BJP fired ex-Uttarakhand chief minister TS Rawat for restricting Kumbh gatherings

8 May 2021
In a meeting in 2019, the prime minister Narendra Modi told the former Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat that the Mahakumbh should take place without any “controversy.” In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across India, Trivendra sought to hold a restricted, symbolic Kumbh, leading to friction between him and the akharas, and ultimately to his resignation. PIB

A series of interviews with over a dozen Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, mahants of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad and various officers associated with the Haridwar Mahakumbh revealed that the former chief minister of Uttarakhand Trivendra Singh Rawat was fired overnight in March 2021 for insisting that Mahakumbh should be restricted. At least five mahants and two BJP leaders confirmed that the ABAP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and some Uttarakhand cabinet ministers wanted the state to host a “bhavya”—grand—Mahakumbh with minimal COVID-19 restrictions in place, but Trivendra insisted on a “pratikatmak”—symbolic—festival. The conversations with the mahants also revealed that they had pushed for the Kumbh to be  held in 2021, based on the reading of astrological charts by jyotishs and tantriks—instead of 2022, as per the usual cycle of 12 years normally followed for the Hindu festival. 

A senior BJP leader with over two decades of political experience told me that hosting a full-fledged Kumbh in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was in equal parts, a political and economic decision. The senior leader was also privy to the sequence of events that led to Trivendra’s ouster. “Kumbh was allowed to happen because the Uttar Pradesh polls are in the next eight months,” he said. “It made no sense to annoy a friendly ally just a year before elections.” The senior leader was referring to the akharas, which are militant ascetic orders and wield immense influence in Hindu communities in the Hindi heartland. He explained that deferring the Kumbh would be a heavy loss—of support and earnings—for the mahants who lead the akharas, with a mass following in Uttar Pradesh. The overall turnover of the Kumbh was expected to be in thousands of crores, he said. 

The senior BJP leader said that in one meeting in 2019, the prime minister Narendra Modi told Trivendra that the Mahakumbh is a prestigious Hindu festival and that “the akharas should not be upset with his preparations. It should take place without any ‘controversy.’” The friction between Trivendra and the akharas over the Kumbh appeared to have cost him the job, according to conversations with multiple BJP leaders and mahants, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity fearing backlash from the national leadership of the BJP and the RSS. When I asked the Uttarakhand BJP spokesperson Munna Singh Chauhan if the former chief minister was shuffled because of the Kumbh, he told me that my perception “may hold some ground,” and that there could have been a complaint from the akharas.   

According to the Kumbh Mela force, a government body, a total of 9.1 million pilgrims came to Haridwar to take the holy dip in the Ganga between 14 January, when the festival began, till it ended on 27 April. The bulk of this attendance—at least six million people—reportedly congregated in April. The key events of the Kumbh, the shahi snan, or ritual royal dips in the Ganga, were eventually held over a 48-day period: from 11 March—just as the second wave of COVID-19 infections in India took hold—till 27 April, in the midst of the ferocious surge in caseload. India had recorded 3,60,927 new COVID-19 cases on the last day. A staggering 3.5 million people visited the town in a single day on 12 April, the day of the second shahi snan. 

Unsurprisingly, the Kumbh has been termed a super-spreader event by experts and the media. On the day of the first shahi snan, 11 March, Uttarakhand had recorded 69 cases. By 27 April, this had increased to 5,703 new COVID-19 cases. As of 2 May, Uttarakhand accounted for 2.73 percent of COVID-19 deaths in India with just 0.8 percent of the country’s population. The Mahakumbh festival returnees have not just increased the infection rate in Uttarakhand but have also spread it across the length and breadth of India. 

The spread has hit both cities and rural areas. In Madhya Pradesh, 60 out of 61 individuals—or 99 percent—who returned from Kumbh to the town of Gyaraspur, in Vidisha district, tested positive for COVID-19, while in Odisha’s Cuttack city, this number was 43 percent. The state recorded at least 11 other positive cases among Kumbh returnees. In Dhalapur, a small village of Odisha, when a Mahakumbh returnee died after falling sick, no one came ahead to cremate him. But for many Indian states, including Delhi, there is no data on Kumbh-related infections and no way to quantify its impact. 

The current chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat, who was an RSS pracharak, has consistently refused to accept that the Kumbh was a super-spreader event. When I spoke to Deepak Rawat, the Kumbh Mela Adhikari—a nodal officer responsible for administration of the festival—he, too, denied that the Mahakumbh had contributed to the surge in the second wave of COVID-19.  

The Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, or ABAP, is the supreme body that presides over all the major akharas in the country. It presently consists of 13 akharas of Hindu seers, sadhus and tantriks—the Kinnar Akhara, or transgender akhara, is yet to be fully recognised by the ABAP. The Juna Akhara and the Nirvani Akhara are two of the largest and most powerful sects. Each akhara is led by a mahant, which loosely translates as chief priest or spiritual adviser. Narendra Giri, from the Niranjani Akhara, is the adhyaksh, or president of the ABAP, while Hari Giri, of the Juna Akhara, is the mahamantri, or general secretary. According to Dhirendra K Jha, the author of the book, Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu Vote, the ABAP came into existence solely to facilitate the Kumbh festival. It has representatives from all akharas who take a call on how and when the Kumbh will be organised along with the respective state governments.  

Narendra told me that in 2019, a meeting was called under his chairmanship in which Trivendra, who was then the chief minister, was present, along with mahants from all 13 akharas, the mela adhikari and Hindu astrologists. Narendra said that in that meeting, a panchang, a holy Hindu calendar, was read by the jyotish vidwan, a group of priests knowledgeable in Hindu astrology. Narendra said it was then decided and conveyed to the state government that the Mahakumbh will be held in 2021 instead of 2022. A few months later, on 10 February 2020, the Uttarakhand government announced the dates of the shahi snans—just days after India recorded its first novel coronavirus case in January 2020.  

The mahants told me that there were over 300 meetings concerning the Kumbh in the last one-and-a-half years. In meetings held in early 2020, it was proposed that the preparations of the Kumbh should proceed irrespective of the looming dangers of the pandemic. “It was concluded that the preparations for Kumbh Mela will be done,” Narendra said. “If the cases rise, we would see that then and there.” Narayan Giri, a spokesperson of the Juna Akhara, told me he had attended at least 50 meetings dealing with Kumbh preparations and that it became clear to him that “the government was trying to postpone the Kumbh fair.” He said, “Certain vidharmi”—heretical—“people who do not believe in Dharma, give excuses of COVID-19 and have the communist mentality … they wanted to hinder the Kumbh fair.”   

Narayan added, “By the end, it was uncertain if Kumbh would take place or not. Uttarakhand government’s intentions seemed like they wanted to avert the fair.” Narayan said that the state government wanted them to follow “Do gaz ki doori, mask hai zaroori niyamthe rule of six-feet distance and compulsory maskingafter which most of the mahants started contemplating a truncated event. “But mahamantri ji”—Hari Giri of the Juna Akhara—“was adamant that our traditions and culture should be duly followed and there should be a proper Kumbh,” he said.  

Subsequently, in December 2020, the ABAP released a statement, strongly objecting to the Uttarakhand government’s stance. They declared that the akharas will organise the Kumbh on their own if the Uttarakhand government does not cooperate. The news agency ANI had quoted Narendra in December 2020 saying that it is the duty of the government to make the arrangements. He had said, “No work has been started yet. We are not happy with the attitude of the administration. But Maha Kumbh Mela 2021 will be as grand and divine as it was in 2010, no matter the Uttarakhand government cooperates or not.” 

Narayan said that subsequently, “in the meetings held in December 2020 and January 2021, we were told that the Kumbh would be symbolic.” The senior BJP leader, who was privy to these discussions, told me that Trivendra had insisted that the Kumbh be restricted. The leader said that the former chief minister had asked all the akharas to give their consent in writing that they had no objection with Uttarakhand government’s initiative of hosting the Kumbh in a limited capacity, in compliance with the standard operating procedure issued by India’s health ministry. It was also proposed that for the first time in the history of Kumbh Mela, passes will be issued to devotees for entry contingent on a COVID-19 negative report. However, the akharas, the biggest influencers over the RSS and the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, finally prevailed. Narayan said, “The previous chief minister had insisted that coronavirus rules should be followed during the Kumbh fair.” He added, “However, by the time the Kumbh was to be hosted, the chief minister was changed.” 

