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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 37 New Delhi August 31, 2019

God on Shoulders: Lumpen Proletariats and the Political Agenda of Kanwar Yatra

Saturday 31 August 2019

by Navneet Sharma and Anamica

Move your body, Move your bum

Bhole bam, bhole bam, Bhole bam 

—A popular song emanating from blaring DJs in Kanwar Yatra

Every year people in and around Delhi and in the so-called ‘cow belt’ wait with baited breath for not only monsoon in Sawan or Shravan but also for the peaceful conduct of the KanwarYatra. This yearly ritual is dreaded because lumpenism and hooliganism run amok on the street and the government not only turns a blind eye to these but rather facilitates them as these not only help in creating a devout Hindu vote-bank but also fulfil Hindutva—the majoritarian Hindu agenda of the party at the helm. The Chief Minister in saffron robes, an IAS officer showering petals, an IPS officer massaging your feet and Chandrayaan being launched in consultation with the auspices of Sankaracharya can give any ‘Bhole’ (Kanwariya) the feeling that he is beyond the world and the law; rather he is the world and the law. In this commentary, we do not intend to get into the discourse of sociology of Hindu rituals but wish to appreciate the politicisation of a ritual.

Rituals have been politicised since Lokmanya Tilak rechristened GaneshUtsav for the mass movement for freedom from the colonisers, but the kanwaryatra gets politicised for the purpose of electoral politics. The overt commercialisation of GaneshUtsav and converging the crass into culture in KanwarYatra reflects not only the idea of a new India but a global phenomenon taking shape either as ‘Brexit’ or ‘Americans First’ wherein the capitalist economy chucks multiculturalism and multipluralism into the bin. Nationalism and ethnicity are not new cynosures but coyotes leashed free to upsurge ethical values and human rights. The new fatal religious nationalism expresses itself obscenely when a two hundred feet long national flag chaperons kanwars and kanwariyas; so when one rues about traffic diversions, hooliganism, open consumption of narcotics, one is not only anti-God or blasphemous but anti-national also.

Kanwar Yatra: Myth, culture and the crass

The Kanwar Yatra is a pious yearly pilgrimage undertaken by the devotees of Lord Shiva called Kanwariyas in the Saavan or Shravan month of the Hindu calendar which coincide with the period between July and August months of the Gregorian calendar. In this holy procession the Kanwariyas embark upon a prolonged journey to Haridwar, Gangotri or Sultanganj to bring sacred water from the river Ganges and they offer this water to the idol of Shiva in their nearest shrines. The Kanwariyas often execute this journey saffron-clad, barefooted and carry a Kanwar with them on their shoulders which embody a decorated long pole attached with two receptacles on its two ends to carry the sacred water.

The mythology of Kanwar Yatra can be traced back to the narrative of Samudra Manthan or ocean churning for the purpose of attaining Amrit or nectar of immortality but, according to religious texts, during this process, the Vish or poison emerged before the Amrit. The nectar of immortality was distributed among Gods and the poison was consumed by Lord Shiva which induced a burning sensation in his throat; to minimise the burn, the water of river Ganges was poured on Shiva by other Gods. It is believed that the demon king Ravana recommenced this tradition of bringing Ganga water using Kanwar to appease Lord Shiva and Kanwariyas are continuing this convention since then by attempting this month-long devotional procession.

Till the first decade of the twenty-first century, Kanwar Yatra was a small scale event but recently it has gained political impetus and now the Kanwar Yatra is one of India’s biggest human gatherings with over 30 million Kanwariyas participating. The study of the history of Kanwar Yatra reveals that post-BabariMasjid demolition, this Yatra has acquired components of Hindutva and with this incorporation, the number, character and essence of Kanwariyas and Kanwar Yatra have undergone a metamorphosis. Earlier only few saints, their disciples and elderly devotees used to go on this journey, but after the demolition of the mosque, the scenario changed with the involvement of various political groups who had their own vested interests. A large section of the general public began participating in the Yatra and it is discerned that this segment is specifically constituted of people who are ‘lumpen proletariats’; this is a Marxist terminology used to signify the lowest order or underclass of the society. The lumpen proletariats are the lower level of proletariats and this term encompasses industrial labourers, menials, beggars, derelicts, drug addicts, delinquents and all others who have been rejected, degraded and disparaged by the larger society. This stratum is reputedly unorganised, unthinking, ignorant and apolitical; they lack class consciousness, are devoid of revolutionary potential and have no interest in achieving any kind of advancement or progress.

Kanwariyas are analogised with Marx’s famous portrait of lumpen proletariats because a majority of Kanwar Yatris belong to the lower socio-economic orders of the society; they stand at the bottom of the caste and class hierarchy. A large number of Kanwar Yatris are OBCs, Dalits and most among them come from lower middle or lower economic classes; these castes and classes, as they are considered lower and inferior, are disdained, exploited and humiliated by other forward groups. Also, it has been corroborated that the groups belonging to ‘lower’ caste and class are educationally backward; they have been denied education for hundreds of years to ensure that they remain disordered, unmindful and unaware. Marx refers to this section as ‘a dangerous class’ because, according to him in the Communist Manifesto, this group may possibly be bribed to serve the reactionaries and are more likely to betray the revolutionaries who aim to establish a just social order and relationships. Likewise, Kanwariyas are emanating as a dangerous class, as in the guise of Kanwar Yatra, they are successfully bribed and manoeuvred by the party in power to convert religion and nationalism into culture which were deemed as crass by the liberal perspective. Consequently, the crass aspect of religion and nationalism, that is, toxic nationalism and virulent Hindu majoritarianism, is now contrived as culture and norm through Kanwariyas in order to realise the ruling BJP Government’s politico-religious agenda of creating an AkhandHindu Rashtra.

