With rising calls to curb mass congregation as a measure to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Jammu and Kashmir administration on Wednesday announced the suspension of the Vaishno Devi yatra and inter-state bus operations. It has also closed two major parks in Jammu, including the famous Bagh-e-Bahu, and all public parks in Poonch district. In Himachal Pradesh, the five Shakti Peeths in have been shut, as have other temples across the state, in time to avoid an expected rush during Navratri, starting next week. Devotees headed into the state are being counselled at the state border and turned back. Haryana has also taken steps against large The Punjab, Haryana and Delhi governments have closed educational institutions, and ordered cinema halls, gyms and swimming pools to shut their doors till further orders. Meanwhile, hundreds of Gurudwaras in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi—among them scores of historical shrines that each routinely see tens of thousands of visitors a day—are still open.
The Shiromani Gurudwar Parbandhak Committee manages gurdwaras spread across Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Chandigarh—including the Golden Temple, which alone draws an average of over a hundred thousand visitors per day. When contacted, the SGPC’s chief secretary, Roop Singh, said that closing gurudwaras down is out of question. Over ninety gurudwaras of historical importance and close to eight hundred others under the SGPC’s care would continue letting devotees pour in for darshans. As a precaution against COVID-19, Roop Singh said, “we are providing sanitizers and making people aware of the issue through announcements.”
“Jis jagah te log theek hunde han, usnu asein keyon band karange,” Kulwinder Singh Ramdas, an SGPC spokesperson, said. (Why would we close down a shrine which heals people?) He shared a press release describing medical camps to screen devotees for fever and other possible symptoms of the virus, jointly organised by state health authorities and a medical institute managed by the SGPC. “Talking about quarantine and possible spread of the infection through human contact,” he added, “well, that can happen in a thousand other ways.” When asked of other religious places having shut down, he said, “That’s their decision. We won’t close. We have asked the sangat to maintain a safe distance.” An SGPC release stated that various gurdwaras were to conduct religious services on Thursday for the safety of the human population.
“This is the most difficult time for the management because they have to walk the tightrope between blind faith and reason,” Kiranjot Kaur, a senior member and former general secretary of the SGPC, said. “Coronavirus can be devastating, precaution is the best solution.” Although it is not possible to close Gurdwaras, she said, entry should be regulated and in limited numbers, keeping in mind the safety of staff and ceremonial readers at the shrines. She added that no one should be allowed to enter the main hall of a gurdwara without an N95 mask, that “all those cooking and serving langar should wear masks,” and “pilgrims should be discouraged from going to the langar.” The SGPC has so far paid little heed to such suggestions.
The Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee, which controls gurdwaras in the national capital, has followed a similar course. “Yes, we want people to be responsible citizens,” Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the president of the DSGMC, said when contacted. He added that, “being Sikhs, it is our duty to curb the spread of the virus,” and said that Sikhs should go whatever is required for this, “and that includes the need for quarantine and self-introspection.” But he maintained that the DSGMC cannot order a closure of gurudwaras, and people must understand and impose any steps for containment on their own.