I know of a young man, about 18, who lives in a village near Sohna in Haryana. This bright young man, Ahir (Yadav) by caste, studied reasonably well until high school and then inexplicably dropped out. He began demanding money from his parents, flitting in and out of employment and every now and then turning hostile, even inflicting violence on his own family members. Last weekend, he turned up at home after many days of living away with relatives, and made demands for money to join his friends for the kaawad yatra (a pilgrimage to bring the waters of the Ganges river from Haridwar back home, held in the holy month of Saawan during the rainy season). The demand was in essence a tantrum. All his friends were going and he wanted to go too. The family, who had no extra money to finance the travel and the paraphernalia that goes with being a yatri (they get new clothes and gifts when they return etc), refused flatly. The young man sulked a bit, then left home again.
I read this anecdote in several different ways, and I will try in this post to offer some insights from my interactions I have had with young Haryanvi (usually Yadav) men over the last few years. My attempt is to nuance the conversation around the kaawad yatra, which is being perceived by one side as a right to religious practice deserving of state protection, and as a form of hooliganism and toxic masculinity by the other. Like many other things, in reality it is a cocktail mix of social, economic and religious realities and perception, spiced by the politics of communalism and hatred.
My protagonist’s story is one of growing up and coming of age in an environment of (what he likely perceives as) multiple deprivations: the disadvantages of poor quality schooling and the lack of skills that would land him urban jobs, the lack of quality employment in or near his village, the absence of cash that would buy him good clothes and a smart phone and therefore some respectability and popularity, the expectation of his family that he brings in a steady income and ultimately, their refusal to indulge him when he demands money for a leisure activity.
The yatra as permissible leisure……
Many young men I have spoken to in Gurgaon district have told me that they see the kaawad yatra as a form of leisure. The garb of religion helps them justify to their families not just the expenses, but also the possible loss of income by their absence from work. They articulate the yatra by using words and phrases like azadi (freedom), gaanv aur parivar ka garv (pride for the village and family) yaaron doston ke saath masti (fun with friends). Of course, they also articulate the religious significance of the yatra, but in terms of what it brings to the family in terms of status in the community. “Pitaji khush ho jaayenge, bhai ko bola tha jaane ko par wo nahi jaa paaya to mein jaaonga (My father will be happy. He had asked my brother to go, but he could not, so I am going)”, narrated the young man who delivers pooja flowers in our building block.
….against the backdrop of the controlling, patriarchal household
Most of these young men I spoke to have very little autonomy. They are expected to contribute labour and income to the household kitty, while remaining subservient to fathers and uncles who have a tight fist on money and resources. This is true even of those who are married, and early marriage is common. Additionally, they are caught amidst conflicts between their wives and mothers, and the battle between individual desire and household diktat is never-ending. Agricultural activity and land holdings have dwindled significantly and with it, the logic of land inheritance that upheld the deep patriarchy in this region, should perhaps be called into question. Yet, ironically, patriarchal rules tighten their noose not just around women, as expressed in several misogynist practices (like female infanticide, male child preference, dowry, restrictions on dressing and mobility, etc) but also on young men, who are expected to exhibit masculine behaviour while being totally controlled by older male members. Only those who excel academically and break through into private sector formal sector employment and others who get into government jobs make it out of this predicament, somewhat.
The yatra as higher purpose…
These are deeply religious people and religion shapes the celebration of festivals; rituals around birth, death and marriage; fasting on certain days especially by women, all of course marked by patriarchal logic and rules. Increasingly, they are also involved in ‘social’ activities in the name of religion and the protection of family honour, especially the honour of women. So they would be vigilant about inter-caste and inter-religious liaisons in the community. Not surprisingly, cow protection, previously a passive principle of life in the Yadav belt, is now more like a crusade, especially in the Mewat belt where accusations of cow-smuggling have been routinely leveled against Muslims as a way to stir Hindu, and specifically Yadav, passions.
I read the kaawad yatra as part of this crusade-like social practice, serving a purpose higher than the religious one. The possibility of organized funding fueling the scaling up of kawad activities is very real. The people I spoke to told me about money collection drives in their village communities and large contributions by “bade aadmi” (powerful individuals). They spoke about the yatra like one would talk about a sports contest between village teams, and evoked the pride of the community. They took Hindu pride very much for granted, as something obvious; they made no reference to any form of ‘other’.
….and who will deny them that?
The outrage being expressed by urban folks raises questions of law and order. Why are kaawad yatris getting state protection even when they break the law? Who is responsible when they create public nuisance and who will compensate for destruction of public property?
But it is clear enough that in today’s times, law and order are subservient to majoritarian interests. The state and its law enforcement agencies are far more afraid of a public riot that will break out if a kaawadiya gets hurt; in comparison, the predicament of a non- yatri is not a real problem, for that is hardly likely to bring people to the streets.
Being angry about public nuisance is entirely justifiable, but the solutions are not going to come easy. Be prepared in the coming times for many more such tableau. See them for what they are: loud, unapologetic claims to public space and attention by an under-employed, under-appreciated and infantilized youth that are being fed toxic doses of religion and masculinity.
Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra
For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.
For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.
This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was driving and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”
A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power
The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!
The farcical liberalism of the urban elite
On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.
Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned
It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!
We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?
Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.