[WSMDiscuss] What Happens When Faith Overrides Sense - subhash gatade

Subhash Gatade subhash.gatade at gmail.com
Wed Apr 21 13:52:28 CEST 2021

What Happens When Faith Overrides Sense
The severity of the second wave and the government’s unpreparedness
demonstrate the limits of ‘strong’ leadership and religion-based politics.-
subhash gatade (

It was 1527, and Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote
a letter advising a Lutheran leader what a believer should do during an
epidemic. Europe was in the deadly grip of the bubonic plague at the time.
It had killed thousands of people.

Extracts of his letter are relevant even today, especially the parts where
Luther talks about what to do during an epidemic: “*...Then I shall
fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall
avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to
become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so
cause their death as a result of my negligence."*

Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, perhaps does not
know of this letter or its contents. Surprisingly, he does not even seem to
recall the experiences from last year. In fact, much of what happened
during the Covid epidemic seems lost on him. In 2020, public places of
worship and religious gatherings became super-spreaders of the virus. That
is why, for the first time, religious congregations were banned everywhere
from Mecca to the Vatican to arrest the spread of the pandemic.

So, it is strange that Rawat cannot recall how believers took the back seat
and ceded space to science during the first wave. Indeed, he has made a
specious claim that faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus, in
the context of the Kumbh Mela, a gathering where tens of lakhs of people
gathered earlier this month.

Rawat revised his predecessor’s judgement when he decided to hold this mass
gathering at Haridwar in Uttarakhand, the state whose people he is
responsible for. Full-page advertisements appeared in major national
newspapers inviting devotees to join this programme even as the brutal
second wave of the Novel Coronavirus had started sweeping across the

The Kumbh Mela is usually covered extensively by the international media
for how unique it is. This year, it hogged the headlines for bringing down
the creaking health systems of the state and country several notches.

Covid-infections have skyrocketed around the Kumbh Mela. Scores of sadhus
are infected. The chief of the prominent Niranjani Akhara has died due to
Covid-related complications. It is a new hotspot for the disease.

But the Kumbh Mela is still on and will continue until 30 April. The region
is still teeming with lakhs of pilgrims and sadhus. There are videos and
photographs of the crowds gathered by the banks of the Ganga, virtually all
of them showing scant regard for Covid-appropriate behaviour, seemingly
unmindful of the surge in infections.

Yet as we know, this is not the end of the story. The pilgrims and sadhus
will go home from the Kumbh Mela, spreading the virus near and far. The
Mela could send the already deteriorating Covid situation across the
country into a downward spiral

Recall “Patient 31” from South Korea? Last year, the country went from a
few Covid-19 cases to thousands of infections. The source was one infected
had joined a large gathering of his fringe church during the outbreak.

Would the Chief Minister of an Indian state ever accept responsibility for
contributing to turning Haridwar into a new Covid hotspot? Would he ever be
questioned or reprimanded for his irresponsible behaviour? He upturned the
plans of his predecessor--who belongs to the same political formation as
he--to organise the Kumbh Mela as always. Rawat rejected the words of
caution from a section of bureaucrats, who warned that a massive gathering
could become a super-spreader event.

Perhaps those who are responsible—and many others—know there will be no
consequences. In 2016, the government suddenly announced that banknotes of
Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 denominations would no longer be valid. Nothing
happened despite the havoc this caused. There was no soul-searching even
after scores died, some in queues to exchange old currency.

Similarly, a national lockdown was announced last year with barely any
notice, supposedly to eliminate the virus. However, it is now starkly clear
there was no long-term plan. Again, the government did not consult any
state or stakeholder. The burden of the lockdown fell heavily on the
shoulders of ordinary people. Maybe self-appraisal is not part of the
repertoire of Sangh pracharaks.

A well-known editor recently raised new questions
<https://www.theindiacable.com/p/the-india-cable-from-gujarat-to-up> about
the way India is dealing with the pandemic. He said the National Disaster
Management Act, (which makes it a criminal offence to circulate a false
alarm about a disaster or its severity which could lead to panic) is silent
about the “culpability of those who give the public false assurances about
the severity of a disaster, leading to complacency”.

Many journalists and writers were censured last year for raising questions
about the government’s handling of the pandemic. However, if the disaster
management law was explicit about criminalising false assurances, then many
others—even those up the pecking order—would have invited charges upon

Yes, the Kumbh Mela metamorphosised into a Covid hotspot, but it was not
alone. For example, a small village in the Kurnool district of Andhra
Pradesh engaged in a traditional celebration of Ugadi, involving people
throwing cow dung cakes
each other. The teams engaged in the festivities violated all norms
physical distancing and wearing masks during the event.

The authorities could have persuaded them to cancel the programme this year
to save themselves and others, but apparently did not. There are multiple
instances like it, of administrative laxity—maybe the officers did not want
to “hurt sentiments” or they were just cavalier—breaking down
Covid-appropriate behaviour.

However, the Kumbh Mela is not a sudden festivity, nor is it a sudden blip
on the religious calendar that goes as quickly as it comes. No, Kumbh
involves months of planning. Lakhs are expected to attend it-. Unless the
public event is cancelled or the planning for it is drastically changed, it
is impossible to execute it without complete government support and
cooperation. This does set Kumbh Mela—a gigantic affair as a norm—apart
from other, perhaps much more localised, functions.

Now the BJP seems to have realised that neither “Maa Ganga” nor faith will
save it from the scourge of Covid-19. So, the leadership have made a
delayed U-turn. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now said that attendance
at the Kumbh Mela should be “symbolic”. No doubt this is a hard-earned
realisation, for it has already become a viral hotspot.

If the BJP leaders were not focused on just winning a handful of Assembly
elections, and had cared about the lives of ordinary people—including the
lives of Hindus—it could have ensured a “symbolic” Kumbh Mela from the
get-go. The idea of winning elections and forming governments at any cost
seems so deeply ingrained in the party that it feels it can cover up all
its governance failures. Their logic goes like this: ‘Our victory in
elections is proof that we are popular and enjoy public support.’

The latest figures tell us that there is an alarming surge in cases in
India. Every day brings a new spike in cases. The Covid tally is now 1.53
crore <https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/india/> cases, and
over 1.8 lakh have died. Countries are warning their people against
India. We have, again, the second-highest number of cases in the world, and
the fourth-highest deaths. There are not enough life-saving medicines nor
vaccine stocks. Hospital beds are running painfully short and patients are
being forced to share beds. Therapeutic oxygen
also in short supply.

The government had more than a year to prepare, but it has badly mismanaged
its affairs. Would it be correct to say that people are not dying of Covid
but systemic apathy and callousness?

Remember the days when BJP leaders had declared victory against Covid-19
and hailed Modi for it? A resolution was passed by the BJP in February
which said, obviously with pride, that India has defeated Covid under
the “able,
sensitive, committed and visionary leadership
of Modi.

In the Davos Dialogue of the World Economic Forum held on 28 January, the
Prime Minister said
India has “not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the

Now that it is on the back foot again, having failed at denial,
obfuscation, and disregard of the crisis, BJP leaders and the party have gone
The severity of the second wave and the government’s unpreparedness has
demonstrated the limits of a “strong and decisive” leadership. So, can a
politics that is based on faith lead you so far and no further?

Can faith help secure electoral victories even in a multi-faith country if
a party smartly deploys people against one another? Perhaps faith does tend
to override other priorities, but only in the short run. It cannot prepare
a plan of action for the future. That is what we learnt from the
experiences of the last year, and now we are learning this again from the
disastrous second wave.
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