Following BJP's electoral defeats, RSS sets out to take control of Ardh-Kumbh Mela

The RSS plans to deploy volunteers in large numbers at the 2019 Ardh-Kumbh Mela Mahendra Parikh/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
21 December, 2018

As the Bharatiya Janata Party government gets ready to make a political show out of next month’s Ardh-Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has quietly accelerated a massive exercise to hijack the Hindu religious gathering in order to whip up a saffron tide ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation, has started training thousands of its volunteers who would be deployed in the Ardh-Kumbh Mela area. An Ardh-Kumbh mela is one that is held every six years. The RSS has also asked most of its affiliates to take part in the six-week-long event, which will start from 14 January next year.

“It is not yet decided whether swayamsevaksRSS volunteers“will be deployed in uniform,” Nandlal, the RSS’s vibhag karyavah, or unit head, of Varanasi North, told me while elaborating on the preparations of the RSS to make a first-of-its-kind intervention in the Kumbh Mela. “A decision in this regard will be taken by the Sangh’s central leadership by the end of this month.”

Varanasi North is one of 25 regional units that comprise the Kashi “prant,” which is one of the six artificial divisions of Uttar Pradesh that the RSS has created for the Sangh Parivar’s organisational purposes. The 25 units of the Kashi prant have been carved out of 18 districts in eastern and central UP, including Prayagraj, Varanasi, Jaunpur, Bhadohi, Ballia, and other nearby areas.

“It has been decided that each vibhag of Kashi prant will deploy six to seven hundred swayamsevaks during the Kumbh Mela. They are being trained in crowd management and in various ways they can help people who get separated from their families and relatives,” Nandlal said, adding that the RSS cadres would pay special attention to elderly visitors. “One of the highlights of the Sangh’s activities will be setting up of a large number of eye check-up camps in the Kumbh Mela area where swayamsevaks will distribute one lakh spectacles to the needy pilgrims.”

To top it all, a play will be staged during the Ardh-Kumbh Mela showcasing the history of the RSS. The play is titled “Sangham Sharanam Gacchami,” a reference to a Buddhist prayer translated as “I go to the Sangha for refuge.” It is unlikely to dwell on anything that the RSS wants to conceal.

The preparation is considered a part of the BJP’s strategy to counter its plummeting popularity by fuelling large-scale polarisation of Hindus through state-supported mega celebrations of the Ardh-Kumbh Mela in an electorally crucial state such as Uttar Pradesh.

Of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, Uttar Pradesh alone contributes 80 seats. The BJP secured 71 of these in the 2014 general elections, accounting for over one-fourth of the total 282 seats that the party won. Though the BJP maintained its winning spree by sweeping the UP assembly polls in March 2017, it has witnessed massive reverses in three Lok Sabha by-elections held in the state thereafter. What is alarming is that in these by-elections, the saffron party could not even save Gorakhpur, arguably the state’s strongest saffron seat, which had elected a BJP member of parliament consecutively since 1991. The loss of three significant states of the Hindi belt—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—in the recent assembly elections has further added to the BJP’s woes.

In fact, it is these electoral defeats that have led the BJP government to showcase an Ardh-Kumbh as a Maha Kumbh. Kumbhs, or Maha Kumbhs, as they are popularly known, are melas held every 12 years separately at Prayagraj, Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Nashik in Maharashtra and Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. At Prayagraj, the last Maha Kumbh was held in 2013 and the next one is due in 2025. An Ardh-Kumbh mela is held between two Maha Kumbhs. Though it has hitherto been a low-key affair, this time, the Sangh Parivar, along with the union and the UP state government, has created much hype around the symbolism of the Kumbh, given that it is being held months before the next Lok Sabha election.

It is because of this that on 16 December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed Ganga Pujan—a ritual worshipping the river Ganga—and inaugurated the command and control centre for the Ardh-Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. Similarly, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Adityanath, is planning to write invitation letters to all the sarpanches of the state, asking them to participate in the religious gathering in large numbers. Arrangements are also afoot to ensure the transportation of Hindu pilgrims and devotees from different parts of the state.

More importantly, the RSS, which had earlier operated from the background and let the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—another offshoot of the Sangh Parivar—do the needful mixing of religion with politics, has now come out of the closet. A mid-level functionary in the RSS said that the shift may be connected with the fear of a loss of power in the next Lok Sabha election.

Even in the Allahabad Kumbh Mela of 1989, when the religious gathering was turned into a political theatre for the first time, by giving significant traction to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and ensuring an extraordinary edge to the politics of Hindutva, it was the VHP that ran the show. This was also the case in subsequent Kumbh Melas.

While the VHP will once again be organising the Dharma Sansad—a conclave of sadhus—during the upcoming Ardh-Kumbh at Prayagraj, as Allahabad is now known, it will hardly remain its show. The massive presence of swayamsevaks and the direct involvement of the RSS are likely to change the largest fair of Hindu ascetics and devotees in a manner that it may never regain its old character.