The crushing truth

Stampede of False Gods

By Poonam I Kaushish

Queues have always been the bane of living in India. Even at best of times keeping a queue is challenging. In worst of times the country stands testimony to life-taking stampedes. From Maharashtra’s Wai town in 2005 which left 265 devotees dead and several hundred injured, down 145 at Himachal’s Naina Devi, 250 at Rajasthan’s Chamundagar temple 2008, 115 at Madhya Pradesh’s Ratangarh temple 2013, 63 Kumbh Mela, Prayagraj UP 2015, 80 Vaishno Devi Jammu 2022 to 121 in Hathras UP Tuesday. Totalling over 2000 in 20 years. Raising a moot point: Do crowded lives matter at all?

Hathras tragedy occurred as attendees of spiritual leader “Bhole Baba” aka Suraj Pal nee “Narayan Sakar Hari” were leaving a “satsang” attempting to follow him and collect dust from his car tyres resulting in severe suffocation and a pile-up of bodies. Till date six organizers have been arrested while the Baba is absconding. A classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

According to the FIR, permission was granted for 80,000 but over 250,000 people were present and a mere 70 police personnel to oversee them with no digital surveillance employed to monitor crowds, density and potential bottlenecks, poor crowd management, poorly managed venues and infrastructure, no ambulances topped by no medical stations.

Sunday, too saw a repeat. In Odisha’s Puri where over 300 were injured near Lord Balabhadra’s (Jagannath) chariot trying to pull it leading to a stampede. VIP’s led by President Murmu, BJP’s Chief Minister BJD’s Patnaik were whisked away. In Kolkata Lord Jagannath’s chariot hit a snag among a milling crowd.

Ironic, that such anarchic conditions in religious gatherings contradict the safety, tranquility and comfort that faith provides metaphysically. Questionably, how was a gathering of this size allowed? Why was there no medical arrangement? Where was the police when the Messenger of God fled? Why has no FIR been filed against him? Even after searching his palatial ashrams there is no sign of him, yet he sent a message saying stampede was a conspiracy against him. Sic.

Predictably, the Administration has promised it’s more of the same standard trio response: compensation, investigation and bluster which accompanies every mass accident. While most politicians have deep fascination and are ardent followers of Godmen, made high-profile visits to Hathras and played a high voltage blame game, they continue to treat the Baba with  kid gloves.

While Congress’s Rahul and Samajwadi’s Akhilesh  blame BJP’s Yogi Sarkar demanding better compensation for families of the dead, they limited their demand for better action against the guilty in general terms. BJP accused Opposition of playing politics over dead bodies and ordered a judicial inquiry, read put the case in thanda baksa.

A repetitive pattern after every stampede accident whereby authorities tiptoe around calling out those who are responsible and why investigations rarely see accountability or action taken. Put it down to deep-seated faith and administrative inertia.

Primarily because all Godmen have deep political connections and work on quid-pro-quo: Netas bring religiosity into their politics whereby it is confusing to tell whether they are politicians first or preachers as they routinely bow before “ Godmen “ out of superstition or for seeking electoral patronage of their mass following even while preaching “social reform and scientific temperament.”

An example: Haryana’s Dera Sacha Sauda Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim convicted for raping two of his disciples and murdering a journalist 2017 has been released on parole nine times, seven in the last two years just prior to elections in the State.

Arguably, what is it about self-styled Godmen whom people blindly worship in the belief they have magical healing powers that will cure them of illness, drive out evil spirits, solve problems with tantra-mantra and lead to redemption. Sans logic and rationale masses are lured with sermons, jagrans and succors for miracles wherein Guruji connects them to a ‘hotline’ that they believe will take them to God and find instant solutions. Faith in the unreasonable and irrational remains firm.

This art of performing chamatkars has propelled the Baba business to an endemic cultic industry flourishing across villages, towns and metros wherein radio and TV channels are paid to telecast their sermons and assemblies. Millions are in thrall of these smooth-talking “Godmen” who have built vast empires preying on their gullibility

Exploitation is the name of the game whereby Swamis are rarely held accountable by their devotees. Consequently, modern Babas have been found to harbour a fondness for money, outright sexual abuse and fame. While some love to wield the political axe others have corporate connections.

Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are the current hot favourites of the ruling BJP dispensation and Opposition alike. The former is known for popularising yoga boastfully claiming to cure cancer, has a vast business empire encompassing ayurvedic medicines, toiletries etc and has been very vocal about political issues.

Then there is controversial Godman-tantric Chandraswami who was an influential powerbroker during ex-Prime Minister Narasimha Rao rein and the “spiritual Guru” of former British Premier Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Taylor and underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. He fell from grace when his name cropped up in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination case.  Arrested in 1996 for duping a London bussinessman he died in May.

‘Bhagwan’, Sathya Sai Baba was revered by many Presidents, Prime Ministers and powerful in his long list of devotees. When he died in 2011 his wealth was estimated at over Rs 40,000 crores.  True, he built multi-specialty hospitals provided free treatment and schools but his life was marked by serious controversies, faking ‘miracles’, sexual abuse and even pedophilia. Who can forget “Sex Guru” Rajneesh who discouraged marriage and children and saw families as prone to dysfunction.

Sant Rampal a rags-to-riches junior engineer who owns a fleet of luxury cars, wealth and a private militia outfit is followed by over 25 lakhs in the Hindu heartland. Even post his arrest for sedition in 2014 his Facebook and You Tube page is overflowing.

Politicians love and flock to Godmen. Not only as the soothsayer of their fortunes and fame but also because his captive followers provide committed vote-banks whereby the become power centres of changing events. An example: Modi’s anti-corruption crusade drew in Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, both played influential roles. Said  Ravi Shankar , “We cannot sit back ..we have to take action…play role of reformers, not rulers.

What next? There are well established measures for large events. Administrations must ensure adherence to the venue layout, exits and entrances are not blocked, there is a control room, live survelliance of crowd management, health facilities and PA systems and crowd density monitoring.

Clearly this social malaise must be identified and addressed. True, ‘swamidom’ is clearly a massive emotional, spiritual lever and vote leveler. Our netas must desist from succumbing to them which makes entire Governments beholden and vulnerable to such exploiters emboldening them to think they are above the law.

It is doubtful whether the ubiquitous Guru will scale down his influence and step off the elevator to Heaven which everyone is scrambling to get on. People need to realize that they are worshipping false gods who are as vulnerable and fallible as anyone. In the end what counts is not how bad the Godman is but how bad the seeker’s choice is leaving thousands dead. — INFA