India’s fourth COVID casualty attended Sikh Hola Mohalla festival in Anandpur Sahib; infected seven family members

Sikh devotees celebrate the Sikh Hola Mohalla festival with a procession to the Akal Takht, in Amritsar, on 10 March. Baldev Singh, the fourth Indian casualty to the novel coronavirus, had attended the festival after returning from Germany via Italy. He died on 18 March. NARINDER NANU/AFP/ Getty Images
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21 March, 2020

Days before the death of Baldev Singh, who became the fourth Indian casualty to COVID-19 on 18 March, the 70-year-old attended the Hola Mohalla festival in the holy city of Anandpur Sahib, in Punjab’s Rupnagar district. The festival is an annual six-day Sikh event that is attended by lakhs of members of the community from across the country and the world every year. According to Rupnagar’s senior superintendent of police, Swapan Sharma, Baldev had returned from a two-week trip to Germany via Italy. He stayed in Anandpur Sahib for the festivities from 8 to 10 March, before taking a bus back home. He died six days later and tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. As of 21 March, Baldev had infected seven people—six family members and another person whom he came into contact—with the novel coronavirus, according to a media bulletin issued by the Punjab health department.

Baldev was a Granthi in the gurudwara at his village of Pathlawa, in the state’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district. While he was at the village after returning from abroad, Baldev had performed path and distributed prasad to the devotees in Pathlawa, local residents told me. Baldev lived in a large joint family, and six of whom have tested positive at his village on 21 March. According to Ravi Inder Singh Makkar, the assistant public-relations officer of Nawanshahr—a municipal council in the Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district—the administration had taken 18 samples of close family relations and individuals who came into contact with Baldev Singh. Six of his family members were found to be positive, while the rest of the reports are yet to arrive, Makkar told me. The infected family members are his three sons, his daughter, his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter. The seventh person who tested positive was a resident of the Garhshankar city in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, whom locals told me was a relative that Baldev had visited after returning from abroad.

With the latest set of cases, the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases from Punjab has risen to 13. The Hola Mohalla is among the largest religious congregations in India. Sharma said between thirty five to forty lakh people normally attended the gathering in Anandpur Sahib, and that despite the ongoing public-health crisis, around twenty lakh people had still come for the festival. Given the scale of the gathering and the fact that Baldev is believed to have infected his family members, it appears likely that the number of infections in Punjab is likely to increase further.

The situation has also led to drastic measures by the Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district administration. On 20 March, Vinay Bublani, the district magistrate of Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, placing residents under home quarantine and appointing a district revenue officer as the nodal officer for enforcing the quarantine, along with a police team at his disposal. The order noted that it would “come into force with effect from 05:00 PM on 21.03.2020 and shall be effective for a period of sixty days up to 05:00 PM on 20.05.2020.” Moreover, residents of Garhshankar said that after the positive COVID-19 case from the area, the state police sealed some of the villages in Hoshiarpur that Baldev had visited.

Baldev’s case offers a glimpse into the Punjab’s political and religious authorities’ casual approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the very serious repercussions that will now likely follow. Once it emerged that Baldev died from COVID-19, the Rupnagar district administration swung into action, conducting a door-to-door survey to curb the spread of the virus. Yet, there was no such sense of caution or urgency before the death even as thousands of diaspora Sikhs returned to Punjab for the festival. From the Delhi and Punjab airport administrations, to the religious administrations, to the state government and political parties, everyone collectively failed to recognise the severity of the pandemic even as the death toll rose dramatically across the world.  

The Hola Mohalla festival is organised by the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages gurdwaras spread across Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Chandigarh—including the Golden Temple. The six-day celebrations include processions conducted by each gurudwara, mock battles and military exercises, various competitions and large langars. As can be expected from any religious congregation, the ceremony is antithetical to the practice of social distancing. But the SGPC did nothing to deter visitors from attending the event. Similarly, Giani Harpreet Singh, the jathedar, or head, of the Akal Takht—the highest temporal seat of Sikhism—appealed to the community to avoid crowded places before coming for Hola Mohalla, and then went and addressed the gathering at Anandpur Sahib during the festival. During his address, the jathedar noted, “Jadon duniya coronavirus de bhai naal bhaibheet hoyi payi hai, dar de naal kambh rahi hai, aise haalataan de vich je kisi ne Khalse dei beparwahi dekhni hai te, Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib, Sri Anandpur Sahib di paawan dharti de utte aake dekh sakda hai.” (When the world is terrified by the coronavirus, under such circumstances, if somebody has to see the unheeding attitude of the Khalsa, then they should come and see this at Sri Kesgarh Sahib Takht and the holy city of Sri Anandpur Sahib ... It is no less than a miracle that when the world is urging people not to gather in groups more than four, the Khalsa is here in lakhs.)

