Three decades ago the Hindu far-right used the iconic Kumbh Mela to cultivate support for the demolition of the Mughal-era Babri Mosque, but this time with general elections underway they could not win over the religious congregation in the same way.
Every six years millions of Hindus congregate along the banks of River Ganges in Allahabad City, which was recently renamed as Prayagraj, in north India's Uttar Pradesh state.
This year's gathering was politically charged, however. A few days before the six-week Kumb festival started on January 15, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an ideological mentor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a pan-India organisation of far-right nationalists, made several attempts to utilise the event for political gains.
Through a dense network of Hindu monastic establishments, the far-right group deployed religious language, imagery and symbolism to mobilise India's Hindu majority and help its political affiliate, the ruling BJP, once again capture political power in the upcoming national elections.
The Kumbh festival is primarily a spiritual event held alternatively at four spots in the country where, as per Hindu mythology, drops of Amrit (the nectar of immortality) fell from an urn – kumbh – when gods and demons fought for it. The festival at Prayagraj, where the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati meet, is the largest. For the period of Kumbh Mela, a vast tent city housing millions of pilgrims is set up on the banks of two rivers.
In the run up to the festival, the RSS set up several hundred camps next to the country's leading Hindu monastic establishments and deployed an army of its cadres to spread its Hindu supremacist ideology.
With national elections slated for April-May this year, the ultimate aim of the RSS was to arouse extremist passions amongst the Hindus, which could be turned into anger against Muslims, an old tactic that has culminated in deadly riots in the past and helped the BJP win majority votes.
The controversy over the 16th-century Mughal-era mosque Babri Masjid, which was demolished by the Hindu far-right groups in the adjacent Ayodhya city in 1992, was once again at the core of RSS's outreach programme during the Kumbh festival.
For several decades the RSS cultivated the idea that the Mughal king Babur erased the birthplace of Hindu Lord Rama in Ayodhya and replaced it with Babri Masjid. By 1992 the mosque was vandalised and demolished by a massive crowd of far-right Hindu nationalists.
The issue has been festering since 1949, when a set of Hindu nationalists surreptitiously planted the idol of Lord Rama in Babri Masjid. From then, they filed litigations claiming the mosque to be turned into a temple. The Sunni Central Waqf Board, the custodian of Babri Masjid, contested the claim, and the case is now in the Supreme Court of India.
Politically, the issue remained dormant until mid-1980s. But in 1989, when a similar Kumbh congregation was held at Prayagraj, the issue gained traction, attracting sadhus in large numbers to another far-right group named Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The series of events that followed the emergence of Hindu right’s alliance with sadhus eventually culminated in the demolition of Babari Masjid, propelling the BJP from being a small political opposition to the country's ruling party by 2014.
The 1989 Kumbh festival, in fact, witnessed the first serious attempt to turn this religious congregation into a political theatre. Since then, efforts have continued albeit in a more subtle manner. The RSS has always operated in the background, letting its flamboyant outfit the VHP lead the front.
The present Kumbh festival, however, is different. With the BJP ruling both the Uttar Pradesh state and the Centre, desperate attempts were made to hijack the space of the Kumbh event, which had never before been marketed so widely. Advertisements featured photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the posterboys of the Hindu far-right. Large billboards propagating messages of defending "Hindu pride" dominated the event as well.
“In the past, the mix of religion and politics helped the RSS create a communal wave for the BJP. A large number of sadhus lent their support to the political project of the RSS. Some of them were guided by the material benefits it entailed, but a significant number of sadhus endorsed and participated in this process solely as a means of propagating Hindu religion and getting the temple of Lord Rama built on the site of his birth,” said Swami Martand Puri, a Mahamandaleshwar, or high priest, of Mahanirvani Akhara, one of the seven militant monastic orders believed to have been set up by medieval saint-philosopher Adi Shankaracharya.
“This second type of sadhus does not like the Kumbh’s religious message getting subsumed by the political overtones of the RSS. They are also upset because despite getting an absolute majority in the last election [in 2014], the BJP government has done nothing to expedite the construction of Rama temple in Ayodhya,” he added.
While planning for the present Kumbh, the RSS and its outfits seem to have confidently assumed the support of sadhus. But the moment they made their presence felt in the Kumbh, the resentment started building up and burst into open just when the RSS sought to rekindle the Rama temple issue.
“The two-day Dharma Sansand [conclave of sadhus] on January 31 to February 1 was planned to be the occasion when the VHP would spell out a temple construction strategy in such a way that it could be used to polarise Hindu voters for the BJP in the next election,” said Swami Yatindranand Giri, a Mahamandaleshwar of Juna Akhara, another militant Hindu monastic order believed to have been set up by Shankaracharya.
“But the VHP’s strategy went haywire as two rival conclaves of sadhus – one on the day before the Dharma Sansad began and the other immediately after that – totally overshadowed it,” he added.
Worse still, just before the Dharma Sansad, a boycott call was given by the All India Akhara Parishad (AIAP), the collective body of all the 13 akharas, including seven believed to have been set up by Shankaracharya.
“The RSS and the VHP are using the temple issue to promote their politics. They are not interested in building temple at Ayodhya. That’s why we decided to boycott their Dharma Sansad,” said Swami Narendra Giri, the president of the AIAP.
“Sadhus should stay away from politics,” he added.
Although the AIAP’s sudden decision to stay away from the RSS’s political project, despite taking part in it for last several decades, was a surprise to many and the call did not translate into large number of sadhus boycotting the VHP’s event at the Kumbh.
The signs of nervousness were clear in the VHP camp, however. The group neither spelt out a proper Ayodhya strategy nor succeeded in making the replica of the Rama temple which they had promised to do.
While a feeling of uneasiness hung over the VHP camp, the rival groups who want to steer clear of politics appeared enthusiastic. On February 2, a day after the VHP's event, the rival group hosted a meeting which was attended by an unusually large number of godmen.
Namdeo Das Tyagi, a high-profile religious leader popularly known as Computer Baba, was one of the main sponsors of the rival gathering.
“The BJP ditched Hindus who voted it to power in 2014. If it does not construct Rama temple before the next election, they (Hindus) will throw it (BJP) out of power,” he said.
Computer Baba played a key role in mobilising sadhus and organising their rallies in several parts of Madhya Pradesh, where the opposition Congress party reversed decades of declining vote share and won the state elections, unseating the BJP government by a significant margin.
The split among the large community of sadhus is wide open and is likely to have a great impact not only on the nature of future Kumbh Melas but also on the RSS’s ability to use godmen to mobilise Hindu voters in the name of religion in the next general election.
“That’s in the nature of the Kumbh where you can do politics only as long as it does not affect the primacy of religion,” said Computer Baba. “But the moment you cross the limit, you are bound to become the butt of jokes for sadhus.”