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Huge gatherings at India's Hindu festival as virus surges

Devotees stand behind barricades as they wait for Naga Sadhu or Naked Hindu holy men to arrive for Shahi snan or a Royal bath during Kumbh mela, in Haridwar in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, on April 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Karma Sonam)

NEW DELHI (AP) -- Tens of thousands of Hindu devotees gathered by the Ganges River for special prayers Monday, many of them flouting social distancing practices as the coronavirus spreads in India with record speed.

    The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism. The faithful congregate in the northern city of Haridwar. Pilgrims take a dip in the waters of the Ganges, which they believe will absolve them of their sins and deliver them from the cycle of birth and death.

    The Kumbh Mela runs through April and comes during India's worst pandemic surge, with a seven-day rolling average of more than 130,000 cases per day. Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed with patients, and experts worry the worst is yet to come.

    Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival was allowed at a time when coronavirus cases are skyrocketing because the government wasn't willing to anger Hindus who are the party's biggest supporters.

    They compare the government's response to that of last year when Indian Muslims faced rising Islamophobia following accusations that an initial surge in infections was tied to a three-day meeting of an Islamic missionary group, the Tablighi Jamaat, in New Delhi.

    Some leaders from Modi's party and India's freewheeling TV channels, which have long favored government's Hindu nationalistic policies, labeled Muslims as "jihadis" and "super spreaders" in March 2020 when the seven-day rolling average of coronavirus cases in the country was not even 200 per day. The blame triggered a wave of violence, business boycotts and hate speech toward Muslims.

    India's 200 million Muslims account for 14% of the population and are the largest minority group in the Hindu-majority nation.

    More recently, the government has also received flak for carrying on huge election rallies where maskless people flout basic social distancing protocols.

    With its explosive surge in recent days, India's confirmed infections surpassed Brazil's total Monday as the second-worst hit country. Western Maharashtra state, home to financial capital Mumbai, has recorded nearly half of the country's new infections in the past two weeks.

    The northern state of Uttarakhand, home to the pilgrimage city of Haridwar, has reported 7,323 cases of coronavirus infection and 1,760 deaths from COVID-19.

    Amid concerns the festival could turn into a superspreader event, the state's chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, last week said "the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus."

    Authorities in Haridwar say the duration of the festival has been curtailed from previous years but have found it extremely difficult to implement social distancing measures due to the huge gatherings. Coronavirus tests are mandatory for those entering the area.

    "We are continuously appealing to people to follow COVID-19 appropriate behavior. But due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible," senior police officer Sanjay Gunjyal said.

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