Which children should we save? On the one hand, the Bagalkot baby-tossing ritual has no recorded deaths and yet receives abhorrence. Audience members tweeted and emailed NDTV that they were appalled at the State’s lack of regulation saying, “why can’t law enforcement step in to stop this barbaric practice?” On the same webpage, however, this story lay alongside numerous other reports that appear daily about babies dying due to lack of proper childcare and girl babies tossed in trashcans. More deaths have occurred in a variety of non-religious contexts, and yet this particular festival and the supplied footage provoke anger and frustration. Why does the Bagalkot’s ritual draw significantly more concern in a modern Indian viewer relative to other instances of infant mortality?
Perhaps coverage of unforeseen deaths during religious rituals function like the elusive terrorist threat in the American imaginary? The modern Indian reader, cued from early post-colonial discourse on Suttee and the Ratha Yatra suicides, is primed to react to the Bagalkot ritual over other stories concerning baby deaths. The imaginary “uneducated Hindu” is one who performs religious ritual without thinking, allowing their personal bodies (and their babies) to be sacrificed to the fires and earth. The term “barbaric” shares in a unique history of cross-cultural exchanges. The word barbaric, used by ancient Greeks to refer to Persians, meant non-Greek/babblers who spoke incomprehensibly. This is akin to modern Hindi as well where “bar bar karna” means “to utter gibberish”.
Indian law enforcement is likewise generously seasoned with Colonial regulations. The RathaYatra in Puri, Orissa is a particular example of this how this has occurred. Christian missionaries and travel writers’ described the chariot festival as a suicidal practice, where devotees willingly offered themselves and their children under the wheel of the 300ft chariots in a devotional gesture toward the Lord Jagannatha (Vishnu). Modern Indian audiences seem to echo the disgust expressed by British officials when they eventually regulated the ways in which the RathaYatra was observed in the early 1900’s. Nowadays, the police and army barricade the festival to ensure minimal deaths and even keep ambulance and medical personnel on hand. There are ropes used to demarcate areas and police and paramedics are allowed to enter the main entrance with the brahmin priests but devotees are fenced off. Lov Verma of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) is reminiscent of British travel writers from the 1800s, “we need to educate the people involved in this barbaric practice.”
Of course, the British were less concerned with educating the masses, and tended to employ rather more brutal methods of enforcement. Nina Nayak of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KCPRC) offers her efforts to this educating mission and wishes to handle “the social issue in a social manner.” Navak would reason with the temple priests and the families involved, instructing them in the perils of child-tossing from higher elevations, “if only they understood…” Indian law enforcement and government, if they get involved, inherently disrupts the fluid nature of the ritual practice. Contemporary law enforcement and legislation affects ritual transformations in much the same manner as did colonial rule. If ritual sometimes makes order out of chaos, at other times it creates chaos in order. The question is, whose order?