KanwarYatra: Vote-bank, nation and the seen enemy

Kanwar Yatra, which used to be a devout religious journey, has recently become an event to proclaim and assert the majoritarian Hindu identity; furthermore, it is an exhibition of the power of majoritarianism to other minority religions. The ramification of the blatant threat inflicted to the minorities is apparent in a Muslim-dominated village of Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, where nearly seventy Muslim families have evacuated their homes fearing communal clash ahead of Kanwar Yatra. Also, this holy ‘journey’ is no more a religious affair merely but also an occasion to showcase and prove one’s nationalism; it is also an attempt by Kanwariyas to communicate the domination of the majority religion over the nation. Lately, the Yatra has witnessed unenviable mingling of religion and nationalism and the evidence of this discordant mixing is the trend of Kanwariyas carrying the tricolour flag along with the saffron flag in this journey. Hence, the so-called only nationalist party and its mother, the cultural organisation at Nagpur and their unconstitutional and unethical proliferation of unholy blend of religion and nationalism, is being effectuated through Kanwar Yatris as they have successfully mutated lumpen proletariats into Kanwariyas to convey their intent to the minority religions. Furthermore, to accomplish the ultimate Hindu Rashtra agenda, the party is not merely bribing and recruiting these lumpen proletariats into Kanwariyas but also unrepentantly bestowing state sponsorship to them.

The government reinforcement and funding of this brazen drama of Hindu militancy and aggressive nationalism during Kanwar Yatra is evident through songs like ‘DJ bajwa diye Yogi ne, Rang jama diye Modi ne’. During this religious journey, the extraordinary treatment accorded to Kanwariyas by state officials is also apparent in bizarre incidents of a police officer pressing the feet of Kanwariyas, a government official showering flowers on their parade, a Chief Minister having food with them. These pilgrims are allowed to breach traffic rules, disrupt traffic on road, play extremely loud music, create hooliganism on a mass scale, and can get away with serious crimes like use of drugs and molestation of women easily. While the state is using religion and nationalism for political mobilisation and creation of a one-religion nation, Kanwariyas are viewing this event as an opportunity to reclaim and solidify their lost or snatched sense of identity in religion, nation and politics. The lumpenproletariat Kanwariyas, who face discrimination and oppression by the upper-caste people are welcomed as ‘Bhole’ by them during Kanwar Yatra; this help Kanwariyas in exploring and proclaiming their space in the Hindu religion which had viewed them as outcaste. Moreover, through the amalgamation of the legitimacy of the national flag with the spirituality of the saffron flag, the Kanwar Yatris, by the state assistance granted to their grand procession, are asserting their existence and entitlement in the idea of the nation from which they were marginalised.

Moreover, narratives are created and circulated by the word of mouth such that it starts creating a placebo effect amongst the lumpen kanwariyas. It is mongered that the black stone in the Mecca-Medina is actually a Shivalingam and awaiting a kanwariya to pour Gangajal on it in the month of Sawan and the lord Shiv will desert Mecca and will come back to India thus destroying the religion and the followers of Islam. Every Kanwariya is made to believe that this shall be the biggest national service if he could do so.

Shiv is also the representative god for destruction in the triumvirate of Bramha (for creation), Vishnu (for preservation) and Mahesh (Shiv—for destruction, opening of the third eye—tandav performing). Ram the most favourite god for politics however is suave and demure in comparison to the ‘macho’ and ‘manly’ Shiva. Hindus should not be weaklings as they prey maha-shakti and maha-dev—so kanwariyas ought to behave ‘manly’ and should be able to protect their Dharma (religion), rituals (riti) and women (izzat) from mlechhas (Muslims). The biggest challenge for the Hindutva propounders was how to unite Hindus without disturbing the ‘Chaturvarna’ (Four Varnas) theory and power and hierarchy embedded in the caste system. The ‘cultural organisation’ based at Nagpur, though degrades this hierarchy, but never rejects the caste system in totality, rather emphasises caste and its system as ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’. Unity of Hindus does wonder in electoral politics as reflected in the election results of 2014 and 2019; so it is much required. OBCs, Sudras and ati-sudras must be told (not treated) that they are equally Hindu as savarnas—upper castes—and carrying kanwar helps in upward mobility though only for a while for these Dalits (caste cannot have mobility—it is rigidly fixated by birth).

It is flaunted that Hindus forget their caste during Sawan month and every Hindu irrespective of her/his caste (and even gender) becomes ‘Bhole’. However, one can see caste groups carrying banners of their caste names. Caste hardly gets subdued. It is only shoved under the carpet for KanwarYatra or electoral politics. Ambedkar, who earnestly tried hard to awaken fellow oppressed caste people, is often misquoted as being against the idea of Pakistan or Muslims. In fact, he worked hard for Dalits to get rid of the ‘drum’ (dhol) and ‘broom’ (jhadu) which a dalit must carry so that he can (drum) announce that he is coming (and savarnas must get aside so that his shadow may not pollute them) and a broom which must clean his footsteps but Brahmins very cleverly through the call to save ‘Hindus and Hindutva’ from ‘vidharmis’ have replaced drum and broom by the ‘Kanwars’.


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Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. He can be contacted at

Anamica is presently pursuing Master of Arts in Philosophy from University of Delhi. She has completed her graduation and post-graduation in Education from University of Delhi, Delhi.

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