Tuesday, December 8, 2015

India’s festivals rich in social, political meaning

By: Danielle Keeton-Olsen
Produced & Edited by: Erica King 

Diwali was a family celebration for Amandeep Singh Gill. The software engineer would gather with his family at the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Shimla, Punjab. His family would spend hours at the temple, Gill said, reading psalms and lining the gurdwara walls with lights and candles. Then they would return home to burst firecrackers and share sweets.

No one in Gill’s family celebrated Diwali this November. All his relatives are Sikhs, and they stood with the religion’s supreme judiciary based at the holiest Sikh site, the Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple in Punjab. Sikh leaders requested that Sikhs worldwide not celebrate Diwali as a result of desecration of a Sikh central text and the killing of two Sikh protesters in police action.

“I would definitely say it’s a perfect decision,” Gill said. “You cannot celebrate anything if you’re not happy.”

India celebrates its many festivals with regale unparalleled any other country in the world, but the nation’s diverse population can attribute to some religious and political tensions.

 Spinning fireworks for Diwali celebration in India. | Photo Cred: Wikimedia

Gill said the decision from the Akal Takht, the Sikh supreme judiciary, to boycott Diwali had precedent. Members of the Sikh religion have received little support from the government, stemming back to a Sikh massacre that occurred in 1984.

“It’s been 30 years now, and we still haven’t got justice,” Gill said. “Thousands of people were made homeless, they were burned in fires. You know, still justice hasn’t been given, and on top of that, this is what they’re doing with us again all over,” he added.

Public celebration of festivals can draw attention to other rifts among different religions.

Abe Dube, an editor for The Chakra, an online news site that reports on Dharmic religions - Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism - said some politicians and public figures will use a religious festival to politicize conversation in a region.

Dube cited the celebration of Paryushan, or the Festival of Forgiving, is celebrated by Jains. Though banning the sale of meat in Mumbai had occurred regularly with the festival, it has recently become a point of contention in the state of Maharashtra.

“We just need to accept some of their practices and have respect for it,” Dube said. “If it requires a four-day ban, no one’s starving by not having meat for four days.”

Festivals, such as the Ganesh Festival celebrated in September, also have history of political influence in celebrations.

Puneiris people celebrate Ganesh. | Photo Cred: Wikimedia

Ganesh festival, which sees the biggest celebration in the city of Pune, started as a way to unite Hindus across castes through celebration of the god Ganesh, also known as Ganapati. Community organizations called Ganesh mandals spend all year preparing events for the festival.  

“The Ganesh mandals, they have a lot of money, and for the ten days, that is their time to flex their muscles,” Biswas said.

Because of their economic prowess, Ganesh mandals also have an influence in the political sphere. Corporators, or those who help take care of civic and infrastructure needs in the city, like to work with mandals in order to gain popularity with voters during election season, Biswas said.

Media consultant Dr. Dinesh Thite, who has worked for the Pune Mirror and has a Ph.D. in political science, conducted research on the political influences behind Ganesh Festival celebrations in Pune.

Though mandals and police have historically tried to shape the festival to fit their needs, Thite found they cannot fully control the festival because it is an organic and inclusive celebration.

“I think that the authorities should recognize their limitations and stop attempting interference in the celebration of festival so that it would improve in its own way,” Thite said.

Noise limits, street blocks and curfews have been used by law enforcement to attempt to curb celebrations in India.

"During Diwali and other major festivals in Jaipur, travel company Vedic Walks, offers walking tours throughout the festivities, visiting with local families to show tourists how to participate in the celebration as a Jaipur native would," said Anirudh Shukla, an employee of Vedic Walks.

Last year, Vedic Walks had worked with Jaipur police to coordinate tonga, a horse drawn carriage ride for their customers, but in the last minute police rerouted traffic routes and would not allow the scheduled tonga rides within Jaipur’s walls.

“It is really important for the law authority to also consider the tourism side of things that they do,” Shukla said. “There are a lot many people who come to cities like Jaipur, Varnasi...just for celebrating the festivals.”

Though Biswas said there is some increased crime activity, such as noise complaints and street harassment during Pune’s celebrations, Thite said serious clashes of differing ideological or religious groups are rare during the Ganapati celebrations.

“Police regulations and presence is overly precautionary,” Thite said in an email. “It is not necessary. Police and the authorities need to re look at their strategies to 'contain' the celebrations which is a 'law and order issue' for them.”

For the most part, festivals are a time for individuals in India to unite.

Mandals respond to help their communities in the face of natural disaster, such as the earthquake that struck Maharashtra in 1993, said Prasannakumar Keskar, a journalist based in Pune.

“Most of the Ganesh mandals, they rushed from Pune to the quake-affected area, and they dedicated themselves to that kind of work,” Keskar said.

Mandals also use the excess money they generate from the celebration to give back to the community, contributing to construction of carts for the city and staircases to Pune’s riverbanks, Keskar said.

In most situations, Dube said most Indians – Hindu, Muslim or otherwise – help the community like the mandals, or invite those of different religions to celebrate festivals alongside them.

“There was a lot of harmony in the past, and it’s still there today,” Dube said. “You just have a few bad apples here and there that just ruin it for everyone. We’re still very tight-knit, nobody hates anybody. We still have tensions, but we still live together.”


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