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It wasn?t fate alone

If there?s anything more tragic than the terrible stampede that killed hundreds of pilgrims in Mina near Mecca on Thursday, it is the sense of deja vu that it evokes.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2006 03:40 IST
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If there’s anything more tragic than the terrible stampede that killed hundreds of pilgrims in Mina near Mecca on Thursday, it is the sense of déjà vu that it evokes. For the ritual in Mina seems to throw up stampede after lethal stampede every year, as the Saudi authorities watch helplessly. This week’s mad dash reportedly occurred at the foot of the bridge of Jamarat, as pilgrims hurled stones at three pillars representing the spot where the devil is said to have appeared to Abraham. The stoning is obviously the riskiest ritual of the Haj, as worshippers jostle to try to target the stones, often causing weaker pilgrims to fall under foot. This time round, pieces of luggage reportedly fell from moving buses in front of one of the entrances to the bridge, causing pilgrims to trip. As one person tripped, the push from the crowd behind must have created a domino effect, with people trampling over one another in the stampede that followed.

It is most unfortunate that the Saudi authorities should shrug off the pilgrims’ deaths as fate, instead of trying to ensure the safety and security of the pilgrims. As the host nation, they are logistically responsible for the millions of visitors to Mecca at this time of the year. Admitted, it isn’t easy to organise religious mega-events like the Haj and ensure foolproof safety and security measures. But that’s no excuse for tokenism as was evidently the case when, after a similar tragedy in 2004, some barriers were added and stewards positioned at the site to improve safety. The government of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to invest more money and effort to provide Haj pilgrims with higher levels of safety that’s at least comparable to what vacationers routinely enjoy elsewhere in the world. Thus potential choke points could perhaps be redesigned, and tighter controls put in place on pilgrim passes at the entry points to the holy sites. A certified pre-pilgrimage training programme — where all pilgrims are put through some sort of orientation on safety practices in their respective countries — may also help.

It’s high time Muslim communities worldwide prevailed upon the Saudi government to take a leaf out of the religious practices elsewhere in the world as, say, Tirupati, where computers aid crowd control — and even the distribution of ‘prasad’ to millions of devotees, without inhibiting their religious fervour.

First Published: Jan 16, 2006 03:40 IST