Of Stampedes and Economics

By Deeksha Sivakumar

The Juggernaut makes an appearance again. The recent stampede during the Mrugasira Fish Therapy has melded several myths surrounding Hindu rituals. A ritual that arguably combines religion and science, Fish Therapy invites several thousands of devotees and patients seeking treatment for their asthama. However, when the stampede broke out, killing one and injuring several, the newspaper and TV channels started sounding more and more like Missionary and British officer’s accounts of the Rath Yatra. Perhaps several years later, as the therapy garners more followers, law enforcement agencies may reconfigure the enactment of this ritual as well.

Already, contrary to the Gouda family’s (i.e., the family that offers the Fish Therapy) philosophy that, “every family will be treated and no payment will be taken in return for treatment,” today VIP entrance passes can be purchased. Last year the visitors to Mrugasira Therapy could purchase exclusive passes, for a premium price, that would allow them to surpass long lines and hours of waiting all day to get immediate service. This obviously reconfigures the practice. If the wealthy can access even treatment more quickly and efficiently than the masses, it leaves the masses to throng in lines for hours demarcating the haves from the have-nots.

However, religion and ritual are frequently criticized for exclusivity and privileged access. The clergy, priests, and wealthy in India have always been allowed to visit god and hospitals efficiently and without waiting in long lines pressed against devotees from all socioeconomic classes. During the reign of large Indian dynasties, Brahmin priests and Kings had the closest access to divine images. During the British occupancy, England’s court officials alongside Indian Kings enjoyed privileged seats in rituals and festival enactments. Even today wealth can get you closer to the divine’s image. However, medical treatment and what is called “nattu vaidyam” or “village medicine” is possessed only by a few, giving them a unique social capital in their communities and surrounding areas. Like the Gouda family, many Siddha Vaidyas or Ayurvedic doctors still live close to their native village and accessing their treatment is a journey in itself.

But when hierarchy and access becomes salient instead of the treatment itself, the Juggernaut is bound to make an appearance. The newspaper critiques the organizers for poor planning. It may not be the disorderly schedules that caused the stampede, but the blatant inequality that causes a stampede – a push to get closer the Fish Therapy healers. After all, how much longer will the poor patients stand in line in the blistering heat while the wealthy make their way to be first in line for treatments?

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