In the name of religion: Despite COVID outbreak, Jhar BJP MP wants permission for religious congregation with 50 lakh people
The Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand government has opposed the PIL seeking permission for the annual Shravani Mela – eastern India’s biggest religious congregation – citing the possibility of large scale transmission of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey’s counsel has pleaded that denying permission may hurt people’s religious sentiments.
The Jharkhand High Court (HC) has reserved its verdict in the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Nishikant Dubey seeking permission for the annual religious congregation in the state’s Deoghar district. The verdict will be delivered on July 3rd. In support of his petition, he has argued that permission be given on the lines of the Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra. Dubey’s counsel had also argued in the court that the denial of permission by the state government might hurt the religious sentiments of the people.
The Jharkhand government has vehemently opposed the very idea of hosting such a large religious congregation with nearly 50 lakh attendees in a month’s time.
Meanwhile, the Panda Dharmrakshini Sabha – the religious outfit which represents 50,000 priests of the temple and is involved in the management of the rituals of the temple – has sided with the Jharkhand government but with a few conditions.
Notably, the Godda BJP MP has had a controversial past. In June 2018, Dubey announced that he would bear the legal cost of the mob lynching accused from his constituency. The BJP lawmaker courted controversy again after his employee washed his feet and then drank the water in September 2018. Dubey posted the pictures of the incident on social media and later removed it.
Risks of mass level community transmission
Jharkhand's Shravani Mela – an annual fair – is organised in the Hindu calendar month of Sawan and revolves around the Shiva Jyotirlinga Temple in Deoghar district, better known as Baidyanath Dham. Devotees from across the world cover a 105 kilometre Kanwar Yatra to reach the temple.
While the journey of devotees starts from River Ganga in Bihar’s Sultanganj, it culminates in the temple complex located in Jharkhand’s Deoghar district headquarters. The month-long fair is considered to be one the key revenue generators of this administrative zone and attracts roughly 50 lakh attendees including the devotees, priests, and lakhs of small and big seasonal businesses. The attendance and the route of the fair is such that all the districts falling in the Kanwar Yatra route end up making a chunk of revenue.
But handling such a huge fair has its own complications. The Jharkhand and Bihar governments stay on their toes for the smooth passage of this fair, which involves heavy deployment of administrative officials, health care staff, and police and paramilitary forces. At times, the sheer number of devotees ends up overwhelming the entire mechanism to handle the yatra.
For instance, back in August 2015, a stampede in the queue nearly three kilometres away from the temple complex ended up claiming 11 lives, and injuring 50 others.
According to the Panda Dharmrakishni Sabha, they were expecting nearly 60-70,000 devotees on a daily basis.
“On an average nearly 60,000 to 70,000 devotees enter the temple complex daily during the Shravani Mela. On certain days, the footfall increases as high as 1.20 lakh devotees and all of them offer prayers in the temple complex which covers merely 2-acre land,” Dr Suresh Bhardwaj, the president of the priests’ organisation which handles religious affairs of the temple said.
He pointed out that maintaining social distancing in the temple complex with such a large attendance is virtually impossible.
“There is a pond next to the temple where the devotees take a dip. We are being told by the experts that if a coronavirus carrier ends (up) being in such a place, the pond itself could end up becoming the COVID pond,” he told Asiaville. The Shivganga pond is located barely 500 metres from the temple complex and a large number of devotees take a dip in the pond before offering prayers.
Moreover, the religious fair is concentrated in parts of the corporation area which has a high population density and extremely narrow lanes, similar to that of Uttar Pradesh’s Banares.
Despite the fact that 50,000 priests and lakhs of small and seasonal businesses and allied services would lose their annual income, the Panda Dharmrakshini Sabha has offered its conditional support to the state government.
“Jaan hai to jiveeka hai (We can earn livelihood only when we would be alive),” Bhardwaj said. However, the Dharmrakshini Sabha is demanding that the state government should make alternative arrangements for the resumption of entry of common devotees into the temple complex post-August 3rd. They have also demanded a financial relief package for those directly dependent on the temple for their earnings.
A delegation of the Dharmrakshini Sabha members has already met the Jharkhand CM putting forward their demands.
While the Nitish Kumar-led Bihar government has washed its hands of the responsibility of organising the fair, the Jharkhand government has opposed permission for such a large religious congregation that will go on for a month.
The Hemant Soren-led government said that providing permission to the Shravani Mela would risk the large-scale transmission of COVID-19 in the district and elsewhere in the state.
Notably, if the High Court gives permission to hold the fair, its impact will not only be restricted to Jharkhand but will spread across the country. Devotees from different states attend the fair each year.
