Why Maharashtra's youth broke the law to celebrate Dahi handi

The govindas are more than willing to sell their support to whichever political party pays them well.

 |  4-minute read |   26-08-2016
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The day of Dahi handi or Gokulashtami was one of open defiance of the Supreme Court guidelines and regulations in Mumbai, and neighbouring Thane, where more than 1,000 govinda mandals (groups) backed by the Shiv Sena, the MNS and other political parties celebrated the festival together.

kid-dahi-handi_082616032208.jpg A festival of joy has turned into a festival of sorrow for the govindas of Maharashtra.

The apex court put restrictions on the height of the Dahi handi and the age of the govindas participating in the festival. It is a well-acknowledged fact that the festival celebrated as a game endangers the life of many youth, including teenagers, who climb on the top of human pyramids to break the handi (an earthen pot filled with milk, curd, butter, fruits and water), thus imitating the actions of baby Krishna, and win a hefty prize money offered by organisers (mostly political leaders).

This year, despite SC's restrictions on the festival, owing to instigation by self-proclaimed protectors of Hindu asmita, such as the MNS and Shiv Sena, the mandals have again thrown their youngsters into the dangerous game.

The festival of joy, which marks the birth of lord Krishna, has always been a festival of sorrow and grief for those hapless victims of the custom.

Janmashtami has been celebrated on the streets of Mumbai for decades. But the earlier memories of the festival were local in nature and no big organisers involved. It was mostly confined to various residential areas where the youth would begin practising building pyramids just a few days before the festival and, on the day of the event, manage a pyramid of four tiers - roughly 20 feet high - and break the handi.

At some places, during the practice sessions, the boys would build up to six tiers. There would be reports of minor injuries, usually brushed aside by the parents of participants as being a part and parcel of the sport.

Over the years, the political affiliation of the handis became evident on the t-shirts worn by the govindas. They were routinely sponsored by one or the other local leader and his name would be printed on them.

Eventually, politicians understood that it is the easiest way to reach out to youngsters, so a few of them began organising major events encouraging competition and offering a prize money to the tallest dahi handi. But the scale of the event saw a sea of change after 2000.

Noticing the buzz around the festival, news channels began broadcasting it live. A local festival had now reached the national audience. Earlier, only one song played on Doordarshan on every Gokulashtami day, in which Shammi Kapoor was seen breaking handis with govindas on the streets of Mumbai.

This was the introduction of Dahi handi to the national audience, but the live telecast by virtually every channel in the 2000s gave a boost to the organisers as it became a mode of free publicity. Competition only turned fierce.

One of the pioneers among the Dahi handi organisers had told me that he had to spend roughly around Rs 1.5 crore as prize money. Small or big, every mandal (group) could earn at least Rs 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh in a single day just by building six to seven tiers of a human pyramid. It was big money.

Every mandal consists of a group of 300 to 500 youth, and with more than 100 mandals on the streets of Mumbai and Thane and double the bystanders at any given point in time, the festival became a major attraction for marketing political leaders, celebrities, film promotions, advertisers and even the media.

Safety concerns were overlooked. Most of the handis were organised on the busy streets of Mumbai in a haphazard way, in the absence of safety precautions or medical aid for the govindas. Consequently, with the increase in prize money, the number of injured too soared.

In 2011, 170 were wounded; in the year that followed, one govinda lost his life to the handi and 205 others were wounded. Again in 2013, 215 were wounded and two lost their lives.

The same year, the government decided to intervene and, in 2014 the state banned children younger than 12 from participating. The Bombay High Court later ruled that the minimum age should be raised to 18 years and the height of the pyramid should not be more than 20 feet due to safety reasons - a ruling that was upheld by Supreme Court.

By then, even political organisers began realising that they were losing large sums to the Dahi handi. In 2016, many stopped organising the festival citing SC guidelines, but the new entrants are yet to reap the political benefits of the festival, and have now openly challenged the top court's order.

Is this another tactic to use the festival as a tool to further political goals?

Most political aspirants have spent lakhs on mandals irrespective of the fact that they might not be directly involved in organising it.

They know it is the only way to "buy" the support of the youth and the teeming groups of govindas are more than willing to sell this support to whoever is ready to pay them well. It doesn't matter to them that the day-to-day problems of Mumbai remain unsolved as long as the extravaganza is kept intact.


Sahil Joshi Sahil Joshi @sahiljoshii

Executive Editor, India Today TV and Aaj Tak

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