Dussehra evening in Punjab brought death and sorrow. The news spread like wildfire just as countless ‘Ravan Dahan’ ceremonies across the nation were finishing with the task of putting evil to bed.
“Some 60 people have died after a train mowed into them in Amritsar. Mowed into a crowd? How can that happen?”, I overheard a cobbler say to a customer when he heard the news the next morning. The disbelief at the thought that hundreds of people milling around the railway tracks didn’t see or sense the approaching disaster is as palpable as the horror of the disaster. The basic instinct for survival which is paramount in humans seemed to be have been suspended for a while that evening – and the fault is not of the crowds.
Two institutions failed the people on Dussehra in Amritsar this year. The first is religion and its strong arms. In recent times, more so since the overt demonstration of Hindutva invaded our public places, the politics around religious occasions has wrought a seminal change in their practice.
Even when the organisers of the Dussehra ceremony in Amritsar commented from the stage – somewhat appreciatively – that there were so many people standing near the railway tracks, most just smiled. Some may have even felt a trifle pleased to be singled out as such, but there was no sign of worry in the air. Not even a shuffle of unease when the compere on the stage mentioned in passing that a train could come by and they should watch out. They were, after all, present at a religious function, attended by the wife of a top minister and a well-known politician herself. The religiosity of the occasion contributed to a numbing of healthy survival instincts and bred a false sense of security that no harm could befall on them.
People who live in the area knew that the two trains usually passed around that time. Most of the crowd was from surrounding bastis, and, on any other day, they would have been careful to avoid the tracks at this time. Social media is full of taunts aimed at the crowds, seeking to understand why they were so unconcerned that day.
To comprehend the fact, it would be useful to recognise that of late, there is an all pervasive sentiment that a Hindu religious occasion being celebrated in a public place takes place within the protective embrace of the state – where for a fleeting interval of time, the rules can be bent, the norm can be suspended and the religious fervour generated is protection enough.
So, the authorities whose duty is to maintain good order and discipline in public places, smile indulgently when Gita paths are held in public parks, when rowdy kawariyas disrupt traffic or beat up passersby, or when zealous organisers of noisy all night jagratas block public roads in residential localities.
Not so long ago, Muslim festivals were given similar leeway by the Congress. That was when Taaziya processions were allowed to block roads for hours, or young Muslim boys racing motorbikes on Shab-e-Barat was acceptable. But all that was before Rahul Gandhi began to wear the janeyu and the Congress donned a soft shade of saffron. Now, Muslims are allotted plots for namaaz in BJP-ruled cities like Gurgaon.
But this is not an argument about Hindus and Muslims.
Two changes have happened to the practice of faith ever since politics moved from the fringes to the sanctum sanctorum of temples, mosques and gurdwaras. An atmosphere of competitive religiosity has overtaken public places which have to bow before the god of the day and quietly endure the disorder and mess that follows.
Secondly, the presence of a politician on the occasion ornaments it like nothing else. It may not be entirely out of order to suggest that the local politico can sometimes eclipse the god of the day but no one seems to mind because politicians themselves have their uses.
Such displays of religious might have, however, produced notions of privilege and latitude that would on normal days be visited with caution and restraint. Such as the thinking that ‘perhaps the train will be diverted or stopped because a Dussehra festival is underway’. That the presence of a large crowd on the rail tracks will automatically cause the train to brake – even if the evening is dark and the engine driver doesn’t have a clue that there is a crowd on the tracks.
It was the same thinking that led hundreds of supporters of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the convicted head of Dera Sacha Sauda, to run riot in Panchkula last year. More than 30 people died and hundereds were injured as the police opened fire. The followers on that day too felt secure in the knowledge that their god and the administration – in that order – would protect them and that no one would get hurt.
The other institution which failed the people of Amritsar is the local administration which is duty bound to ensure that all public events where large crowds are expected to congregate should pass off peacefully. If fingers are now being pointed at whoever gave the permission to hold the event, whether the permission was given by the municipality of some government body or the other, it all points towards a gross abdication of responsibility.
No one seems to be responsible because it has become possible to get away by shrugging shoulders and saying, ‘its not my job, someone else was to look into it’. The 50-odd policemen who were reportedly posted at the site apparently forgot to do what they were there for and became one with the spectators watching the effigies.
The deaths on Dussehra show that the culture of passing the buck has begun to extract its toll. Can the local administration in any self-respecting democracy take refuge behind the question of whether permission was granted or not? Is it not its normal duty to take note of any large gathering in its beat, and ensure that it passes off smoothly without being given instructions to do so?
This was the occasion of Dussehra when everyone in town, including the local administration, knew that effigies would be burnt. No one can hide behind the excuse that they had no information about the function. It is also hard to imagine that there is no standard operating procedure in place for such occasions. Because if there are, they weren’t visible that evening.
As for the organisers, plenty of brickbats are coming their way – for building the hype about their huge Ravan effigy, for not catering for the expected a crowd, for being obsessed with their VIP guest and for not bothering about the safety of the crowd.
But the organisers themselves must be wondering: what did they do wrong this time which they did not do in previous years? Because the culture of cocking a snook at rules and ignoring safety precautions is part and parcel of grand celebrations of festivals nowadays. Unfortunately, this time around, luck did not favour them as it did on earlier occasions, and the consequences will haunt them forever.
Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist and author.