, then why is it not for festivities? If the administration can make space and stretch its capacity for one event, why is there no other way to look at festivals except arbitrary bans and curfews?

As a still largely collectivist society, public anger on abuse of freedoms is rarely acknowledged because a sense of duty supersedes everything else. The state realizes this and keeps pushing the boundaries of how far it can intervene in the religious domain without facing a backlash of any kind. So how much will be too much, depends on how soon people realize that ceding space to the state when it comes to their rights will only be an assault on their civilizational duties. 

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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