A rocky, uneven dirt path off the National Highway 24 leads to the main ghat in Garhmukteshwar, located on the banks of Ganga, 100 kilometres from New Delhi. Early on Thursday morning, Duliram hurriedly took a dip in the river before joining his friends, who were busy decorating their kanwars, the colourful bamboo slings carrying pots filled with the waters of Ganga. The group of seven would walk 250 kilometres to their homes in Bilaspur in Uttar Pradesh, where the holy waters would be offered to Lord Shiva at a local temple.

This is the sixth time that Duliram, a 30-year-old mechanic, has undertaken the kanwar yatra. Every year during Shravan, the period in the Hindu calendar which falls between July and August, lakhs of kanwariyas, saffron-clad young men like Duliram, descend on towns along the river Ganga.

Pandit Kailash Shastri, who performs prayers at the Garhmukteshwar ghat, said the yatra has “grown manifold” in the last few years. “About 5-7 years ago, it was not even five percent of what it is today," he said. "Now, we see lakhs of kanwariyas each season."

Ram Kishore, a 65-year-old vendor who sells bangles in the lane leading to the ghat, confirmed this. “By tonight, the ghat will become so overcrowded that you won’t be able to place a foot here,” he said.

According to Shastri, the yatra started gaining popularity in the 1990s, which he attributed to the “increasing religiosity” among the youth. “Earlier, only men from Moradabad, Bareilly, Amroha, Bilaspur and nearby areas would come here," he said. "Now, they come from as far as Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan."

Young and restless

Most of the kanwariyas are men aged between 15 and 35 years. Though many are students, the majority are daily wagers working as mechanics, factory labour, shop assistants, among others. Kanwariyas usually travel in groups, arriving at the banks of Ganga in tempos, trolleys, tractors or buses. After filling the pitchers and pots with the holy water, they walk back to their villages.

Part of a group of 26 young men from Rampur, 100 kilometres away, 19-year-old factory worker Lala said he undertook the trip to Garhmukteshwar to get his manokamana or wish fulfilled. His friend, 16-year-old Pramod, however, described the yatra as an “adventure” trip. “This is one chance in a year to spend time with friends," he said. "We compete to see who walks the fastest."

At the time of the yatra, camps spring up along the major routes to provide meals, beds and toilet facilities to the kanwariyas. On the way to Moradabad, the organisers of one of the pandals, Ashok Bansal, the owner of a rice mill in Moradabad, said: “Our Hindu dharma says: 'After parents, serve the kanwariyas.'"

The politics of religion

The organisers claim the effort is “purely religious”, but the political undercurrents are hard to miss.

Manoj Vyas is the Uttar Pradesh coordinator of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He said the momentum of the kanwar yatra began to grow in the 1990s with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The movement saw BJP leaders mobilising lakhs of kar sevaks or volunteers for building a Ram temple in Ayodhya in place of an existing mosque which was demolished. The events triggered Hindu-Muslim riots across India but in the worldview of the Sangh, it helped organise Hindu youth. “The youth who had grown disinterested in religion, for them, a religious environment was formed once again," Vyas said.

The kanwar yatra has grown since then. The communication head of the RSS in Moradabad, Pavan Jain, claimed the organisation never gets “directly involved” in the yatra. But individual members are free to contribute. "All Sangh members are part of the society. If someone is doing good work, we also want to contribute to it," he said. “We are just the neev ke patthar – the foundation stones.”

Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Moradabad President, Dr Rajkamal Gupta, was more candid. He said the organisation constantly encourages “young Hindu men and women” to undertake this yatra. “It is frequently seen in UP that Muslims collect in groups of 100-200 to terrorise us. The Hindu youth feels pratishodh, a feeling of revenge. This yatra is our show of strength.”

Growing mobilisation

The kanwar yatra is just one of the many religious activities organised by Hindutva groups. "Muslims offer namaz five times a day. We want Hindu youngsters to pray at least once a day," said Gupta.

In the last few years, Jain claimed the strength of RSS has steadily grown in Moradabad. The body has 10,000 uniformed members apart from 25,000 supporters in the city. “Earlier, we had to work hard to get the youth enrolled in RSS. Now, they come to us. The number of members between 18 and 45 has been growing.”

The trend holds true for the whole of Uttar Pradesh, claimed Kripa Shanker, the communication head for the RSS in the state. “70% of our members are under 30,” he said.

According to Shanker, the number of educated youth – medical professionals, engineers, management students – willing to quit high paying jobs and volunteer for them has also risen. “With Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister, the inspiration has only soared.”

RSS aims to reach every village by 2025, the year it celebrates 100 years of the organisation. For this, Jan Jagran yatras or awareness campaigns are carried out by Sangh outfits. On Raksha Bandhan, rakhis are tied on the Hindu flag and oaths taken to protect the motherland. “On the Hindu Nav Varsh (Hindu New Year) that falls on the first Navratra, we stand at the gates of colleges and put tilak on every student,” said Jain.

Dangerous cocktail

The same mix of religious fervour and nationalism is visible among the kanwariyas.

Manoj Surla and his friends from Bareilly shouted nationalistic slogans amidst singing devotional songs dedicated to Lord Shiva. The 22-year-old B.Sc final year student said he decided to join this year's yatra as he was “angered” by the actions of the alleged Pakistani terrorist who was recently arrested from Jammu. “I had no plan to come for this yatra. But the Naved incident made me angry," said Surla. "These terrorists say things like they enjoy killing Hindus. This trip represents Hindu Ekta for me.”

Twenty-one-year old Harish who runs a DJ shop in Rampur and his friend Surendra, a student of Class X, echoed the same sentiments. “This is Hindu land but Hindus are the disadvantaged lot,” Harish said.

Some political analysts view the rise of the kanwariya as part of the ascendance of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh. “The shift towards the religious right and a climate of religiosity that has come with the ascendance of BJP is hard to miss," said Delhi University professor Tapan Basu. "Most kanwariyas belong to the lower middle class. For them, this trip is like a release. There is also a sense of heroism, a certain aggressiveness associated with this yatra.”

The aggression was evident in incidents in Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon and Delhi where kanwariyas reportedly got into brawls with local people.

Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Aditya Mukherjee said this wasn't unexpected given the changes in the yatra in recent years. “The kanwar yatra was supposed to be about sacrifice," he said. "But now the kanwariyas are provided with knee caps. There are ‘Express Kanwars’ where you can complete the journey on a bike. They are allowed to completely capture the roads and told they can get away with anything. This all seems engineered to instil a sense of fear among the public.”

Mukherjee said the yatra was being used as a vehicle to organise unemployed men aged between 20-40 years. What is worrying, he added, is that they could well become "the kar sevaks of tomorrow”.