The district has a population of a little above 14 lakh. Holding a religious fair with at least 21-25 lakh devotees, with the addition of staff running eateries, hotels, shops, temporary shopping complexes and transportation facilities would mean that maintaining social distancing in the Deoghar corporation area would be impossible.
Chief Minister Hemant Soren, during a meeting with the Dharmrakshini Sabha members, said, “Considering the present situation, opening the temple complex for the devotees could prove detrimental to the health of the masses.”
“During the Shravani Mela, lakhs of devotees come from different states and even from other countries. This would increase the risks of transmission of the coronavirus. Hence, the government has decided to not allow the fair this year,” Soren said.
BJP MP Dubey had filed the PIL in the Jharkhand HC on June 24. Asiaville reached out to the BJP lawmaker; however, he declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying that the judgement is due on Friday.
Meanwhile, Dubey’s twitter timeline is full of comments regarding the case. In one of the tweets posted on June 30, the Godda MP had said, “The Jharkhand government is opposing darshan of Baba Baidyanath and Bashukinath for common citizens. Even the Mughals and Britishers didn’t act the way Jharkhand government is acting.”
हाईकोर्ट में झारखंड सरकार व देवघर के बुद्धिजीवीयों का बाबा बैद्यनाथ जी व बासुकिनाथ जी के आम लोगों के दर्शन का पुरज़ोर विरोध ,जो काम मुग़ल व अंग्रेजों ने नहीं किया झारखंड सरकार कर रही है । न्यायालय का फ़ैसला 3 जुलाई को आएगा । जय शिव ????@blsanthosh @dprakashbjp @idharampalsingh pic.twitter.com/dLLo8C5mN6— Dr Nishikant Dubey (@nishikant_dubey) June 30, 2020
His counsel Ravi Prakash Mishra had argued in the HC that denying permission to the fair may hurt the religious sentiments of the devotees. They stated that the fair was conducted even during epidemics such as plague and cholera in the 19th century.
Notably, the BJP MP's demand for the religious congregation comes at a time when a wedding ceremony in Bihar ended up becoming super spreader. The groom died a day after his marriage and 111 attendees tested corona positive.
Dubey’s double talk
Dubey, who is also a member of the temple shrine board, had also cited the Union Health Ministries guidelines allowing the opening of places of worship.
But he probably forgot to refer to the Union Home Ministry’s guidelines before filing the PIL. The MHA guidelines for both - Unlock One and Unlock Two - has banned holding religious functions and large congregations outside the containment zone.
Also, in order to contain the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Jharkhand government has banned the reopening of all religious places for common visitors until July 31st.
Notably, the same BJP MP who is seeking permission for the Hindu religious festival to be allowed with proper restrictions was among those demonising the Markaz Islamic preachers in the first week of April.
The Islamic revivalist organisation Tablighi Jamaat had held a religious congregation in March. Nearly 2000 Islamic preachers were evacuated from its headquarters in the last week of March, many of whom had coronavirus symptoms.
The Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi's Nizamuddin area ended up becoming one of the early cluster hotspots of COVID-19, which led to an increase in positive cases in Delhi and other states.
In the wake of the Tablighi controversy, Dubey had tweeted pictures of the Tablighi Jamaat members from his constituency Godda and had demanded that sedition cases should be filed against them.
“Such conduct (attending the Markaz event and hiding it) is an act of sedition,” Dubey had tweeted on April 1.
कोरोना के गुनाहगार— Dr Nishikant Dubey (@nishikant_dubey) April 1, 2020
ये सभी मरकज़ में शामिल होने वाले मेरी लोकसभा गोड्डा के देवघर ज़िले के लोग हैं, आज पुलिस ने उनको पकड़ा है । इस महामारी में ऐसी हरकत देशद्रोह है। उनकी जाँच, किन लोगों से मिले उनकी जाँच, उनका आइसोलेशन व देशद्रोह का मुक़दमा साथ साथ चलना चाहिए ।#NizamuddinMarkaj pic.twitter.com/sfslFEJcWZ
देश को खतरे में डालने वाले और दूसरे लोगों के लिए जिंदा बम बनकर घूमने वालों के खिलाफ देशद्रोह का मुकदमा दर्ज होने के साथ कड़ी से कड़ी सजा की मांग करता हूं। मरकज में जाने की बात छिपाकर इन लोगों ने बहुत बड़ा गुनाह किया है।#NizamuddinMarkaz pic.twitter.com/DUDlOD7D0I— Dr Nishikant Dubey (@nishikant_dubey) April 3, 2020
Notably, when Dubey wanted Tablighi members to be tried under the sedition law, India was yet to witness an explosion of COVID-19 cases, whereas now, when he is demanding permission for holding the religious fair and congregation in Jharkhand, India has become the fourth worst-hit COVID country in the world with over 6 lakh positive cases.