The appeal was echoed by the Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, who asked the public to stay safe by paying obeisance at local gurudwaras instead of attending the festival at Anandpur Sahib. However, his government extended logistical support for the festivities, such as deploying resources for the maintenance of law and order and traffic during the celebrations. The government also waived off toll fees for devotees travelling on the road leading to Anandpur Sahib. Perhaps fearing the political fallout of preventing the public from attending the religious festival, the state machinery facilitated the celebrations as it has in previous years. Yet, among the political parties, most of them exercised the precautionary measure of cancelling their annual conferences, which normally take place during the Hola Mohalla. But the Shiroman Akali Dal Mann, led by Simranjit Singh Man, went ahead with its political conference. “The media never gives us coverage while feeding upon the handouts of the other political parties,” Mann told me. “This was the only platform for making Sikhs listen to us.”

With the political and religious authorities in Punjab failing to exercise the necessary precautions to prevent an escalation of the public-health crisis, the Hola Mohalla festivities were held in full, with India’s fourth COVID-19 casualty in attendance on all three days. According to Sharma, through his trip abroad and during his visit to Anandpur Sahib, Baldev was accompanied by two friends from his village of Pathlawa, in the state’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district—Sant Gurbachan Singh and Daljinder Singh. The trio arrived at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi on 6 March and travelled to Punjab the same day to their village. Sharma said that the trio socialised with the villagers at Pathlawa, and Baldev attended religious gatherings in his village, before he and other villagers, with whom he was in close contact, went for the Hola Mohalla festival, jampacked with devotees.

In the wake of his death and COVID diagnosis, the Rupnagar and Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district authorities had placed Anandpur Sahib and Pathlawa village, respectively, in lockdown, conducting door-to-door inspections looking for people showing symptoms of the virus.

“We are motivating people to stay at home, identifying those in all the households here and quizzing about their interactions in the recent days and also checking them for any symptoms of the coronavirus or any other flu-like conditions,” Sharma told me. “We shall finish our door-to-door inspection in the next three-to-four days to check the residents for any symptoms since they would have come in close contact with the visitors here during Hola Mohalla celebrations.” The Nawanshahr administration has reportedly placed 56 of its residents under quarantine, including his family members.

Baldev’s case reflects poorly not only on the state government and Sikh religious bodies that allowed the Hola Mohalla to take place, but also on the airport authorities that did not place a passenger traveling via Italy on quarantine upon arrival. On 3 March, the Indian government had directed all international passengers to self-declare their travel history to health and immigration officials after a man who had travelled via Italy and entered Delhi from Vienna tested positive for the virus. As of 6 March, according to a travel advisory issued by the health ministry, Indian visas given to all Italian nationals who had not yet entered India were suspended, and all international passengers were also mandated to undergo universal health screening. But these minimal measures were evidently insufficient to prevent a public-health disaster.

Even the measures such as placing Anandpur Sahib and Pathlawa in lockdown will be insufficient to mitigate the consequences of Baldev attending the Hola Mohalla. Yet, Baldev’s death seems to have changed little in terms of religious gatherings. Gurudwaras remain open, with administrators refusing to shut down the shrines. On 20 March, Gobind Singh Longowal, the SGPC president, told the media that the Golden Temple would remain open as well. Coronavirus may have stalled the life across the globe but we can’t stop sangat from coming to the Golden Temple, which is the spiritual centre of the Sikh faith,” Longowal said. “We can’t stop them from coming to other gurudwaras either.” Similarly, Murari Lal Batra, the vice president of the Durgiana committee, told me that the Durgiana Temple in Amritsar would also remain open, before adding that the rush had decreased due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Moreover, the sanitisers at both these spiritual centres are not alcohol-based, which is necessary to prevent the infection, out of religious considerations. According to Amresh Kumar, an Durgiana Temple employee, the administration is using alcohol-free ayurvedic sanitisers. Similarly, the SGPC has also stated that anything containing alcohol cannot be used for sanitisation inside the complex. A senior SGPC official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed concerns about the decision. “I wish somebody conveys the sense to SGPC for doing the logical thing by leading the cause instead of endangering precious lives,” the official said.

At a time when the police have started booking coronavirus patients who flee from quarantine for endangering the lives of others, the Akal Takht jathedar has called upon people to attend another religious gathering. In a video dated 12 March, Giani Harpreet Singh can be seen urging people to gather in large numbers in Haryana’s Yamunanagar, on 21 March, to mark the  death anniversary of Budhu Shah, a Muslim saint who is said to have helped the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh. It is unclear how many people attended the event.

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with more than 25 years of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.