On Tuesday, July 14, Justice R.M. Lodha pronounced his judgment on the guilty in the Indian Premier League scam. That very morning, 27 people died in a stampede at Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh. Lakhs of devotees had gathered there for the Godavari Maha Pushkaram, a religious festival that takes place every 144 years. The tragedy occurred at the same ghat that had been cordoned off for the benefit of chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, who took a dip in the Godavari in isolated splendour along with a puja that lasted for an hour. While he possibly obtained divine blessings for his political ambitions and future moksha, the crowds cordoned off swelled. When ordinary devotees were finally allowed in, 27 people, mostly elderly women, lay dead, their bodies mutilated. Another 25 were seriously injured. The chief minister, having completed his puja, had left. Our television channels took note of this tragedy but their main obsession remained what punishment had been meted out to Gurunath Meiyappan, Raj Kundra and others in the IPL scam.
Life is cheap in our country. Dozens of people die needlessly, but we take it in our stride. It is true that planning had gone into preparing for the Maha Pushkaram. According to reports, some Rs 1,600 crore had been spent on preparations, against a sanctioned amount of Rs 336 crore. But it is also true that arrangements were still not fully complete even on the eve of the event. Fund allocations for facilities were being sanctioned even on the day before the auspicious day.
Eyewitnesses have confirmed that the police force was inadequate and the crowd management poor. Moreover, why was the administration taken by surprise by the large numbers who came for the holy dip? The last Maha Pushkaram had taken place in 1871, 144 years ago. The fact that around five crore devotees would come during the 10-day auspicious period up to July 25, for such a rare event was known to most people. The state itself had given the event maximum publicity.
Deaths due to stampedes, or poor management and arrangements, are not new in our country. The lives lost at Prayag during the Mahakumbh, at Datia in Madhya Pradesh in 2006, and again in 2013, and during the Sabarimala pilgrimage, should have loomed large before the planners. But obviously, these were remote memories, both for the administrators and for their boss, the chief minister.
Do VVIPs have a special hotline to the almighty? Even as per an enlightened reading of Hindu scriptures, their true dharma should be less their own salvation and more the welfare of their praja. How could Mr Naidu, as he went about his hour-long puja and leisurely holy dip, remain oblivious to the unbearable pressures building up beyond the VVIP cordoned off area? Could he not hear, as he solemnly chanted his prayers, the anguished noise of the mass of people compressed against the barricade about to collapse under the sheer weight of human pressure?
There is little doubt that the special arrangements made for the puja of the chief minister had a direct co-relation to the unspeakable tragedy that unfolded immediately after he left. Like a river in spate held back against a fragile dam, devotees spilled out, as much to reach the ghat as to escape the inhumanly cramped space in which they were forced to be confined. It is equally a no-brainer that while the chief minister and his entourage was present, the main focus of the police and administrative machinery was to take care of his needs, not that of the lakhs of ordinary citizens.
Many years ago I was press secretary to President Shankar Dayal Sharma. Dr Sharma was an intensely religious person and there is nothing per se wrong in that. A day after his swearing-in he flew in the Indian Air Force Boeing earmarked for the President to Puttaparthi to seek the blessings of Sai Baba. From there his jet took off to Tirupati for another round of worship. I was present with him at both the places. At Tirupati, notwithstanding the large throng of devotees, the temple was cordoned off. I recall too that once when he was in Mumbai, he decided to visit the Siddhivinayak temple on his way to the airport. It was a working day and his journey was in the middle of the day. The entire city was paralysed.
Faith plays a very important part in the lives of most Indians. This is not surprising given the fact that four of the world’s great religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism — were born here; we also have the second largest number of Muslims in the world, and Christians, who are a small percentage of the population, are still larger in numbers in India than the combined population of Hungary and Greece. But, while faith must have its own place, why should those who follow it be treated like cannon fodder by the powerful? Which religion ordains that those who are VVIPs have special right to prayer and worship, even if this costs dozens of lives?
Long years ago, Chanakya made the seminal point in the Arthashastra: “In the interests of the prosperity of the country, a king should be diligent in foreseeing the possibility of calamities, try to avert them before they arise, overcome those which happen...” In the same text he also wrote: “It is the people who constitute a kingdom; like a barren cow, a kingdom without people yields nothing.” It is time that Mr Naidu, and all our VVIPs, understand this. An impartial and thorough inquiry should be ordered into what happened at Rajahmundry. And, even as I write this, my prayers are with all the common devotees in their lakhs, who have gathered at the Rath Yatra in Puri. Finally, however important cricket is, perhaps our media could have, on that fateful day, given a little more attention to those who died on the banks of the Godavari.
Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma is a Rajya Sabha member