Wednesday, August 03, 2005

the situation is tense but under control

'the situation is tense...'
'two communities have clashed in East Delhi...'

it was a long time since i'd heard the ominous cliche that serves as callous shorthand for the aftermath of a riot - 'the situation is tense, but under control'.

last night, while trying to catch the highlights of the india-sri lanka match, i heard it on one of the news channels -
a riot had broken out in east delhi, in trilokpuri, with clashes between kanwarias and people from a local mosque. the situation was tense, but under control, with heavy police deployment.

the indian express and HT did not report the incident this morning.

I grew up in sleepy small town on the outskirts of Delhi. The town was called
Gurgaon, not the steel-glass, futuristic, suburbia of today but a small town
where everyone knew everyone else and life was basically rural with
pretensions of urbanity owing to its proximity to the metropolis.
Entertainment consisted of taking a walk in the Sadar Bazaar or the Civil
Lines and for the well to do, a Sunday excursion to Connaught Place in the

We had a house on the road which came from Delhi and went to Jaipur and
beyond. In the months of July-august, or more accurately in the month of
Sawan, one would come across an exhausted villager, carrying a bamboo pole
with two pitchers of water on each end. The traveler would look extremely
exhausted, typically traveling bare feet, with huge ulcers on his feet. One
would watch this with curiosity and was told that these are people who,
because some wish of theirs had been fulfilled, are carrying the holy water
of Ganga from Haridwar to a Shiva temple, somewhere in Rajasthan. The
important thing was that the pitchers did not touch the ground till they
reach their destination and the water is offered to the Shiva Linga at the
temple. The travelers, called Kanwarias ( from the word Kanwar for the
pitcher) were watched with a mixture of awe and pity but no particular

A few weeks ago, I read in the newspapers that this year Haridwar is expecting
some 25 Lakh Kanwarias! Almost a mini-Kumbha Mela! For the last few years, I
have seen the numbers of Kanwarias increase hugely. Not only is their number
more, the character of the people, their appearance also seems to have
undergone a tremendous change. Now we find them, wearing walking shoes,
headbands with appropriate religious slogans, red T-shirts with pictures of
Shiva printed and various other accessories. The accessories, like the
reversing horns in some Maruti Cars which have a synthetic voice saying Jai
Mata Di, are of the kind which one typically finds when technology meets
small town India!

 for over a week now,  the newspapers i read have been increasingly apprehensive about the Kanwarias. This, for example, came out in Hindustan Times, July 20. The kanwarias, are seen as lumpen, disrutpive, prone to violence, and worst of all from a Delhi driver's point of view - they block traffic!  Observe this report from the Times of India, where murder seems like a lesser misdemeanour than causing traffic jams.

NEW DELHI: Stay away from the men in orange -- that seems to be the general sentiment about kanwarias while they are travelling through Delhi each year. And Sunday's incident of kanwarias murdering a man in Ghaziabad since they "thought" he had misbehaved with a woman of their clique, just reinforces the anxiety about them.

The venue of 'action' shifted to Delhi on Monday, when they stopped traffic at Peeragarhi in west Delhi for almost an hour. TimesCity traces the routes they take within the city and the problems that accompany them.

A senior police official said that the police take extra precautions while making arrangements since they have created trouble in the past -- there was a riot-like situation in Rajokri on NH-8 where they burnt cars after one kanwaria was hit by a car a few years ago. Roadblocks, especially on main roads are common. Even on Monday, kanwarias did not allow traffic to move at Peeragarhi in west Delhi for almost an hour. They also pelted stones at all the buses that crossed the area after one kanwaria was hit by a bus. He sustained minor injuries.

the rise of the hi-tech kanwaria, is an example of the communal mobilization through mass media technology that happened in india, early eighties onwards, that Peter Manuel wrote so eloquently about. The riot, the tense situation unreported, was sort of inevitable, then.
what shouldn't catch me by the surprise, but does, is the mainstream englsih media's sudden far and loathing of the kanwaria - those embarassing hicksters with their violent ways, who block the roads of a city trying so hard to be 'global'.
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