Mob was 'instigated' against burial of Chennai doctor’s body

Published : April 22, 2020 20:35 IST

A file photo of Dr Simon Hercules. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A group of anti-social elements, including a few illicit liquor brewers and history-sheeters, reportedly instigated people to protest against the burial of the body of the neurosurgeon Dr Simon Hercules who died of COVID-19 complications at a private hospital in Chennai on April 19.

Highly placed police sources told Frontline that the police arrested 21 persons, including a woman from Annai Sathya Nagar near Kilpauk, for indulging in violence on the night of April 19 and the wee hours of April 20 when the body was taken to the Corporation cemetery at TP Chatram and then to the Velankadu burial ground on New Avadi Road. A juvenile wanted in the case is absconding. The mob, armed with heavy wooden sticks and stones, attacked the cortege at both the sites. The ambulance of the New Hope Hospital, of which Dr Hercules was the chairman, was damaged. Two doctors and some staff of the New Hope Hospital, two Assistant Engineers and Health Officers of the Chennai Corporation, and drivers of the ambulance and the earthmover machine that was brought to dig the pit sustained serious head injuries. The police had to lathi-charge the miscreants.

Two first information reports, one at Anna Nagar police station and another at Kilpauk police station, have been registered. Sources said that a special team had been formed to nab the rest of the miscreants. Stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including rioting and attempt to murder, were invoked against the accused, who were remanded to judicial custody. “Such acts will not be tolerated. We will book those who obstruct the last rites of any COVID patient under the Goondas Act,” warned Chennai City Police Commissioner A.K. Viswanathan.

The police were embarrassed by the news of a large crowd gathering at such an odd hour at such short notice in spite of the lockdown and the fact that Section 144 of the CrPC had been imposed in the city. According to Dr Backiaraj, a colleague of Dr Hercules, when the body was brought to the T.P. Chatram burial site at around 11.45 p.m,, nobody was there. “But when we were taking the body out of the ambulance, a man appeared from nowhere and started abusing us before making multiple calls on his mobile phone. A mob gathered in a few minutes,” he said.

The cortege was shunted from one place to another. What surprised the team that accompanied it was that when they went to the Velankadu burial site, a mob of a few hundred, with stones and sticks, was already waiting. “It did not look like a spontaneous gathering. These miscreants knew what they were doing and when we would be coming. Despite the presence of the corporation staff and the police, they targeted the ambulance and the body. It was painful to see them attack even the box that contained the body. There were stones all over it,’ said a New Hope Hospital executive.

A former civic employee who had intimate knowledge of the area around the two burial sites said that antisocial elements had been using the burial sites for nefarious activities for long. “Many brew illicit liquor. The closure of TASMAC shops [The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, which has a monopoly over the sale of alcohol in the State] and the lockdown would have increased their business. And burial sites have been safe havens for them,” he said. Burying a COVID-19 victim, the brewers might have feared, would keep their customers off the site.

A senior police officer, however, denied such claims and said that since the lockdown, the crime rate too had come down drastically in the city. “There is no illicit brewing in the city. Sustained surveillance is being carried out against such illegal activities. Rumours about the possibility of infection sparked off this violent reaction. We will soon trace and find the persons who spread them. Special security as per the Standing Operational Procedures will be given to those who perform the last rites of COVID victims,” he said.

The attack has left the medical fraternity, especially the doctors and paramedical staff working in the isolation wards of various hospitals across the State, in distress. Many wore black badges to protest the death of Dr Hercules and he attack. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami condemned the attack and promised security to doctors and other medical staff. Dr G.R. Ravindranath of the Doctors Association for Social Equality said that those who died in the line of duty should be given full state honours.

Denying allegations that the body of the doctor was refused burial at the Kilpauk Christian cemetery because of resistance by a group within the city’s Christian community, a statement from the Madras Cemeteries Board Trust said that “no one from the doctor’s family approached it for the same”. The statement claimed that the cemetery had been closed for burials since it was full. The Most Reverend Father George Antonysamy, Archbishop of Madras Mylapore Diocese, called the violence during the burial a crime against humanity.

The site was used for the burials of both Catholics and Protestants since the British period. R. Dharmaraj, Legal Adviser, Church of South India, Madras Diocese, issued a statement that those “who mischievously circulated such false and concocted stories and rumours particularly against Christian religious community with bad intention to create unrest” were liable for prosecution in accordance with law. “These Hindutva elements are spreading canards and rumours in social media that Christians are refusing burial to a fellow Christian afflicted by a virus at their own cemetery.”said a Christian priest.

Meanwhile Ananthi, wife of the deceased doctor, appealed to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister to take steps to “exhume and rebury” his body at the Kilpauk Christian cemetery “as per his last wish”.

The Madras High Court has taken up the case suo motu and asked the government to file a report.