Diwali is among the most important Hindu festivals in India. In the last four years or so, however, celebrations have become politically contentious. The National Green Tribunal (NGT), a body empowered to fast-track cases concerning environmental issues, has announced a mix of bans and restrictions on the use of fireworks in cities deemed to have poor air quality. Fireworks are a staple in Diwali celebrations.
Each year, burning fireworks contribute a small fraction of air pollution. However, millions are set off during festivities. This can spike pollution levels just a day later. In New Delhi, for instance, the Air Quality Index (AQI) shot up to 454 on November 14 this year – well past the measure for “severe pollution.” While the health and environmental effects are fairly evident, the politics of fireworks are volatile. The annual episode offers a peek into the quagmire of Hindu nationalism, business interests, and regionalism in India.
“This is Nothing But Cultural Genocide”
The Hindu nationalist movement’s central contention is that, for far too long, the country’s billion or so Hindus have been suffering from religious inequality. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) majoritarian impulses have contributed to formidable back-to-back election wins in 2014 and 2019. While Hindu nationalism was a growing feature of Indian politics for decades, it has entrenched itself in the political mainstream over the last six years. Among the more revolutionary characteristics of the BJP and the broader Hindu nationalist movement has been their ability to dominate political discourse online.
In the lead up to this year’s Diwali, popular social media profiles and blogs linked to the Hindu right-wing proliferated claims against restrictions placed on the sale and use of fireworks. Twitter handles such as “True Indology” drew on Hindu nationalist interpretations of religious texts to argue that Hindus have used fireworks for millennia.
Hindu nationalism is wired toward literalism. While gunpowder was invented in the 9th century CE or so, the movement believes that fireworks were used to celebrate the victorious return of the God-King Ram to Ayodhya in the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana. To them, it therefore stands to reason that fireworks have always been essential to the cultural practice of Diwali.
Adding to their fury is their belief that the NGT has come down hard against Hinduism but not Islamic or Christian practices deemed to be environmentally problematic. For this reason, they consider the NGT to be run by secular anti-Hindu liberals. This is why cyber-Hindu nationalists have claimed that the double-standard is a conspiracy against Hinduism – quite literally a “cultural genocide.”
Business Meets Politics
Roughly 90 percent of India’s fireworks are manufactured in Virudhunagar district, Tamil Nadu. Most manufacturers are based out of Sivakasi, a town in that district. Before the restrictions, estimates put the industry’s annual value at 50 billion Indian rupees. Roughly 800,000 people are either directly or indirectly employed by the industry. Diwali’s synonymity with fireworks has rendered the festival critical to the industry. Unsurprisingly, lobby groups representing the interests of manufacturers, such as the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA), have petitioned courts across the country to overturn the bans. These have generally failed.
However, the industry appears to have found a useful ally in Hindu nationalists. They have been fairly successful at galvanizing Hindus to create a groundswell of pressure. For instance, on November 8 the BJP-run Karnataka state government backed away from an initial ban to then say that people could use “green” fireworks – a reference to crackers that are 30 percent or so less polluting, but still toxic. The BJP-led Haryana state government similarly eased off strict restrictions it had initially announced. The BJP Madhya Pradesh state government distanced itself from restrictions altogether and instead encouraged residents to celebrate with “fervor.”
Relatedly, it is also notable that the firebrand BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Yogi Adithyanath, ordered the release of a trader who sold fireworks even though he had imposed a ban across much of UP. A video of the trader’s arrest had gone viral and there was considerable backlash against the UP police. Evidently, Adityanath found it imperative to play to his base and undermine the legitimacy of his own government’s restrictions.
To be clear, this has hardly been utopian for manufacturers. The reality is that sales have come down considerably – generally by 30 to 35 percent. Yet, the episode indicates that Hindu nationalist pressure can compel governments to ease off industries considered foundational to Hinduism.
In the last 70 years, Sivakasi has become a cultural landmark for fireworks. Its importance to the local economy forced political parties in Tamil Nadu to the industry’s defense. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, member of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), sent letters to his counterparts in Odisha and Rajasthan urging them to reconsider their bans on fireworks. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president, M.K. Stalin, similarly urged Rajasthan to ease restrictions. On the one hand, the statements by the AIADMK and the DMK appear to be little more than a hard-nosed response to economic, employment, and big business considerations. Yet, it is just as important to appreciate how regionalism and Tamil nationalism underpinned their actions.
Perhaps the one cleavage with “priceless political value in Tamil Nadu” is the divide between Tamil identity and “Northern Indian” identity. The fact that restrictions on fireworks in many parts of North India had a palpable impact on Tamil Nadu gave the issue an ideological flavor. It was seen as a North Indian assault on the economy of Tamil Nadu. Even though states such as Odisha, Karnataka, and Telangana had various permutations of restrictions, “the enemy in the North” became the discourse of choice for parties competing to defend the industry. Indeed, all states north of Tamil Nadu were equated with North India. This was perhaps best personified by how Jaya TV, a popular news network in Tamil Nadu, covered the issue. Clips of the ban’s impact on Sivakasi were frequently accompanied with the hashtag: #NorthIndiaBanCrackers.
The fact is fireworks are extremely hazardous. Studies suggest that emissions from fireworks are the equivalent of smoking 34 to 464 cigarettes at a go. The detrimental effect they have on the environment is clear as well. However, the politics of fireworks in India is a complex web of interests and ideologies. All groups opposing the restrictions insist that fireworks have been conveniently scapegoated. These have created conditions in which restrictions are routinely ignored. Coming to a consensus between different interest groups is going to be a herculean task. The #RightToBreathe movement has been extremely partisan, while attempts to transition the industry to green crackers looks unlikely to be the panacea. But unless regulators can figure a way to address different sets of concerns adequately, Diwali may well continue to be a politically contentious affair for years to come.
Prashant Waikar is a senior analyst in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).