Hindu sadhus and devotees attend the first shahi snan during Kumbh on 11 March, as the second wave of COVID-19 took hold of the country. Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters

Trivendra was born and brought up in the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Ajit Doval, the national-security advisor, and Bipin Rawat, the chief of defence staff of India—all of whom were appointed under Narendra Modi—hail from the same district. Trivendra was a member of the RSS from 1979 to 2002, and held the post of organising secretary of the Uttarakhand region, and later the Uttarakhand state, after the state’s formation in 2000. Senior RSS leaders familiar with Trivendra’s career told me that after Modi was appointed as in-charge for Uttarakhand in 2000, he encouraged an otherwise reluctant Trivendra to fight from the Doiwala constituency, a seat he retained in 2017. Trivendra had also worked with the current union home minister, Amit Shah, as a deputy in the last assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh.  

Trivendra’s ouster played out in the form of high political drama over a period of three days. On 6 March 2021, the BJP national vice-president Raman Singh and the BJP general secretary in-charge of Uttarakhand, Dushyant Singh Gautam, came unannounced to Dehradun, according to the senior BJP leader. He said that while the state assembly’s budget session was underway in the Gairsain assembly house, Trivendra was urgently summoned by the senior leaders to Dehradun. It usually takes at least seven hours to cover the distance of 250 kilometres between Gairsain and Dehradun by road. But Trivendra had been summoned, so he dutifully boarded a special chopper, reached his residence within half an hour and left the assembly suspended, the senior BJP leader who witnessed the event said.  

The BJP leader said that in a brief half-hour meeting, Trivendra was informed that the BJP president, JP Nadda, wanted to see him. “As tea was served to Raman Singh and Dushyant Gautam at the chief minister’s residence it was made clear to the anxious Rawat that there is a ‘change of guard,’” the BJP leader told me. The next day in the late evening, Trivendra came to Delhi and met Nadda and BL Santhosh, the BJP’s national general secretary, who is the bridge between the RSS and the BJP. The leader told me that the meet took place at Nadda’s residence in Delhi. He said that Nadda and Santhosh informed Trivendra that the BJP will not be going into the upcoming polls in 2022 under his leadership—he was signalled to resign. “There were no discussions about who will replace him next.” The leader told me Nadda had met with Shah before he met Trivendra. Neither Nadda nor Santhosh responded to calls or emails. 

On 9 March, just days before completing four years as the chief minister of the state, Trivendra resigned. When asked for the reason behind the abrupt resignation, he told reporters, “You will have to go to Delhi to find out why.” 

The senior BJP leader, who was privy to these actions, told me, “National dailies carried the news of his resignation on front pages. Many suggested the possible replacement, too. But none of them got it right, neither the replacements nor the reasons.” The Print had suggested “A Rawat to replace a Rawat?” but did not mention Tirath’s name. The Hindustan Times had suggested Dhan Singh Rawat, Anil Balooni and Ajay Bhatt as front runners but none of them was elevated.  Ultimately, Trivendra was replaced by Tirath just one day before the first shahi snan was scheduled on 11 March, the day of the festival of Mahashivratri.  

As soon as Tirath took oath as the new chief minister, on 10 March, one of his first orders was to shower rose petals on the Kumbh seers from a chopper on the Mahashivratri snan. Later that day, he announced that the Kumbh will be open to all without any “rok-tok,” or restrictions, and reversed the decisions taken by his predecessor regarding COVID-19 and the Kumbh. “Nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus,” Tirath said. 

Days ahead of the second snan, scheduled for 12 April, the RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat visited Kumbh for two days. According to news reports, various mahants including Baba Ramdev, Mahamandalshwar Kelashnand Giri, Mahant Ravinder Puri, Mahamandaleshwar Balkanand Giri and Mahant Narendra Giri praised the new chief minister and attacked Trivendra. Bhagwat reportedly assured them that he would further improve arrangements by talking to Tirath.  

A retired IAS officer from the Uttarakhand cadre, who has overseen two Mahakumbh festivals, told me that all the major decisions about Kumbh are directly overseen by the centre. While the ministry of culture and tourism funds it, the PMO oversees the preparations. Senior BJP leaders also seconded him. One of them said, “Kumbh has a flow of crores of money. People from entire India as well as abroad visit Kumbh. There are national security risks as well as image factors. Senior RSS members, as well as BJP leaders, are directly involved in preparations.” 

Chauhan, the BJP spokesperson, told me that it was “partially correct” to suppose that Trivendra had been asked to go on account of the Kumbh and that “the holy saints were divided when it came to Kumbh.” He said that some of the seers were fine “with reasonable restrictions while some wanted a free flow of pilgrims. It is likely that some of them held a grudge against the outgoing CM.” He suggested that I should look beyond what is immediately apparent. “The politics is not what is written on the wall. It is between the lines,” he told me. Chauhan added, “It is an intra-party decision collectively taken by the central leadership. Both the leaders, the outgoing and incumbent, have risen from the grassroots. Both were associated with RSS. But individual approaches to local administration matter a lot. This could be a reason that party decided to put some other leader in charge.”  

