Religion Gone Wrong: What Violent Kanwariyas Say About India’s Youth

Social Commentary

Religion Gone Wrong: What Violent Kanwariyas Say About India’s Youth

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Back in 2012, during the month of July a large group of devout Hindus entered Bareilly on the back of trucks, bikes, and jeeps spewing loud music and chaos into the lives of the locals. In the communal clashes that followed, three people lost their lives. Five years later, in 2017, Bareilly was again under lockdown, this time for other incidents of violence and FIRs were filed against nearly 250 people. This year, many locals – most of them Muslim – have fled their villages fearing implication in violence that has now become as normalised as the sight of the saffron-clad Kanwariya causing it.

Not too long ago, the Kanwar Yatra was a peaceful profession of a few thousand devotees who passed through cities through pre-planned routes, like Jhandewalan in Delhi. They caused the odd traffic jam, but largely kept to themselves. This peaceful march has now turned into a mammoth exhibition of wild and aggressive religiosity. More than 20 million men now make the Kanwar Yatra through the Gangetic plains of North India during the month of Sawan. Trucks and “shivirs” every couple hundred metres along the route in Delhi, meant to provide refreshment and rest, blare loud music and feature spontaneous dances.

All of which would have been fine, had the “religious sentiment” not turned into a showcase of untamed machismo and brazen lawlessness over the years. To my mind, it now seems an exhibition of how hordes of young, restless Indian minds are just ripe for misuse.

Kanwariyas are Shiva bhakts, and the yatra they undertake in the month of Sawan, attempts to carry the water of the Ganga to various local shrines of Shiva in Northern India. The simple principle at heart of the exercise is that the water must remain in motion. Back in the 60s and the 70s when the yatra was undertaken by a few devotees and saints, it took place on foot, as it has always meant to be. Today it is more of a road-show, a hyper-masculine set-piece of macabre youthfulness. The average age of the Kanwariyas has decreased with each passing year, while the number of participants has increased, pointing to the simple fact that more and more young men are either available or attracted to this cycle of oppressive excess.

It is difficult to reconcile this cocktail of drugs, violence, and virulent masculinity with a spiritual pursuit.

Two days ago, at the Noida City Centre junction, I witnessed a group of bikers roar past slow-moving traffic, waving lathis and hooting and jeering. Up ahead, a lorry equipped with the loudest speakers played what can only be classified as noise. Most vehicles kept their distance and let the procession pass them. Even in that ruckus, there was something unmistakably synchronised about the moment. Not because it happened out of order – it happened out of fear, the kind that chaotic swirls in the ocean cause in the heart of those whose boats are closest.

It was very far from a religious yatra; hell, it wasn’t even peaceful. It was an anarchic, dangerous spectacle to behold. Days later, as reports emerge of multiple incidents of violence and hooliganism by the Kanwariyas, the tension they inspired made even more sense than before.

On Tuesday, a bunch of these supposedly spiritually inclined young men went on rampage. In the capital’s busy Moti Nagar area, a car – steered by a woman driver – reportedly brushed past one. A war of words was not enough, when the men decided to strike the car with sticks. The whole incident snowballed, leading to news channels and social media outlets replaying footage of the car being overturned by the angry mob. The accused who led the charge has now been arrested, and is reportedly a drug addict with a history of stealing.

It is difficult to reconcile this cocktail of drugs, violence, and virulent masculinity with a spiritual pursuit. I wonder if the average Kanwariya isn’t as devout as he is probably addicted to the spectacle of the yatra, as much as the average Indian kid is attracted to the spectacle of many of our religious festivals like Diwali and Holi.

But the rate at which the yatra morphs into serious violence, consistently choking the streets it passes through, there seems to be an air of statement about it rather than celebration or devotion. Are Kanwariyas the foot-soldiers of a religious sacrament, or has their restlessness simply been manipulated? What “sentiment” condones such morbid adolescence, the fear it generates, and the lives it imperils? Probably the kind that has its devotees jailed through the same faith that promises them some form of redemption.

I know it is easy to dismiss this opposition to a religious spectacle as classic liberal illiberalism. But it is also necessary for us to draw distinctions between a minor infrastructural nuisance – like a traffic snarl – and outright hazard, as the woman driver in Moti Nagar learnt.   

For a month, the Kanwariyas probably feel embattled and empowered all the same. One can’t help but assume that a bulk of these are youngsters without jobs, education, prospects, and direction – which makes them vulnerable to an increasingly ghoulish display of religiosity. Vulnerable to chasing an elusive high of power that an unchecked parade of aggression allows them. Most of them likely return to lives of listlessness, conned momentarily by the intoxication of unrestrained power and entitlement.

In a letter to his younger brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.” In contrast, the Kanwariyas have in recent years resorted to painting our streets and neighbourhoods – with the colour of dread and impending violence. I hope these young men find at least a sliver of the purpose these pilgrimages are meant for.