Vijender Singh and three friends, riding motorcycles from Ludhiana, reach the Mandawar check-post on the Uttar Pradesh-Uttarakhand border in Haridwar district on Tuesday morning. Questioned by the Uttarakhand Police, Vijender says he is going to Haridwar for “sewa karya (offering service)” at Har ki Pauri. However, the group neither have a negative RT-PCR report nor are they registered with the state government portal monitoring entry into Uttarakhand.
Sub-Inspector Anand Chauhan asks the four to turn back. “There is no entry in Haridwar till August 7 because Kanwar Yatra is banned. You don’t have any valid document to prove a genuine reason for visiting Haridwar,” Chauhan tells Vijender, even as a constable notes down the registration numbers of their motorcycles.
Starting July 25 when the kanwariya pilgrimage began, every day, at this check-post alone, over 150 vehicles are turned away, as the Uttarakhand Police tries to separate potential kanwariyas from those with genuine reasons and negative reports, to implement a state government ban on entry of pilgrims due to Covid fears. As per a Haridwar police report, 26,217 kanwariyas had been sent back from over 15 border check-posts and inside the city till Wednesday.
While Vijender insists he is not a kanwariya and not aware of restrictions on entry into Uttarakhand, Chauhan says they will record the four friends as kanwariyas as “they did not have negative Covid reports and registration, and had no valid reason to visit Haridwar”. “We assume that they were kanwariyas and going to Har ki Pauri for collecting Gangajal,” the S-I says.
Around 20 police personnel guard the Mandawar check-post at all times, in two shifts of 12 hours each. Overall, 800 police personnel are deployed on kanwar duty at different locations across Haridwar. With most of the kanwariyas coming to Haridwar from Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, all vehicles from these states are checked.
About an hour after Vijender has left, Rakesh Tyagi arrives with his wife and two children. The couple are vaccinated and urge the policemen to let them in. When a police personnel asks him to collect Gangajal instead from the tanker stationed near the check-post by the government for pilgrims, Tyagi says, “We have a religious function in the family after a few days and need to take a dip in the Ganga as part of the ritual.”
He promises to return straight after visiting the temple, and police finally let the family go through, but after they have registered on a government portal.
The most insistent are those coming with ashes of family members for immersion in the Ganga. A police personnel says that between Monday and Tuesday, more than 200 families had approached the check-post for the purpose.
One of them is Vomple Singh, here from Sirsa with the ashes of her aunt. Police stop the family as 11 of them are packed in a vehicle, with none carrying a Covid report. Chauhan says the government SOP only allows four for immersion of ashes, and the family is told to assign some, who are cleared after undergoing a rapid antigen test.
The SP (City) and nodal in-charge for Kanwar Yatra, Kamlesh Upadhyay, says, “Segregating kanwariyas from other tourists is the main challenge for police personnel. We are keeping a close watch on Har Ki Pauri, have deployed shuttle buses at railway stations to drop kanwariyas found in trains to the nearest bus station and borders, and tankers of Gangajal have been placed at border points for devotees to collect water from there and go back.”
On July 25, police booked 14 kanwariyas who had come from Haryana and entered Haridwar as ordinary tourists and reached Har ki Pauri, and put them in quarantine. At least 15 kanwariyas have been put in institutional quarantine so far for violating Covid norms, while 31 FIRs have been lodged and 66 persons booked. A fine of Rs 1.93 lakh has been collected.
Uttarakhand receives the bulk of the Kanwar Yatra pilgrims, headed for places such as Haridwar, Gangotri and Gaumukh to collect Ganga water to carry back home as offering at Shiva temples. The yatra has been suspended now for two years due to Covid. In 2019, Uttarakhand had received around 3.5 crore pilgrims.