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.