Amritsar Train Tragedy: Dirty politics over the dead

Even two weeks after the Amritsar tragedy, the political offensive mounted by the SAD-BJP refuses to die down, while the government continues to provide relief to the victims. RAJU WILLIAM writes

Sordid politics over the devastating train accident on Dussehra near Jaura Fatak in Krishna Nagar area of Amritsar, which officially left 59 dead and 137 injured, is showing no sign of stopping. Since the ill-fated evening on October 19, wild allegations by political rivals, especially targeting the Congress Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, in whose Amritsar East Assembly constituency the tragedy struck, have made the politics being played over the incident dirtier with every passing day.

Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu, who was the chief guest at the Dussehra function, is being hauled over the coals as part of the political tirade unleashed against the Sidhu couple. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the main rival of the ruling Congress in the state, has gone to the extent of publicly declaring the incident as the doing of the Sidhu couple and claimed that it was no accident but a “massacre”. So, Sidhu, the Minister should be immediately dropped from the Cabinet and cases registered against the couple and event’s organisers who are well known supporters of Sidhu.

What makes this politically motivated campaign all the more murkier is the fact that nobody in rival ranks has the patience to wait for the conclusion of the probe, ordered by the Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh to be completed in a few weeks. The Railways too have initiated a separate probe. The Congress is alleging that the rivals spearheaded by the SAD-BJP, have not contributed anything worthwhile to provide relief to the victims even as the NGOs and individuals voluntarily thronged the accident site as well as hospitals immediately after the mishap offering help on humanitarian basis.

The brazen politicking that defies every sense of rationality amidst human tragedy of this scale, the political rivals of the ruling Congress, or to be more precise, of Sidhu and his wife, who represented this constituency before her husband, seem to be in no mood to relent. To further escalate the political offensive, they organised Akhand Path in the memory of the deceased in the Gurudwara of the area where the tragedy happened. Though the SAD-BJP leaders alleged the preachers of the Gurudwara were pressurised by the ruling Congress not to conduct the Akhand Path, but the area residents alleged the preachers’ refused they did not want any political motive stick to them. It was finally held with the help of the religious preachers organised by the SAD leaders.

On being asked by the media persons about these allegations against Sidhu and the government during his visit after the mishap, the CM said it was no time for “tu tu mein mein”. He asked all to exercise restraint in this hour of collective grief and wait for the outcome of the magisterial probe ordered by him. He was to fly to Israel on an official visit but deferred it on hearing about the incident and rushed to Amritsar.

Immediately after arriving at Amritsar from Delhi, the CM visited the accident site and various hospitals. He set up three-member crisis management panel headed by the senior most Minister, Brahm Mohindra, to initiate and monitor relief and rehabilitation measures. Besides magisterial probe and 5 lakh compensation to the kin of the deceased and 50,000 to those injured, he ordered the state and district administration to focus first on providing relief to the victims including compensation cheques, free medical treatment and helping in identification of the bodies and their proper cremation.

Yet, all this was not enough in the eyes of the opposition parties who seemed hell bent on trashing the government, the Sidhus, administration, the railways authorities to score political points instead of lending a helping hand in dealing with tragic incident collectively. As they were busy in political bashing on the fateful night, those present claimed slogans of RSS zindabad were heard on the premises of the Guru Nanak Hospital attached with the Government Medical College (GMC), Amritsar, the volunteers of the NGOs were helping the government staff and the police in removing the bodies and carrying the the injured to various hospitals in the city. Even the doctors from neighbouring districts of Tarn Taran and Gurdaspur rushed in to attend the victims.

Charanjit Singh Teja, an Amritsar-based staff reporter of The Tribune, who was among the first journalists to reach the spot said, “My initial estimate on seeing the situation was that not less than 50 persons might have been dead and over 30 could succumb to injuries given their condition yet the death toll was restricted thanks to timely and speedy medical care. I must say this is a new experience in my career as a journalist to see so effective and dedicated care by the government organized relief efforts. Within the first half hour of the accident, only three very critically injured died after being brought to the GMC.”

It was a measure of such a massive and spontaneous humanitarian public response that no dearth of medicines, ambulances, blood units, free food, tea snacks and help to guide victims and their kin in getting treatment and identification was reported. In the initial stage, the sudden huge rush of patients exhausted the stocks of basic medicines like tetanus injections and betadine solution for washing wounds. Reportedly, the antibiotics too were not available. Denying any shortage of medicines, Civil Surgeon, Amritsar, Dr Hardeep Singh Ghai said they had enough stock of medicines. “Since people also donated medicines as a humanitarian gesture, we could not stop them,” he said adding the authorities also purchased medicines from the market on need basis.

While the social media was buzzing with reports speculating possible causes of the accident besides reporting the statements of political leaders including justifications by the under fire Sidhu couple, yet almost none was found critical of the immediate medical care and other relief measures.

