NYC: anthrax paranoia dims Hindu Festival of Colors

Once again this year, joyous rituals traditionally held at the celebration of Phagwah, the Hindu Festival of Colors, in the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill were proscribed by official paranoia over anthrax attack. From Newsday, March 2:

Anthrax fears have forced organizers of the Phagwah Parade in Queens to curtail the use of powder and water during the festive Hindu celebration in Richmond Hill.

The joyous tradition of parade participants and many spectators squirting colored water and dousing one another’s heads and faces with red or white powder has triggered complaints, according to officials of Community Board 10, which expressed those concerns to police and organizers of the March 19 event.

Betty Braton, chairwoman of Community Board 10, which covers part of Richmond Hill, said she has received “numerous” complaints about the use of powder. Among those complaining, Braton said, were sanitation workers and Parks Department employees concerned that someone could mix anthrax with the harmless powder or slip into the parade crowd, which numbered 10,000 last year, and throw anthrax itself.

Parade organizers encouraged participants to refrain from using powder during the 2002 parade in the wake of the post-Sept. 11 anthrax scare, but have not felt the need to issue such a warning since then. Organizers reluctantly agreed to the board’s request this year.

Pandit Chandrica Persaud, a Hindu priest with the Phagwah Parade & Festival Committee, said the request to halt the use of powder was misguided.

“That is absolutely out of order because they use the powder on the float, they don’t go and throw it on people who don’t want it [thrown on them]; but as usual, the community boards are making all the problems,” Persaud said. “But we have to carry out our religious activities.”

Organizers vow to discourage participants from using powder and water along the parade route, but said the practice will continue at the start of the parade and when it ends at Smokey Park.

The use of powder and water are symbolic practices that date back thousands of years to religious observances in India.

Braton said she understands the symbolism, but cautioned that health and security comes first. She suggested the practice be moved indoors, where it would be easier to guarantee only celebrants would be present.

“Everyone has an absolute right to observe their religion, but no one has an absolute right to do it in a setting where someone else could have a problem from it,” Braton said. “For example, if there is an asthmatic standing on the street — no one’s religious observances has a right to put that person into harm.”

See also WW4 REPORT #28

See our last posts on bionoia and fear in New York City.