Tragedy at Mina

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

The tragedy at Mina occurred despite all the security arrangements and improved facilities provided by the Saudi Arabian Government (May 8). The article mentions that Saudi theologians are examining the possibility of issuing a fatwa to allow the stoning ceremony to commence in the morning (instead of at high noon) as is permitted for the adherents of the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. This is factually incorrect. After returning from Araft on the ninth day of the lunar month of Dhul Hajj, the pilgrims stay overnight at Muzdalifa and return to Mina on the morning of the tenth day. According to the Hanafi school, which most Muslims in the Indian subcontinent follow, the stoning has to be done preferably before noon on the tenth day. But on the 11th, 12th and 13th days the ritual is to be performed only after the sun passes the meridian. The pilgrims are to stay on for three nights at Mina from the tenth evening. However, pilgrims who intend to leave early can do so on the 12th day. Since they are able to perform the ritual for one full day (the tenth day) and up to sunset on the 11th day and stay overnight, the crowd is manageable. However, on the afternoon of the 12th day all the two million pilgrims, including one million Saudis and expatriates working in Saudi Arabia who have to travel back to their destinations, rush to complete this ritual and proceed early. The other one million pilgrims, who have come from other countries, exhausted after a five-day stay at Mina and frequent travel to complete the rituals, also rush to perform this ritual and return to Mecca as early as possible.

As one who has visited Mecca periodically since 1975, I can see an enormous improvement in the facilities provided for the pilgrims. After the 1994 stampede, which I witnessed from close range, the Saudi authorities have deployed security forces and allow in the pilgrims only in batches in order to prevent overcrowding. Even these arrangements have failed to work.

One way of reducing the rush on the 12th day is to extend the stay at Mina of pilgrims who have come by chartered flights from other countries. The local population and expatriates working in Saudi Arabia can leave on the 12th day so that they can report back for duty. For the rest who are to return to their countries, extending their stay by one more day will not make much difference. Incidentally, returning on the 13th day is highly recommended. However, since providing civic amenities for an extra day is a strain, the Saudi authorities encourage the pilgrims to return on the 12th day itself.

A.K. Anwar Batcha CoimbatoreSuicide stories

This has reference to "Suicide stories" by Praveen Swami (April 24). The Movement Against State Repression's (MASR) data on suicides in Chotian and other villages are correct and we stand by it.

Praveen Swami's first visit to Chotian was in the company of the local Station House Officer (SHO). Police presence is intimidating in India, particularly in the villages of Punjab. Generally the sight of a policeman is enough to remind a villager of torture and extortion. This police presence had a "carry-over" effect on Praveen Swami's second visit. People remembered that he had come earlier accompanied by the police.

He casts doubt on the data to the extent of saying that perhaps none of the deaths was a case of suicide. Of the deaths mentioned in the MASR's statistics, only two could be described as doubtful. Meanwhile, going through the list of deaths, man by man, in the presence of Chotian's chowkidar, Rahli Singh and other villagers, we found that four more cases were cited as cases of suicide.

Praveen Swami mentions 14 men who died after inhaling pesticides while spraying. Such cases did occur in the initial years of the Green Revolution and even now one hears of them occasionally, but to say that 14 men were so careless is remarkable. Farmers are fully aware of the fact that pesticides are poisonous and they know how to take precautions against accidental poisoning. These 14 deaths might have been caused by the ingestion of pesticides but we doubt if it was accidental.

The SHO at Munak is quoted as saying that 26 deaths were recorded during 1994-97 under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which deals with all forms of accidental death. The SHO believes that only one of these 26 deaths was an evident case of suicide but he goes on to say that "if a family insists, for example, that the use of a drug overdose was accidental, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, we record the death under Section 174 to save the family from social humiliation and legal harassment." The Chotian chowkidar too admits that two possible suicide cases were not recorded in order to protect the honour of the families and the community.

How are death reports prepared in a village? The death of a person is reported to the chowkidar and he goes by what the villagers tell him. He does not question - after all, he has to live in the same village. Two cases were obviously blatant enough to prompt even the chowkidar to express doubts.

Subsequent to Praveen Swami's visit, an MASR team visited villages near Chotian, namely, Chural Kalan, Bakhora Kalan and Baleran. During 1994-97, in Chural Kalan, the number of suicide cases was 10; in Bakhora Kalan the number was 12 and in Baleran it was 26. In February and March, two more men committed suicide in Bangan. This took the total number of cases of suicide in Bangan to 15.

Praveen Swami faults the MASR for not mentioning the names of the suicide victims. These names are mentioned in the MASR's records and we are willing to disclose these to him on the condition that they are not divulged. He calls for scientific research into cases of suicide in rural Punjab. We could not agree with him more. In fact, the background paper released by the MASR was originally produced for the purpose of getting the universities and the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research and Education interested in the problem. The MASR's efforts are not "political" in the sense that they boost one political party or the other but they are very much "political" in a wider context of people's rights and welfare.

Praveen Swami has quoted Professor Shergill's study on Punjab's rural indebtedness at length so clearly he does not dispute the basic contention that indebtedness is acute and growing and may be expected to increase the strains on village economy and society. In fact, he has gone further than the MASR in substantiating the rise of rural indebtedness and its likely consequences.

