Man-made disasters and elections make for an incendiary combination, though mercifully such occurrences have been few and far between. But here we have two major accidents in two poll-bound states within a span of a very short time. So, it is no surprise that politics came to be enmeshed in both. First there was the flyover collapse in Kolkata and immediately there were accusations and counter-accusations, the spark for which was lit by none other than the fiery chief minister of West Bengal herself. In the Kerala fire tragedy, in which more than 100 people perished, politics was less pronounced. Perhaps because the magnitude of the tragedy was far greater in Kerala, which had a sobering influence on our political stars. But it is a question of how long it stays that way. Already the CPI(M) has asked for the resignation of Kerala home minister Ramesh Chennithala.
First things first — how did the fire tragedy happen? Consider the initial reports. There was an unauthorised, yes, unauthorised, fireworks display at a temple, which is supposed to be centuries-old. That led to ‘blasts and a blaze’ when a burning cracker fell on a storeroom that was full of powerful fireworks, all ‘illegal and worth Rs 10 lakh’. More than 10,000 people had gathered in and around the shrine on the last day of a seven-day festival honouring goddess Bhadrakali, the equivalent of goddess Kali of Bengal.
Action taken? Five people have been detained while the police are still searching for temple officials against whom a case of culpable homicide has been slapped. Seven office-bearers of the Puttingal Devi temple were taken into custody by the police on Tuesday.
The temple may be ‘centuries-old’ but for how long has the fireworks display — illegal and unauthorised — been going on? As expected, there is no clarity on this, though it has come to light that two competing groups had taken part in it. But one thing is certain. It may be almost a reflex action to have the local administration over a barrel whenever there is a catastrophe such as this, but this time it was alert and alive to the dangers of the situation. The Kollam district collector, A Shinemol, had denied permission to this. So did the additional district magistrate. But the temple managers threw their order to the wind and found a handy, ‘religious’ and power-packed justification for doing so. None of the two administrators is Hindu.
If you have read the above description with a discerning eye you have already formed a line of investigation to pursue if put in charge of probing the matter. There are a lot of loose ends. The question as to how long this penchant for fireworks has been going on is meaningful if one were to ask the administration why it did not put in place enough forces to prevent the display. If banned chemicals were used in the production of the fireworks, where were they produced and who was in charge of the production? And how many such tragedies are waiting to happen? For the answer to the last question, you can turn to the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages about 1,255 temples in the state. Even in this hour, when the Kerala High Court had first proscribed such activities during the night, the board has the gall to say it was not for a complete prohibition on such displays.
Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the board, is against the ban on religious grounds. “In many temples, bursting firecrackers is a part of rituals and we cannot ban it,” he said. “But it should be as per the restrictions of the government and court orders with sufficient safety measures.” One is tempted to recall Bob Dylan: “How deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” Finally Gopalakrishnan has managed to have his way. The same court has allowed a ‘conditional’ display in Thrissur today.
The rules of the government and those of religious organisations tend to pull in different directions. How many religious organisations in India follow the safety procedures that Gopalakrishnan has in a moment of high-mindedness said that all should pursue? How many of them are mindful of fire hazards, until such a tragedy happens? Has it always not been a case of herd instinct, combined with abysmal crowd management and equally abysmal logistics, that has led to temple stampedes, the latest of which took place in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, in July last year? In the Sabarimala temple stampede of 2011, disaster struck almost before anyone could react. When questioned about the lack of preparedness, then chief minister VS Achuthanandan, who is breathing fire and brimstone now, pleaded helplessness and excused himself on the grounds that the State could not interfere too much in the religious beliefs of the people. We are extremely fortunate that we have not yet heard of elephants causing stampedes or ploughing through people during temple festivities. Elephants are temperamental and can go wild when there is too much noise or when there are crackers bursting. Let me remind you that the famous Guruvayur temple in Kerala has nearly 60 captive elephants.
Governments react mostly after a tragedy has happened, as in Datia, Madhya Pradesh, in 2013. More than 20 officials were suspended after the temple tragedy and a judicial enquiry was ordered, though the report has not been made public so far. At the same spot in Datia more than 50 people were washed away by a river tide in 2006 and the state government had then erected a bridge, on which the stampede took place seven years later. However, certain factors responsible for such tragedies came to light, like people pressing over each other for a good position to have a clear view of the deity; temporary structures erected to allow people to pass coming apart; rumours of fire or terrorist attacks; or the tendency of people to make a quick exit after their religious fervour has been sated.
So what is the upshot of this discussion? Is our state system weak in the face of religion? It is easy to take action against those supplying inferior material to build the flyover in Kolkata, but can the temple authorities who went ahead with their illegal plans despite prohibitory orders be proceeded against? Had this been the India of 30-35 years ago, I might have said ‘yes’. But today I am not so optimistic. Not that all was hunky-dory in India then. But one thing was there — it was the fear of the State and the administration. And religion had not emerged as a powerful force in the way it is now. Now somehow people connected with religion feel it in their bones that the present ruling dispensation is there to lend them a helping hand even in their perceived wrong-doing. I hope they are proved wrong, else this cavalier attitude to the loss of lives in the name of tradition will not be easy to change.