The senior BJP leader told me that it was incorrect to view the Kumbh as a purely religious event. “Kumbh is big business,” he said. “Do not mistake it for just religious congregation of seers, sadhus or tantrics. It is a market worth several crores.” Digamber Negi is a close confidant of Satpal Maharaj, a BJP leader and Uttarakhand’s tourism minister. Negi explained, “Even if one crore people participated in this Kumbh and spent at least Rs 3,000, it means a turnover of Rs 3,000 crore even by modest estimates.” The senior BJP leader told me that curtailing the Kumbh also meant curtailing those crores of pilgrims who would bring big bucks. 

This was also seconded by Jha, the author. He said, “During Kumbh, these sadhus make crores of money in the name of donation and rituals. Kumbh is the prime earning of all the akharas. Not just the big mahants but even small-time sadhus end up making money amid the bhandaras, satsangs, pravachans and prasad at Kumbh.” The BJP leader said, “The akharas wait for 12 years for Kumbh. They would not give up their earnings so easily.”   

The money brought in by the pilgrims is in addition to the several hundred crores allocated by the central government, and contributions from big corporations. Deepak, the mela adhikari, told me that the central government had allocated roughly Rs 700 crore for the 2021 Kumbh. According to Sudhakar Bhatt, a journalist with over a decade of experience in covering Uttarakhand politics, the Kumbh budget would have easily crossed Rs 1,000 crore after incorporating contributions by the state government. The senior BJP leader also said that corporations with a presence in Uttarakhand contributed several crores of rupees from their CSR fund. On 21 March, several national dailies splashed full-page ads of Modi and Tirath welcoming devotees to the Kumbh and telling them it was “clean” and “safe” to attend. The officers who oversaw Kumbh informed me that around Rs 15 crore were spent on the publicity of the event. 

On 21 March, newspapers carried full-page advertisements of the prime minister Narendra Modi and the Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat inviting the public to attend the Kumbh.

The senior BJP leader also suggested that certain state cabinet ministers, including Maharaj, were instrumental in lobbying for a full-fledged Kumbh, “with the support of the Sangh.” Maharaj is a self-styled godman with a strong influence in Uttarakhand. He was among the richest candidates in the 2017 assembly elections with a net worth of Rs 142 crore that he shared with his wife, according to his election affidavit. The senior BJP leader told me, “There were murmurs that Satpal Maharaj along with the trade unions in Haridwar were lobbying for Kumbh with RSS. Often there were discussions that the lockdown imposed in 2020 had destroyed the fortunes of many in Uttarakhand, and the Kumbh was a way to revive them.” 

Bhatt told me that there was friction between Maharaj and Trivendra. Maharaj had left the Congress in March 2014 to join the BJP ahead of the general elections held in May that year. Two years later, in May 2016, nine rebel Congress leaders joined the BJP ahead of the Uttarakhand assembly elections in 2017. Bhatt and several BJP leaders told me that “this Congress lobby” within the Uttarakhand BJP was not supportive of Trivendra. Maharaj declined requests for interviews and had not answered emailed questions by the time this story was published.  

At the time of Trivendra’s sacking, several newspapers had also suggested that he was removed because the BJP’s central leadership was unsure of pulling a victory under him in Uttarakhand. Bhatt suggested that this might be one of the reasons for Trivendra’s ouster. “I think of Trivendra’s removal as political calculation rather than compulsion.” He said that he thought the Kumbh fracas may have been “the final nail in the coffin but other factors also contributed. There was anti-incumbency and he did not enjoy the support of various MLAs in Uttarakhand.” 

The senior BJP leader contested this version and told me, “The decision to shuffle Uttarakhand CM has more to do with Uttar Pradesh. It is basic mathematics. UP with 403 seats is more valuable for BJP than Uttarakhand with 70 seats.” He added, “Uttar Pradesh matters more than Uttarakhand, especially at a time when BJP needs a desperate win in Uttar Pradesh.”   

On 22 March, two days after Tirath Singh Rawat said that “faith will overcome the fear of the virus,” he tested positive for COVID-19. He was set to meet Modi and Shah in Delhi the next day.

