October 27, 2019

Diwali, or Deepavali, is one of the most prominent and widely celebrated Hindu festivals. The day marks the triumph of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and light over darkness. The celebration is most popularly symbolized by the homecoming of Lord Rama to his kingdom in Ayodhya of India after vanquishing evil. The holiday date varies annually according to the Hindu calendar. This year, while the main celebration falls on Oct. 27, related festivities last Oct. 25-29. Other religious groups originating in the Indian subcontinent - Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs – also celebrate Diwali. 

The main day of the festival of Diwali is an official holiday in India, and many countries with a significant Buddhist or Hindu population such as Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia (except Sarawak), Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. Celebrators participate in mass gatherings at religious sites and public squares during the holiday, with traditional firework events. The largest festivities occur in India, prompting risks such as terrorism, civil unrest, crime, transport disruptions, and other concerns.


Security Concerns During Diwali

Security forces are on high alert nationwide due to intelligence on possible militant attacks by domestic and international Islamist groups, especially Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), in retaliation for the Indian government's decision to revoke special autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir region, Aug. 5. Authorities have deployed security personnel to monitor all possible target sites, including religious buildings, procession routes, transport hubs, and crowded public places like shopping malls. Border security units at air force bases, as well as the Coast Guard and Indian Navy, have increased vigilance to prevent infiltration from Pakistan. Security arrangements are unlikely to affect multinational business interests unless militants stage any significant attacks.

Officials are also wary of Hindu-Muslim communal clashes during the festival, especially in Uttar Pradesh State, which houses the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi site. The site in Ayodhya District considered the sacred birthplace of Lord Rama by Hindus, is also claimed by Sunni Muslim groups who seek rebuilding of the Babri Masjid mosque that stood atop the original Ram Janmabhoomi temple from 1528 until it was demolished in 1992 by Hindu activists. The apex court will announce its verdict on the 134-year old legal dispute, on or before Nov. 17, possibly prompting communal clashes across the state and other sensitive areas in the nation with mixed populations. Authorities are restricting public assemblies in Ayodhya through Dec. 10; similar restrictions could be imposed in other regions if significant violence breaks out.

Increased opportunistic crime, such as theft, could take place at large gatherings. Stampedes due to overcrowding are also possible.


Transportation and Commercial Delays Possible

Severe travel delays are possible, especially in urban centers around the holiday. Authorities will likely enforce road closures, traffic diversions, and heavy vehicle restrictions around prominent worship venues. Increased congestion is probable on open roads; ground shipping may be temporarily affected. Officials have introduced additional train and bus services to alleviate congestion caused by the large numbers of people traveling to their hometowns for the holidays. Re-routing of services is also likely during major festivities Oct. 27-28.

Most businesses, including banks, will close on the scheduled national holiday Oct. 27; states typically declare additional public holidays Oct. 25-28. Some establishments may alter business hours through Oct. 28. Fire hazards due to firecrackers and firework displays are an important concern, mainly for residential areas and businesses situated near such areas.

Poor air quality prevalent in north India due to annual stubble burning by farmers will likely be exacerbated during the festive tradition of bursting firecrackers. Delhi is typically the worst affected area. Low visibility could disrupt air, rail, and road transport, causing shipping delays. Commercial disruptions are possible, as workers and consumers may avoid nonessential outdoor exposure. Health problems such as eye irritation and wheezing can occur if air quality dips severely, especially in those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.


Advice if Attending Diwali Festivities

Travelers and those in the region should use the following tips during Diwali.

  • Exercise caution around religious venues and other sites commonly identified as potential militant targets.
  • Confirm business appointments, deliveries, road status, and transport reservations through at least Oct. 28.
  • Confirm flights; do not check out of hotels before verifying onward travel.
  • Allow additional travel time and plan for alternative travel and shipment routes.
  • Drive cautiously in areas experiencing severe air pollution due to possible low visibility and traffic congestion. Carry identification documents to present at security checks; heed all official instructions.
  • Review contingency plans for fire emergencies and work arrangements in case of severe air pollution.
  • Stay indoors in well-ventilated areas whenever possible and seek medical attention if respiratory symptoms worsen.

Individuals with pre-existing pulmonary problems should carry adequate medication and consult with a physician before traveling to polluted areas. Eye irritation is possible; flush irritated eyes with copious amounts of water. Consider using a facemask if prolonged outdoor activity is necessary; only purchase pollution facemasks from established retailers.