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Anger, COVID-19 Fears Force Ladakh Admin to Make U-Turn on First 'Sindhu Mahakumbh'

After first saying that preparations for the festival were underway, the administration is now claiming that it had already been postponed.
J.P. Nadda, G. Kishen Reddy and organiser of the festival releasing the Sindhu Darshan Yatra Samiti poster for the ‘Pratham Sindhu Maha Kumbh’ to be held at Leh, Ladakh from 19-27 June, 2021. Photo: Twitter/G. Kishen Reddy

Srinagar: The Sindhu Darshan Yatra has been an annual affair in the Sangh parivar’s calendar ever since it set its sights on the Ladakh region after 1996. Every year, a few hundred people converge at Shey, a village eight km away from Leh, as part of the yatra after veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani undertook it for the first time along with a handful of activists in 1997.

With Ladakh no more a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and the BJP in power in the Buddhist-dominated Leh district, the Sangh planned to hold 25th Sindhu Darshan Yatra “in a grand way like Kumbh Mela” and rechristened the yatra as the “first Sindhu Mahakumbh”. But an official handout released by the administration on Wednesday, about preparations for the yatra, triggered widespread anger and outrage in the district, where a lockdown has been imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

People living in the region fear that this Sindhu Mahakumbh could become a COVID-19 superspreader event, like the Haridwar Kumbh Mela had. People’s anger was so strong that not only did the UT administration announce a postponement of the yatra, but also went to the extent of saying that the administration’s May 12 meeting had nothing to with the yatra. BJPs MP from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal went into damage-control mode, saying the yatra had already been postponed. He even blamed a senior official in the UT administration for creating “chaos” among the general public in Ladakh.

Government notice sparks outrage

On May 12 evening, Ladakh’s Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) mailed a press release to media outlets about preparations for the Sindhu Darshan festival.

According to the official handout, the administrative secretary, tourism, Ladakh chaired a meeting to discuss arrangements for holding the annual Sindhu Darshan Yatra.

“Secretary, Tourism and Culture, Mehboob Ali Khan chaired a review meeting to make necessary preparations for the upcoming annual Sindhu Darshan-2021 festival at the Tourist Reception Centre today. The annual Sindhu Darshan Festival is scheduled to be held from June 19 onwards. A detailed discussion on water supply, power supply, setting -up of local market, food court, bus parking, VIP parking etc. was held in the meeting,” read the handout.

The handout was followed by mass outrage on social media, with netizens calling for nothing short of cancellation of the yatra. A gathering of this sort could wreak havoc in the region, they argued, like the Kumbh Mela did in Uttarakhand and other states.

“It will be a huge folly on part of the UT administration and the district disaster management authority Leh if the festival was organized this year. Uttarakhand saw an explosive 1800 % spike in active cases between March 31 and April 24, right after the Kumbh Mela,” Smanla Dorje Nurboo, councillor, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh, wrote on Facebook.

Also read: Religious, Political Mass Gatherings Contributed to COVID-19 Resurgence in India: WHO

He said the people of Ladakh cannot afford to host a superspreader event in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic.

“Moreover, keeping in mind the fragile ecosystem of the Indus river, I believe it is high time we reconsider the way in which the festival is celebrated which involves discarding religious paraphernalia such as plastics, oil, and chemically-infused flowers into the Indus,” he further wrote.

The Congress as well as the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) came out openly against holding the yatra at this juncture.

Government makes U-turn, MP blames bureaucrat

After the massive outrage, the administration of the union territory, which is directly under the control of the Central government, made a U-turn, saying the meeting held on May 12 by the administrative secretary, tourism had nothing to do with the festival. This claim, though, openly contradicted its own statement issued a day earlier.

“Secretary, Tourism and Culture, Mehboob Ali Khan, today clarified that the review meeting convened on May 12 to review the progress of the ongoing work at Sindhu Ghat/ Indus River Front was not related to organising the Sindhu Darshan 2021 event per se,” read the handout issued on Thursday (May 13).