On 9 April, the RSS announced that Bhagwat had tested positive, just days after visiting the Kumbh. Narendra, the head of the ABAP, was hospitalised on 13 April after testing positive. Akhilesh Yadav, a former CM of Uttar Pradesh who was in contact with Narendra, tested positive the next day. On 15 April, Mahamandaleshwar Kapil Dev Das of the Nirvani Akhada died from COVID-19 complications in Haridwar. Nepal’s former royals, Komal Rajya Lakshmi Devi and Gyanendra, also tested positive after their Kumbh visit, as did Alok Kumar, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s executive chairman. 

By end March, the Uttarakhand High Court, too, took note of the escalating crisis, and directed the state government to conduct fifty thousand tests per day. On 17 April, amid the disastrous toll of the raging second wave and mounting criticism of the Mahakumbh, and after three of the four shahi snans had already taken place, Modi finally appealed to the various mahants to host the last dip symbolically. Soon after, the Juna Akhara announced their exit from the Kumbh but the Nirmohi, Nirvani and Digambar Akharas, collectively known as the bairagis, refused to oblige. Even at this stage, the state government did not enforce a restricted gathering. As per the rituals, the Bairagi Akharas bathe during the last shahi shan. Mahant Dharam Das, from the Nirvani Akhara, told the channel Aaj Tak that the “Juna Akhara does not have any right to call off Kumbh. They should stop pleasing these politicians.” Over 25,000 people participated in the “symbolic” last shahi snan on 27 April.  

The wrangling over the Kumbh has also had another, perhaps unintended, consequence—the splitting of the ABAP, with the Bairagi Akharas forming the breakaway faction called the Akhil Bhartiya Vaishnav Akhara. It remains unclear what impact this will have over the functioning of the several iterations of the Kumbh. The Kumbh is believed to be the largest religious gathering in the world. The four Hindu holy sites of Haridwar, Prayagraj, Nashik and Ujjain host a Kumbh each, once every 12 years.  

The last Haridwar Kumbh took place in 2010. The mahants told me that instead of hosting it in 2022, the ABAP had insisted that it should be advanced by one year based on “jyotish shastra,” or astrological science. Ravinder Puri, a mahant from the Nirvani Akhara, explained that “Jupiter stays in one sun cycle for 12 months. For hosting Kumbh in Haridwar, Jupiter must stay in Aquarius while Sun should stay in Aries. This was only possible in 2021 as in 2022, after 10 April, Jupiter will leave the Aquarius configuration.” Narayan, from the Juna Akhara, said that these gaps in days occur because of adhik maas, or the extra month, that comes once in 12 years. A tantric close to one of the mahants explained, “As per Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu, in the form of one of his avatars, Narsimha, created additional moments in a day to kill a demon named Hiranyakashyap. Those moments in cumulative become adhik maas, often called faleh maas or maleh maas which led to preponing of the Kumbh.”  

Narayan told me that there were “certain people” in the meetings over the last one and a half years who questioned why Kumbh was taking place in 11 years instead of 12. He said, “Some officials were picking this point again and again. Then Hari Giri maharaj ji took out the panchang and displayed the history of the last 1,000 years.” He explained that this is not the first time that Kumbh is taking place in the 11th year. He said, “A mother’s womb matures at its own time. Likewise, Kumbh also takes place at its own time.” Puri confirmed this and said, “While Kumbh at other sites usually happens after 12 years, it is Haridwar Kumbh where we have seen this discrepancy every 83 years. This last happened in 1938.” 

But Shanta Kumar, a former cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government, questioned the logic of even hosting the Kumbh Mela. He said, “It is written in our scriptures, ‘Aaapat Kale, Maryaada Nasti,’ which means that when life itself is at stake, all rules can be broken.” 

The high positivity rates recorded at Vidisha and Cuttack—99 percent and 43 percent, respectively—were based only on the Kumbh returnees tested in these areas on a single day. It does not conclusively reflect the total number of Kumbh returnees in these regions, and there is even lesser information about the numbers from across the country. Despite the calamitous surge of the virus, and the blinkered, uncompromising manner in which the Kumbh was carried out, there has not been any quantitative assessment of the extent to which it worsened the spread of the second wave of COVID-19 in India.

Srishti Jaswal is an independent journalist. She is member of The Reporters' Collective, a group of investigative journalists based in India. She was a 2020 MoJo fellow with Internews and Qisa Labs. She is also National Foundation For India grantee.