What was Azam Khan doing at the Kumbh?
YET another Hindu festival and yet another huge tragedy. The loss of over fifty lives in a stampede at the Allahabad railway station is an unpardonable slip on the part of the Uttar Pradesh administration and to some extent the Indian Railways. For days before the auspicious Mauni Amavasya, it was announced on the media that around thirty million would converge for a holy dip at Prayag. Hence the number of people was not unexpected. Nor was there any structural collapse of the bridge as was initially claimed. It was a simple case of bad crowd management and police misbehaviour with the passengers.
Several people who survived the tragedy told TV channels that the stampede happened because the police wielded the lathi to control the movement of people. When the visuals of the scene of the tragedy were shown it was clear that the stairs did not have a divider that could separate passengers going into the station and out of it. A simple, basic technique that would have avoided crowds jostling in opposite directions.
Also missing in the visuals were any presence or sign of volunteers and men in uniform. Usually, in such a huge human gathering, it is not possible for the state alone to handle all aspects. Hence, volunteers from social organisations come forward. This year in Kumbh, such an arrangement seemed absent. The umpteen number of Hindu organisations who gather on the banks of the Sangam could have put together some groups to guide, help and manage people at stations, bus stands and on the way.
Stampedes have become a rather regular tragedy in Hindu places of worship. There have been at least eight such incidents in the past four years. The most horrific of them was the stampede in Chamuda Devi temple in Jodhpur, in September 2008 in which over 225 pilgrims, mostly women, died, the tragedy in Sabarimala in Kerala in January 2011 in which at least 125 people died, and the death of some 150 worshippers in a temple in Himachal Pradesh in August 2008. There have been numerous others, like the bridge collapse on Chhath puja in Bihar, where the death toll has been relatively lesser, but severe nevertheless.
In Uttar Pradesh, the person in charge of Maha Kumbh, that fetches crores to the exchequer, is a Muslim minister. It is not anybody’s case that the tragedy would not have occurred if it was a Hindu minister. But the government to begin with could have had a better representative for the task, a person who would have been empathetic, involved and committed to the pilgrimage. Azam Khan is none of these. And after the tragedy happened he was hardly visible to give answers. The UP government, sickeningly heartless it is, announced that Azam Khan would continue with the assignment as he was not responsible for what happened at the Railway Station. The Railways now under Congress Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal has put the blame on the UP government as it happened in the state. With the result that nobody takes responsibility.
It is not as though only Hindus congregate in large numbers. The Haj pilgrimage takes place every year. Some of the Muslim and Christian shrines in India throng with people on special occasions. There has never been such incidents of absolutely avoidable loss of lives.
That’s mainly because the religious institutions play a huge role in organising such gatherings. Do Hindu organisations need to learn a lesson? Yes is the answer. Given the level of maladministration today, the State offers very little hope for a course correction. The Hindu organisations, especially the multitude of religious trusts that thrive on the devotion and donation of the community could pitch in on occasions like these and help the pilgrims in their journey. Let this stampede be the last of such tragedies.