It is difficult to see how addressing the problem of suicide in Punjab would serve feudal interests, as he claims, or expose the farmers to predatory capitalism more than they already are expected to.

Indebtedness is the prime factor in rural Punjab's rising suicide rate, but Praveen Swami errs in saying that the MASR attributes all suicide cases to it. Reasons for committing suicide are many, and we have enumerated several common ones in our background paper.

At the end of his article, Praveen Swami launches into a tirade against human rights groups in Punjab, equating them with colonialism, chauvinism and right reactionary ideology. This is a change from the sort of charges that were levelled against the MASR in the past. Interestingly, up to 1992, Praveen Swami himself dug out quite a lot of material that was highly damaging to the Central and State governments and to the Punjab Police. For instance, the MASR remembers the figures given by him, showing that the Punjab Police had killed 1,163 of its own men.

Praveen Swami bases much of his criticism of the MASR on our letter to Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal. We enclose a copy of the letter.

Getting back to the issue of suicide cases in Punjab, it is not enough to go by the records of the state and its agencies. The MASR welcomes investigations by any reputed agency. We reiterate: the problem exists; it needs to be understood; and preventive steps need to be formulated and implemented to reverse the tide of human tragedy.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee Convenor Movement Against State Repression Chandigarh

Praveen Swami writes:

I did make my first visit to Chotian with the local SHO who tagged along amazed by my inquiries at his office about the suicides that had supposedly taken place in his jurisdiction. I am, however, bemused by Jaijee's suggestion that villagers in the Munak area lied to me because they were scared of an SHO, particularly since their terror of the police does not stop them from filing dozens of complaints at police stations each month.

As for the "carry-over effect" he describes, consider the following illustration of the logic of his argument: "Jaijee's visits to Chotian as a representative of the fundamentalist Simranjit Singh Mann faction of the Shiromani Akali Dal, which supported Khalistan terrorists, had a carry-over effect on his subsequent work there in his new avatar as a human rights activist." Jaijee's argument is nothing but a rhetorical strategy to discredit the article, and a poor one at that.

In essence, the article said that of 23 deaths claimed as case of suicide in the village, only 12 could in fact have been shown to have taken place at all, either as cases of suicide or otherwise. Even if this claimed number of suicide cases were assumed to be true, the article cited statistics to show that the position that all of them were poverty- or debt-driven was frivolous. Third, it pointed to the IDC-Shergill-Gurmail Singh studies that showed that rural poverty in Punjab did not exist. Jaijee's letter rebuts not a single one of these findings. Instead, it claims to have discovered yet more cases of suicide, without first addressing the issue of why deaths that had not taken place figured in the MASR list.

The last paragraph of my story nowhere charges human rights groups with "colonialism". Jaijee's letter to Chief Minister Badal reads: "Similarly, just as there is no justice in depriving one's own family to fatten other, so too there is no justice in bleeding one's own State to swell the prosperity of another State... This attitude smacks of colonialism at its worst."

Jaijee, obviously unfamiliar with literature on how Punjab's farmers have been beneficiaries of massive Central infrastructure investments and a price-support structure, objects to a system which reconciles producer and consumer demands and supports the food needs of millions of poor peasants and tribal people. If that is not reactionary, I do not know what is.

The BJP and the bomb

The Cover Story "The BJP and the bomb" (April 24) was highly relevant. Whatever the political ideology of a political party, it must give top priority to national interest.

You have rightly pointed out the various risks involved in the BJP's stated position on the nuclear option. If the Indian Government makes moves in this direction, international power brokers and pressure groups will find an easy prey in India. Already these groups are trying to isolate India at many international forums in order to force it to sign the fatal Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Any hawkishness shown by the Central Government is bound to affect India's larger interests seriously.

I do hope the Government will take a thoughtful and pragmatic approach in this case, keeping in mind the contemporary socio-political and strategic situation in the world.

Sheojee Singh Patna* * *

The BJP seems to be trying to gain political mileage out of the nuclear issue, which can strike a chord in every Indian. While the Ram temple issue had a very limited, localised appeal in northern India, the bomb's appeal will be extensive. The party must understand that previous Governments were not so unwise as not to have realised the supposed benefits of producing a nuclear bomb. They have decided to underplay the bomb issue only after weighing all the pros and cons, . This not only projected a positive image of India all over the world as a champion of peace but also prevented an arms race in the subcontinent. The questions is, are we going to lose this image for the sake of the bomb?

Bichu Muttathara Pune* * *

Kashmir is the most sensitive political issue in South Asia. After 50 years of Independence this problem is yet to be resolved. Keeping this in mind, India should acquire nuclear weapons at the earliest to deter Pakistan from initiating a war. Peace-lovers advocate bilateral dialogue as the most reliable method to solve the problem. I do not think it will be fruitful because the fundamentalist-dominated Pakistan will not hand over Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir to India nor will India give up Kashmir. The possibility of India accepting the Line of Actual Control as the international border is also remote. This situation portends a war in the near future. If India does not have nuclear weapons, Pakistan may resort to the use of a nuclear bomb in case it loses in a conventional war. Should India wait for such an eventuality? Definitely not.

Dr. Dipak Talukdar Guwahati
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