My Monday MidDay column.
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Column in Tehelka (subscription required, thus appended below).
Diary from a troubled district
The road to Ahwa gets worse as we get closer to the little town. We can tell as much by the light of a full Sankrant moon, playing peekaboo as we wind through the hills; brilliant burnt orange when we first see it low on the horizon, gleaming silver high into the sky as the night wears on.
Though really, I don't need the moon to tell me how bad the road is. The bumps suffice.
On the right along one stretch, there's nothing between us and the dull gleam of a river. But wait, what are those flickers of orange just beyond the road's edge? Small fires. We've seen plenty of those, clumps of people huddled around them warding off the January Dangs chill. But here the fires seem ... well, constricted. These are fires inside small shacks.
These are labourers working on the road, living beside it for the duration, as migrant labour does. Labourers, come "home" for the night. Shacks like these, all over the Dangs.
So what's cooking here? The Shabari Kumbh Mela, 500,000 pilgrims expected. Roads are being improved, but there's more. Long tracts of empty fields have sprouted poles, by the thousands, for tents to house pilgrims. Troughs have been dug and lined with multicoloured toilets. Large plastic water tanks stand on concrete platforms. Electricity is making its way all over the district. The Purna river has had 22 -- correct, twenty-two -- check dams built on it to form Pampasarovar, where pilgrims will bathe.
All this, because for years, tribals in the Dangs have quietly venerated a spot on top of a hill near dusty Subir. Kumbh organizers say this is where Shabari sat Ram and Lakshman while she fed them berries. So they are building a temple here, and decided to hold this celebration.
February 11, 12, 13: likely the most crowded and colourful days the Dangs will ever see.
Yet if faith is to be served, if pilgrims are to find spiritual fulfillment in the gentle waters of man-made Pampasarovar -- why the things you hear about the event?
For example, a RSS activist at the Mela office, Mahesh Daga, told Tehelka (October 15 2005) that "the main objective [of the Mela] is to put a full stop to conversion of tribals."
For example, the Mela's website, shabarikumbh.org, has a section titled "About Kumbh." The second paragraph there is a denunciation of the Christian church. (Yes, the second paragraph). Reading further, you learn that the slogan "Hindu jagao, Christi bhagao" has become "popular" in the Dangs. You learn that Swami Aseemananda, one of the moving spirits behind the Mela, told Christians here, "I have come here to drive away those who have come here to serve."
What does such hostility have to do with a tender story from a great epic?
"About Kumbh" has more of interest. "Organizing a kumbh in a remote, heavily forested area is a nightmare," it says.
"The 352 villages in Dang district had no electricity or roads ... There are
no medical facilities or eateries in the vicinity. ... Realizing the importance of
[the Kumbh] the state government of Shri Narendra Modi has extended full
cooperation [and] has undertaken construction of roads on a war footing. All the
352 villages of Dang have got electrification."
Good. But consider: if the state government has done so much just since the idea for the Kumbh, why was the Dangs deprived before? After all, Narendra Modi has been in power several years. Why did it need a Kumbh Mela for his government to bring electricity here, to construct roads "on a war footing"?
The irony goes deeper. We drove between the Navsari border and Ahwa one night, then between Pampasarovar itself and Ahwa the next night. If you discount Ahwa, the number of electric lights we saw could be numbered on two hands. Oh, but plenty of village homes were lit by fires and oil lamps. Some families used to have electricity and meters but could not pay their bills. Why? One farmer told us that bills only came once in two years, thus for large amounts like Rs 12,000. Unable to pay such sums -- though they could have managed smaller monthly bills -- their meters and supply were taken away.
So I have no idea what shabarikumbh.org means by saying all 352 villages have been electrified.
What is electrified, of course, is the temple. Sited on top of a hill with a magnificent view of forested slopes, the Shabari Dham temple promises to be a spectacular tribute to a charming story. Yet here too, hostility. To one side is a large concrete water tank, with this inscription: "Dharmantran aur jehad ke vichaar ko vishwa se nirmool karenge." ("We will remove conversions and the jehadi mentality from this world").
And later, as we drive past dark villages like Mukhammal and Jarsol where meters were installed then ripped out, we can see brightness on that hill. Yes, the not-yet-finished temple has lights at night. The villages don't. Welcome to the Kumbh Mela.