The Indian government is cracking down on harrowing news about the country’s COVID catastrophe, demanding that Facebook and Twitter delete posts about oxygen shortages, underestimated casualties, and infrastructure collapse. Nonetheless, independent journalists are managing to report something extraordinary about how Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has approached the crisis that now light up major cities with mass cremations, and that may claim as many as 1.2 million lives by August. They are reporting that astrologers have influenced crucial aspects of COVID policy.
In a stunning display of institutionalized conspirituality, Modi’s Hindu Nationalist government ignored the pleas of epidemiologists and public health officials, deferring to the advice of clerics and astrologers who insisted that the largest religious gathering in the world, the “Kumbh Mela”, scheduled for the spring of 2022, be moved up to 2021. The schedule change was first proposed in June of 2019, but was reaffirmed throughout 2020, even as the pandemic surged. Officials kept the new date, as Shuddhabrata Sengupta wrote in The Wire, “knowing fully the dangers of the pandemic — because some astrological mumbo-jumbo told them that this was desirable.”
The festival, which draws millions of pilgrims, took place over March and April in the city of Haridwar, Uttarakhand, where the sacred Ganges river descends from the Himalayas. After the festival ended, a region 1000 km south of Haridwar reported a 99% infection rate amongst the returning pilgrims.
Reporting in The Caravan, Srishti Jaswal quoted several unnamed senior BJP officials suggesting that in addition to appeasing the heavens, the party had also insisted on staging the gathering that expected up to three million visitors during the pandemic for political and economic reasons. By-elections are approaching, and BJP officials feared that disrupting the lucrative gathering would threaten the party’s hold on Uttarakhand. When they fired the Chief Minister over his request that the festival be limited or performed symbolically in light of pandemic dangers, they replaced him. While touring the Haridwar preparations in…