Catholics accuse Indian govt of double standards over Hindu festival

Naga Sadhus, or Hindu holy men participate in a procession to take a dip in the Ganges river during Shahi Snan at "Kumbh Mela", or the pitcher festival, amidst the spread of COVID-19, in Haridwar, India, April 14. (Photo by Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters via

Several Catholic Church leaders in India accused the government of double standards for allowing Hindus to hold traditional ceremonies this week even as strict measures are imposed on other religions.

“The government’s hypocrisy and double standards are very evident in this,” Father Anand Mathew of the Indian Missionary Society told the news site Crux, referring to this week’s Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism.

Hundreds of thousands of ash-smeared ascetics and devout Hindus jostled to take a dip in the Ganges during a religious festival on April 14, hoping to wash away their sins, as India reported another record surge in coronavirus infections.

Police said 650,000 devotees had bathed in the river since the morning of April 14 and people were being fined for failing to observe social distancing in some areas.

Infections in the city have already jumped to more than 500 a day since Kumbh Mela, or the pitcher festival, officially began this month, from just 25-30 last month. Hotels have become isolation shelters for those found infected by a team of 300 medical staff running 40,000 random tests daily.

“Imagine there is a single asymptomatic COVID case among the pilgrims. He or she would have infected many others around him,” said Father Mathew who is director of the Vishwa Jyoti Communications in Varanasi.

The Crux report said critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party said the festival has been allowed despite the pandemic because the government isn’t willing to anger Hindus, who are the party’s biggest supporters.

“Secularism in India meant not negation of religion, but equal and respectful treatment of all religions. Now these developments prove that we are no more secular. It’s a major concern for those of us who are struggling to protect the Constitution of India,” said Father Mathew.

Health experts had appealed for the festival to be canceled, but the government went ahead saying safety rules would be followed. There are concerns that pilgrims could get infected and then take the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.

Divine Word Missionary Father Babu Joseph, former spokesman for the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India, said to hold the Kumbh Mela “in this large scale” during a spike in coronavirus infections “is a gross neglect of civic responsibility.”

“It’s here that other religious communities have shown salutary examples of compliance with the state norms while celebrating their respective festivals,” he told Crux.

“It also seems to show either the state’s complicity or ineptness when it comes to handling of mob pressure,” added the priest. He said that when people are driven by excessive religious fervor “their reason usually gets clouded.”

“I am afraid something similar is happening at the Kumbh Mela where strong religious motif guide people’s behavior, all norms of safety and security are up in the air,” said Father Joseph.

Health officials on April 15 reported that many hospitals in the country were already scrambling for beds and oxygen as COVID-19 infections surged to a new daily record. -