Amarinder Singh meets the victims of the train accident (Photo : Raman Gill)

Over 50 injured of the total 64 brought to the GMC and the Civil Hospital by October 22 could be resuscitated. At the GMC alone, about 600 blood donors including members of blood donor societies and even the devotees from outside Amritsar visiting the Golden Temple turned up to donate blood throughout the fateful night. “Responding to the call of duty with missionary zeal, at least five doctors along with paramedics took care of each patient. It is heartening to note that majority of the patients are doing fine,” said Dr Rakesh Sharma, Professor of Surgery managing emergency services at the GMC who saved a 7-year old child in critical condition after a long surgery.

Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar Kamaldeep Singh Sangha, who dealt with the first unfortunate incident of this scale in his career, complimented the government staff, NGOs and individual philanthropists for their collective efforts in controlling, in about two days, the major part of the crisis that originated on longer weekend starting with Dussehra holiday. “Even the government employees who were off duty voluntarily reported back,” added Sangha.

Amid the relief operations by the government machinery voluntarily assisted by the NGO and other community members, blame game was on. As the rivals targeted Sidhu seeking his resignation or dismissal from the Cabinet, the firebrand Congress leader and bête noire of Akalis especially the Badals blamed the train driver alleging the train otherwise known for running slow was moving at unusually higher speed hit those on the tracks watching Ravana’s burning effigy. He defended his wife saying she was not at faultbeing the chief guest at the function. Mithoo Madaan, their supporter and son of the local Congress Councillor, who was main organizers of the event, termed it as a natural disaster after he reappeared before the media days after remaining underground.

Entire top brass of the state administration descended at Amritsar immediately after the mishap. Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sharma also reached. Brahm Mohindra, the chairman of the crisis management panel set up by the CM camped at Amritsar to monitor the relief operations. Though identification and processing of the kin of the deceased was a challenging task yet coordinated efforts by all concerned resulted in disbursement of compensation cheques to the first batch of 38 affected families on the fifth day after the mishap. As many as 46 families of the deceased were handed cheques till filing of this report. The process of compensating the 137 injured too had been started.

“Immediately after the tragic incident, the first call I received from the CM’s office was to first ensure free treatment of the injured and attend to related relief measures. This was on the top of the priorities list. We deputed officers in all the 10 hospitals where the injured were brought so as to get exact idea of the number of the affected people and ensure, besides treatment, that they are connected with their relatives. I stationed myself at the GMC where the maximum injured were brought. Control room was set up there,” said Sangha.

Within minutes the accident was reported at about 7 pm, the Amritsar Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner of Police got in touch. Given the spontaneous public anger fuelled by accusations of political nature especially in the affected area, maintaining law and order besides other relief measures was also taken up as priority. The district administration planned to have the injured at various hospitals so that there was no stress on resources. The officials and resources were mobilized and stationed at crucial spots to assess the quantum of the tragedy. “Our entire response system was in place by 12 at night; maximum bodies were identified; started post-mortem operation and thereafter cremations in presence of the affected kin. We also issued death certificates at the cremation grounds to avoid any problem in releasing compensation. This was a huge task in a tragically chaotic situation of such magnitude,” said Vikas Heera, SDM, Amritsar-II who managed to sleep for only for 4 hours during 72 hours after the incident.

It is not unusual for unscrupulous people exploiting such situation. A day after the incident, two persons claiming to have been injured turned up at the GMC and insisted on getting admitted. “One of them had a minor injury whereas another had no visible injury as seen in the x-ray reports,” Dr Surinder Paul, Medical Superintendent of the GMC. Two similar cases were reported on the third day. This created suspicion in the wake of compensation announced by the government for the dead and the injured. In another case, a person carrying a pair of slippers claiming that these belonged to his brother who had gone missing from the Dussehra venue. 

Rumours were also afloat that mobile phones of the victims were stolen. A day after the incident, the residents of the affected area even pelted the police with stones alleging many missing people from their area had probably died but the administration was hiding the fact. The Deputy Commissioner said they had received such claims but their scrutiny showed that most of these were far from reality. Probably, some people were resorting to such tactics to get undue benefits,” he said asserting that every claim was being thoroughly looked into.

The sensitivity with which the official machinery operated can be gauged from the fact that the Deputy Commissioner personally intervened in a complaint received by him over phone that the kin of one injured person Karmanjit Singh (26) were charged by Carewell, a local private hospital and a diagnostic facility in spite of the government announcement of free treatment. After immediate inquiry by the concerned SDM, the hospital returned 14,875 to the affected family. The hospital authorities maintained that the money was charged as the patient came to them immediately after the incident and that they were unaware of the government announcement.

Unperturbed by the political mudslinging, the administration and the community are, meanwhile, going about doing their job in the best possible manner. It may not be surprising that political class continues the mutual bashing even on the probe findings oblivious, to the fact that the worst tragedy has wiped out even entire families.