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Hindu Festival’s Supporters In India Cheer Easing Of Safety Rules

By Parth M.N. and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

MUMBAI, India — India’s highest court on Thursday relaxed safety measures intended to prevent injuries during a beloved religious festival that involves children clambering to the tops of human pyramids and breaking ceremonial pots.

The Indian Supreme Court’s ruling came less than a week before the daylong festival of Janmashtami, which overtakes Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, every August.

The celebration marks the birth of the Hindu god Krishna, who is portrayed in religious epics as an impish kid who formed human pyramids with his friends to steal butter and curd kept in pots hanging from the ceilings of homes. In the modern tradition, men practice for weeks to form pyramids as tall as 40 feet, sending children climbing up to reach the pots.

Every year, there are cases of severe and sometimes fatal injuries. Earlier this week, after a 14-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man died while practicing for the festival, a Mumbai court intervened for the first time, prohibiting the hanging of pots above 20 feet and barring the involvement of people younger than 18.

The new rules prompted an outcry among the participants — known as “govindas” — who said the change undermined a popular Hindu tradition. Responding to an appeal, the Supreme Court on Thursday issued an interim order removing the height ban and said children older than 12 could participate in this year’s festival, to be held Monday, while reserving a final decision for a later date.

“I am relieved. What is the fun of the whole event if the pot is hanged at an unchallenging height?” said Santosh Jogle, a 36-year-old grocer who has been a govinda for two decades.

“And what is 100 percent safe in life?” he added. “Nothing.”

Others said the ban on young children was impractical and even dangerous, as it meant that older and heavier govindas would need to scale the pyramids, placing those below at greater risk of injury.

“An 18-year-old would weigh at least 50 kilos,” or 110 pounds, said Anil Pawar, a 30-year-old electrician who has participated for the last five years. “It would make it more difficult to balance the whole act if he is at the top. The age limit of 12 is fine.”

Children’s activists argue the once innocent practice is increasingly commercialized and dangerous. Local politicians fund extravagant events and invite Bollywood megastars to add glamour, with cash prizes for the winning teams that reach into the thousands of dollars.

The biggest competitions draw throngs of spectators and some are even televised, encouraging teams to take bigger risks. Head and spine injuries are common. The number of injured govindas in the Mumbai area has risen in recent years from at least 205 in 2011 to nearly 500 last year.

The restrictions were “long overdue,” said Vikas Sawant, a children’s rights activist. “The reversal is deplorable.”

The Mumbai court instituted other measures to protect the safety of participants, requiring organizers to ensure that ambulances and first aid are available and to furnish participants with helmets and safety belts.

But the height and age rules did not sit well with those the court sought to protect.

“We have been playing this sport from ages and it is unjust … to disallow children from participating,” Bala Pednekar, president of an umbrella body of govinda groups, told reporters before the Supreme Court announcement. “We will continue our tradition no matter what.”

Political figures who use the annual event to bolster their standing in Mumbai were also opposed to any attempt to regulate it. The state of Maharashtra filed an appeal, saying it could not implement new rules so close to the holiday.

“It is not proper to shut a religious festival this way suddenly,” said the state’s home minister, R.R. Patil.

Daya Sawant, a 44-year-old who runs a car rental business, began playing the sport at age 9 and said it helps instill strength and team spirit in children.

“The involvement of kids is important for their growth,” he said. “When they climb at the top, they develop courage.”

Parth M.N. is a Times special correspondent.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Fatal Beating Of Muslim Man Sparks Fear Of Communal Violence In India

By Parth M.N. and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

MUMBAI, India — The fatal beating of a 24-year-old Muslim man by Hindu radicals in western India has sparked fresh fears of communal violence two weeks after a right-wing Hindu party swept to power in national elections.

Seven members of a fundamentalist Hindu group have been arrested for the murder of Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, an information technology worker, which came after doctored pictures of Hindu gods and other figures circulated on Facebook and other social media over the weekend, police officials said Wednesday.

After the derogatory pictures went viral, Hindu protesters destroyed more than 200 public buses and private vehicles, pelted mosques with stones and set fire to buildings in two days of chaos in Pune, a fast-growing industrial city 100 miles southeast of Mumbai.

Shaikh was not believed to be connected with the pictures, but friends said he was targeted because he had a beard and was wearing an Islamic skullcap. He was returning to his home in the Hadapsar section of the city around 9 p.m. Monday after attending prayers at a mosque when the assailants struck, according to a friend, Riyaz, who spoke to the Indian Express newspaper.

“I ran from the spot and called his brother, Mobin, for help. However, by the time Mobin came, Mohsin was badly beaten up and the assailants were about to leave,” Riyaz said.

Seven men belonging to the Hindu Rashtra Sena, a radical Hindu group active in the large western state of Maharashtra, were arrested in the incident and have been charged with murder, the deputy police chief in Pune, Manoj Patil, told the Los Angeles Times. The suspects are ages 19 to 24, he said.

The head of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, Dhananjay Desai, denied responsibility for the violence in Pune. Desai was called in for questioning and then arrested in connection with a separate incident involving the distribution of objectionable pamphlets at a police station earlier this year, Patil said.

The controversial photos also included derogatory images of the revered 17th century warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji and the late Bal Thackeray, former head of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena. Cybercrime investigators were still trying to determine the origin of the photos, Patil said.

Communal violence is not uncommon in India, a predominantly Hindu nation with a large Muslim minority. But the violence in Pune marked the first significant sectarian clashes since the Bharatiya Janata Party, a conservative Hindu political organization, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last month.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the BJP, has been accused of not intervening to stop deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was the state’s chief executive.

A spokesman for the BJP in Maharashtra, Madhav Bhandari, condemned the fatal beating.

“Nobody should patronize this sort of bigotry,” Bhandari said in an interview. “On the other hand, whoever is behind these pictures should be identified and put behind bars.”

Photo: Sandeepachetan.com via Flickr