Every year, the kanwariyas make headlines. For holding up traffic. For being violent. For attacking other road-users. But for every news report of hooliganism and mob violence, there are others of modern-day Shravan Kumars, dutiful sons carrying their parents on their shoulders or of 70-year-old matriarchs making the ardous journey.
The aim of the kanwariya is to carry the holy water of the Ganges to a Shiv temple - it may be the one in his village or town or it may be at a place of religious importance. The rigours of the journey - he has to accomplish his objective on foot; and the rules that the ritual demands - the kanwar or water receptacle, once it is filled with the holy water cannot be rested on the ground; make his pilgrimage all that more difficult. His focus is on ensuring that the kanwar reaches its destination without any 'contamination'. The self-importance he gains because of his task makes everyone else less important. So a car or other road-user becomes an obstacle in his bigger objective. He is already tired from walking and lack of sleep, in pain from blisters and possibly high on the prasad of Bhola.
There is a big gap between how the public perceives the kanwariyas and how they see themselves. Are they saffron clad goons? Are they being misjudged because of a few bad elements? Or are they just simple Shiv bhakts expressing their love for Bholenath, misjudged because of a few bad elements?
Vikash Singh, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Montclair State University, USA, originally from Uttar Pradesh, was also intrigued by such questions. He had seen the growth of the kanwariyas. From a few to crores now. To find answers to the mystery of who is the kanwariya, he decided to join them. He accompanied them on their pilgrimage and observed them up close. The result was a book titled "Uprising of Fools: Pilgrimage as Moral Protest in Contemporary India".
In an interview with Gaon Connection, he shares his views on what makes the kanwariya so aggressive:
Gaon Connection: Who are the Kanwariyas? What is their demographic background?
Vikash Singh: The kanwaria demographic is no different from the north Indian "Hindu" demographic - except in a few regards: 1) There are many more men than there are women; 2) the youth outnumber the middle-aged, and obviously the elderly; 3) there is an under-representation of the educated urban middle class.
So, the bulk of this population is the rural or urban youth, mostly of a working class, relatively impoverished background. Most people are on the fringes of the economy lacking economic and social uncertainty, and insofar as they are young, also a sort of existential uncertainty. It is a pretty anomic state of affairs for these people.
GC: Over the years, their number has increased and so has their aggression. To what do you attribute this aggression.
VS: Well, aggression I think is a pretty normal human characteristic. In this case, I see it as a normal defense mechanism of an ego under assault by an aggravating and inhospitable social environment and life prospects. Ressentiment is a part of it, and also simply the duress of life - the debilitating ordeal of meeting the most basic desires and expectations. Life is hard in these social conditions that provoke and indulge our desires and expectations but provide few avenues to satisfy those desires. Add to this, the lack of discourses and inter-personal relationships to recognize these frustrations. Aggression, I see as a desperate push back of an ego that gets no rightful purchase in "reality".
GC: They are on a "holy mission" so why are they so angry?
VS: Interesting. The mission is "holy" because Siva, Ganges, and the trope of pilgrimage are holy. But it is also "holy" insofar as for most of them their expectations, or sufferings are also pure, untainted, and perhaps desperate. But the "holy" (pure and untainted) can be terrifying - like Siva or the Judaeo-Christian God.
Insofar as it is set apart as the best part of the self or of existence - it is not to be messed with, must not be treated lightly or contaminated. See, the sadhus, they can be very angry too.
I don't see holiness as being necessarily gentle. In Christianity, for example, it is Christ who brings the sufferings of the carnal world and expectations of gentleness to the concept of "God." Our understanding of the "holy," may be partly an influence of the Christian times that we live in. I don't see a contradiction there.
GC: How do they see themselves - in an environment where everyone views them as anything ranging from irritants to goons, who are they in their eyes?
VS: Of course, it is hard to speak in generalities for such a multitude. They are "bholas" - innocent, gullible, generous if poor, much like Siva. They are also the ignored whom the world does not understand. But remember, most of the people are there for very personal reasons related to the health, financial crises, unemployment, or the dreams/desires, often as part of their obligations to their loved ones. They have walked for days, with much hardship, carrying the jal which is as pure as their intentions are noble. Only a kanwaria can empathize with the ordeal of another kanwaria, a solidarity, which is only intensified, made more urgent by its temporary character.
GC: And finally, did you also experience any of the aggression or violence when you were researching y our book?
VS: I did not see any "violence" in my journeys. But of course, it is covered in the media and hence informed my research. Aggressivity as such, as I said, I don't see it as a deviant characteristic. One may say, it is precisely the aggression of social conditions, which can only be reflected in the ego and its defenses, which they are trying to sublimate through this religious ordeal.