“Responding to the feedback from public representatives/public over conducting Sindhu Darshan in June 2021, Secretary Tourism and Culture shared that there has been a misunderstanding of facts regarding the purpose of the review meeting. He stated that given the unprecedented Covid-19 situation in Ladakh and across India, the UT administration and the event organisers have decided to postpone the event till the Covid-19 situation improves,” it continued.

The statement further quoted Khan as saying that holding the event in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic situation doesn’t appear advisable.

MP from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgayal blamed the secretary, tourism for creating “unnecessary hue and chaos” among the public.

“This is to inform all my people that the postponement of Sindhu Darshan Yatra was already decided on 1st May in a virtual meeting of Sindhu Darshan Yatra Samiti,” he claimed in a Facebook post.

But the question remains why the public of Leh was not informed about the postponement before May 13. “I don’t want to speak more than what I have already spoken over the matter ,” Namgayal told The Wire when asked why the public was not informed on time.

Khan, the secretary being held responsible, refused to speak on the matter.

Senior Congress leader and former MLA Nubra, Deldan Namgail said, “The BJP is trying to make the secretary, tourism a scapegoat and is pressuring him to distance from the statement released by the government on May 12.”

“On one hand, people in Leh are observing shutdown to minimise the spread of the COVID-19 but on the other, the UT administration and Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh, which is currently headed by the BJP, is inviting COVID-19 to the region by planning to hold mammoth gatherings like the Mahakumbh,” he said.

He said the Sindhu Darshan festival is against the cultural ethos of Ladakh. “No festival like Mahakumbh has been ever organised in the Buddhist-majority Leh district,” he said, adding that activities of the RSS have increased in the region after Article 370 was read down.

Origin of the festival and plans for 2021

After 1996, the Sangh parivar took a keen interest in the Ladakh region and supported the demand for separating the two district-Ladakh region from Jammu and Kashmir. Many saw this see as the right-wing’s attempt to gain a foothold in the region, which was an alien territory for Hindutva.

According to organisers of the yatra, the idea was born after BJP leader Advani and former editor of the RSS weekly Panchjanya Tarun Vijay, during a visit to Leh in early 1996, found that the Sindhu river flows through the region.

In 2000, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself visited Leh to inaugurate the festival.

Also read: A Report Card on the End Times Brought Upon Us by Hindutva

Anthropologist Martijin Van Beek, who has done research on Ladakh, writes that the general public in Leh is at best skeptical of the Sindhu Darshan Abhiyan. “In the early years, the event took place largely in isolation from the local society and economy, as Yatris were given accommodation and food by the army and spent hardly a single paisa locally,” he writes.

He also writes that expansion plans of the Sindhu Darshan are viewed with suspicion.

In 2006, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Leh rechristened the yatra as “Singhey Khababs”, keeping in view the local sentiments. However, the RSS and BJP were unhappy with the development and continued with their annual Sindhu Darshan Yatra.

The Sangh and BJP got a big boost in Ladakh in 2014 when it managed to win the lone Lok Sabha seat of the region.

In 2015, it also gained control of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh when it was sharing power with PDP in the erstwhile state of J&K.

With BJP in power both at the Centre as well as in J&K (Ladakh was part of J&K till October 30, 2019), the Singhey Khababs festival was suspended from 2016, giving a free hand to the SDYS headed by RSS leader Indresh Kumar to hold its yatra .

In 2019, senior RSS leader Indresh Kumar, who is founder and chief patron of the Sindhu Darshan Yatra Samiti, announced in Leh that the 25th Sindhu festival will be marked in a grand way, like the Kumbh Mela.

The poster for the Sindhu Mahakumbh was released by BJP president J.P. Nadda and minister of state for home G. Kishan Reddy in the presence of Samiti members in March this year.

A few BJP-ruled states have also incentivised the Sindhu Darshan Yatra by offering subsidies for those who go on the pilgrimage. The Uttar Pradesh government, for instance, is offering Rs 20,000 to Sindhis who participate. Haryana government is also providing financial assistance to a limited number of people undertaking the yatra.

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