New Delhi, India – Participating in the Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, a major Hindu pilgrimage in India, was a matter of devotion for 36-year-old Neetesh Dubey.
A government teacher by profession, he travelled from central India’s Gyaraspur town in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district to Haridwar in the north in the second week of April to take part in the weeks-long festival held along the banks of the Ganges River.
When Dubey arrived at the Kumbh, he developed a sore throat and chills which he mistook for flu. On April 17, Dubey and five of his friends boarded a train back to Gyaraspur.
But Dubey’s health continued to deteriorate. A day later, he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
As a second wave of the coronavirus began in India in early April, millions of Hindus congregated at Haridwar, a Himalayan city in Uttarakhand state, to take a holy dip in the Ganges.
When the devotees returned home in crowded buses and trains, they spread the infection in villages and towns, prompting officials in some states to track and quarantine them.
But many did not turn up for coronavirus tests, despite officials making public announcements urging devotees to report and be screened.
Several infections and deaths
An official in Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal told Al Jazeera that 83 people from Gyaraspur and adjoining villages had gone for Kumbh and only 61 turned up for the tests while the remaining allegedly went into hiding.
Sixty out of 61 tested positive for the virus, he said, requesting anonymity. “After a hectic drive to trace the missing, the remaining 22 people were also tested and sent for quarantine.”
The results from Gyaraspur sent alarm bells ringing in the central Indian state as health officials felt that if positive cases were left untraced, they could turn into “super-spreaders” of the virus.
Many prominent figures including former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state Akhilesh Yadav, Nepal’s former King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and Queen Komal Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah, and Bollywood composer Shravan Rathod tested positive after they attended the Kumbh.
Rathod died on April 22 in Mumbai.
The virus also killed at least nine Hindu seers who participated in the festival, including Swami Shyam Devacharya Maharaj in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur town on April 16 and Mahant Vimal Giri in Uttarakhand last week.
Ramsakhi Dixit, 37, a resident of Gulabganj town in Vidisha, said he developed COVID symptoms on his return from the Kumbh and tested positive the next day.
“There were 80 people in the group travelling in two buses. Among the 40 travelling in our bus, only about 20 people opted for tests and 12 tested positive,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone. Three other family members who accompanied Dixit also tested positive for the virus.
Rajesh Rajora, a top official in the Madhya Pradesh administration, told reporters last week that Kumbh returnees accounted for 12-15 percent of cases across all districts in the state. In some districts, they accounted for as many as 20 percent of the cases, he said.
Coronavirus cases linked to the Kumbh Mela have also been reported from other Indian states, including Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha.
Uttarakhand itself registered 806 deaths a week after the festival ended, while its number of COVID-19 cases doubled in April.
“Many people who went to Kumbh from districts of western Odisha – Sambalpur, Nuapada and Balangir – spread the virus as they travelled in public buses and trains. They brought the virus to the remotest of villages in India,” Rabi Das, a social activist based in Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, told Al Jazeera.
“The authorities did not take steps to trace and identify them. They mixed with people.”
Sambalpur recorded about 200 cases a day for most of April. But from April 28, it showed a sudden spike in infections, peaking at 641 on Sunday.
‘They invited this calamity’
An investigation by India’s Caravan magazine last week said Uttarakhand’s former chief minister, Trivendra Singh Rawat, was removed from his office weeks before the Hindu festival because he had called for a restricted Kumbh gathering due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rawat dismissed the report, saying his removal was not linked to the the festival.
The state government under a new chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, ran front-page advertisements in newspapers across India, showing a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi inviting Hindu devotees to the festival.
Amid concerns the festival could turn into a super-spreader event, Rawat said: “The faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”
But as cases and deaths traced to the Kumbh mounted, Modi’s government balked at calling off the festival.
It was only on the 17th day of the month-long event, when tens of thousands had already bathed in the Ganges, that he requested the devotees to keep the festival “symbolic”.
Political observers say the Modi government’s reluctance to cancel the festival was part of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindu majoritarian politics, which included appeasing the community’s religious leaders and winning its support ahead of regional elections in Uttarakhand and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh states next year.
“This was part of majoritarian politics without caring for the lives of people. I think they allowed this festival because they had 2022 [Uttar Pradesh] elections in mind,” Apoovanand, who teaches at Delhi University, told Al Jazeera.
“The Modi government is celebrating these Hindu festivals as state festivals. They invited this calamity.”