The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Coping without a single mishap with the milling crowds of pilgrims that congregate at holy spots on auspicious days is not an enviable task. But it would be an unfair exaggeration to say that the administrations of various states do not try no one, apart from terrorists, wants deaths of pilgrims on their conscience. Yet deaths occur too many times for comfort, whether it is the holy dip at the Kumbh mela, or the Ganga Sagar mela, accidents on the way to pilgrim spots in the mountains, or fires and stampedes close to the camps and the holy rivers the average death toll by unnatural causes on holy occasions is still tragically high. Terrorists have taken their pick too, especially of travelling pilgrims; sadly enough, after some of the most difficult routes have been partially tamed by the administration. But stampedes and deaths continue to happen, as in Ram Kund, Nashik, close to the Godavari, one of the spots for the shahi snan during purna kumbh. Obviously, the administration slipped up somewhere. Either it was a failure of the imagination the inability to gauge exactly how many hundreds and thousands the police would have to deal with or a technical failure the barriers were too fragile or a professional one inability to guide, monitor and control the swelling crowds. These are related failures, and with the kind of experience of crowds that the police in India have, this is not quite excusable.

At the same time, it is remarkable that the desire to be free of sin drives more and more hopefuls to pilgrimage spots on every occasion: death seems to become a purificatory ritual in itself instead of a deterrent. There is something peculiarly morbid in the fact that after the terrible incident in Nashik the police cleared the place up very fast people went on with their holy dips, intent on their personal salvations. Faith is certainly a right, but it is frightening to see what deprivation and the lack of education can make of faith. There is a certain desperation, a submerged irrational violence, in the fact of belief, that breaks out in actual bloodshed and inhuman cruelty in times of sectarian conflict. The sense of the holy is dangerously mixed up: part of the trouble may have been initiated by the rush of people towards the silver coins and sweets reportedly being scattered by sadhus who had had their bath in the kund first. It is essential for any administration or police force posted at a pilgrimage spot to take this aspect into consideration when making their arrangements. To make plans based on the predictable always turns out to be the biggest mistake. And the crowds will always get bigger.

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