Death by Fire: A Man-Made Tragedy

Published: Mon, 04/11/2016 - 10:34

Editorial Hardnews Delhi 

The tragedy at the 500-year-old Puttingal Devi temple in Kollam in Kerala is undoubtedly man-made, and there is a clear pattern in the disaster which has killed, as of now, 109 people, and injured hundreds. More crucial is the unfortunate fact that a religious fervour and belligerence by local religious groups and politicians arrogantly overshadowed the district administration’s sensible and transparent orders that firecrackers should not be allowed inside the temple premises or in its vicinity. The entire top rung of the district collector’s office, it seems, was bullied or ignored by local politicians and lobbies with vested interests, who, thereby, chose to openly violate the official orders in open defiance, using an expressed form of religious aggression which is ritualistically becoming a normative and negative narrative in the Indian social and cultural fabric since the the BJP-led NDA regime arrived in Delhi in May 2014.  

Competing groups in the temple leadership, out to prove their monopoly on the temple and public consciousness, manipulated the mass sentiments of ordinary people from the neighbourhood and distant parts, and pushed ahead with the fireworks, despite open fears expressed by sensible and wise locals, and the district administration, that firecrackers could lead to a disaster. This is exactly what happened, as firecrackers stored without any precaution led to a massive explosion, killing and maiming hundreds, even as more vehicles are now being discovered with huge quantities of firecrackers which could have turned the entire area into a gigantic inferno in a worse case scenario. Certainly, the tragedy has shocked and numbed the nation, and Kerala is in a state of mourning. 

 In recent times, the accidents have been repetitive. On September 24, 2015, 2,236 people were killed in a stampede during the Haj in Mina, Mecca. On October 13, 2013, 115 people were killed in a stampede at the Ratangarh Mata Temple in Datia, Madhya Pradesh. On September 24, 2012, 12 people were killed in a stampede at an Ashram in Deoghar, Jharkhand.  On January 14, 2011, 106 people died in a stampede at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. On March 4, 2010, 63 people were killed in a stampede in a temple at the Kripalu Ashram in Kunda, UP. In 2012, there was a stampede during the Chhath celebrations in Patna, when 18 people were killed

It is now being alleged that the diabolical dimension behind the explosion and the defiant firecracker show lies in the machinations of political and communal forces which wanted to prove a point and score a victory of sorts to manipulate public opinion before the Kerala assembly elections.  This was indeed a desperate attempt to polarise the voters using a traditional Hindu temple as a sign and symbol of religious supremacy. While a crime branch enquiry has been ordered, and some persons arrested, there is little likelihood of the guilty being hauled up due to the complex politics that is at display. 

The fact that the top leadership of the BJP government in Delhi rushed to the spot, and so did other leaders of the opposition, and the fact that Delhi showed over-enthusiasm in interfering in what is clearly a federal issue, proves that some politicians won’t change their ways. This is outrightly crass and insensitive, and does not really uplift the political class of a mature, secular and pluralist democracy. Indeed, politicians would do everyone a favour by keeping the photo-ops separate from the actual and tough disaster management on the ground.  This was also the accusation against certain politicians during and after the 26/11Mumbai carnage by terrorists from across the border. 

Not all tragedies are man-made. However, often, they are designed in a spatial, over-crowded and enclosed architectural structure of religious gatherings. Ironically, even unfortunately, despite the best attempts by local administrations and governments, accidents and disasters continue to happen, leading to death, injuries, collective loss and universal pain.  In recent times, the accidents have been repetitive. On September 24, 2015, 2,236 people were killed in a stampede during the Haj in Mina, Mecca. On October 13, 2013, 115 people were killed in a stampede at the Ratangarh Mata Temple in Datia, Madhya Pradesh. On September 24, 2012, 12 people were killed in a stampede at an Ashram in Deoghar, Jharkhand.  On January 14, 2011, 106 people died in a stampede at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. On March 4, 2010, 63 people were killed in a stampede in a temple at the Kripalu Ashram in Kunda, UP. In 2012, there was a stampede during the Chhath celebrations in Patna, when 18 people were killed. 

Indeed, the documentation of death and disaster with intrinsic links to religious gatherings has become an infinite and sad narrative. Perhaps, it’s time to change this pattern, drastically, and decisively. The question is, does the secular Indian State, and its political class, have the vision and the courage to do it?