May 23, 2021

The River of Sorrow and the Naked King

From a Political Commentator

GANGA and Yamuna, the rivers that give birth to extensive plains of north India, have been more of a cultural entity than mere geographic bodies for the people of India. It is easy to talk about Ganga in different contexts, but understanding the river and the special place it has in the conscience of the country, is as complex as understanding India.

Jawaharlal Nehru, in his last will said: “The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved by her people, round which is intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age‐long culture and civilisation, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.”
In 2021, Ganga, the river considered witness to India’s history, and a symbol of faith showed India the naked truth of the pandemic.

At the peak of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, as Indians struggled to bury and cremate their dead, and citizens looked desperately for medical care to save those who were still fighting, India woke up to images that were the most gruesome ones yet - dead bodies, rotting, dismembered, floating in Ganga and Yamuna, lined along the banks. These two rivers are the driving force of the largely agriculture-dependent economy and life in the region and are an integral part of the ethos and cultural identities as well. Ganga and Yamuna, mythological goddesses and symbols of faith. Passing through some of the most densely populated regions, these two rivers create fertile plains, one of the most intensely farmed areas in the world. As India overlooked the rural outbreak of Covid, with health infrastructure collapsing even in cities like Delhi, bodies were found, floating in the river and buried in sand, pointing towards a tragedy of a scale greater than imagined. The even more horrifying part however was the denial and attempts to normalise the occurrence of finding corpses in the rivers.

Ganga, a holy river for Hindus, has always found a place in Indian politics, as it has been a part of its civilisation and society. From the launch of Ganga Action Plan in 1986 to the launch of Namami Gange, much water had flown down the river along with filth. However, none would have imagined seeing such large numbers of corpses floating down. The importance of the rivers reflects from the fact that at one point, Uttarakhand High Court had recognised Ganga and Yamuna as living entities, a decision that was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

In 2014, when prime minister, Narendra Modi chose Varanasi as his parliamentary constituency, he claimed “Mother Ganga” had called him. It has been seven years since then, and allocations for the Namami Gange have been slashed due to low spending. This year, dead bodies were also found floating in Ganga in Varanasi, which also houses the Rs 800 crore Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project that led to massive demolitions in the historical city. While the prime minister has not yet made any official comments on this situation, a recent tweet from the Twitter handle of his radio program Mann Ki Baat, seeking positive stories for the next edition of the show was met with a backlash on the social media platform.

While the government looks for ‘positivity’, Ganga is showing a mirror to reality.

According to a report in Dainik Bhaskar, over 2,000 corpses were found along Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, covering some 1,140 kms. The scenes are disturbing. In Kanpur, the largest city in Uttar Pradesh and a major economic center, the images show corpses lined up in the sand along the river, some had been eaten by dogs. The largest numbers were found in Unnao, around 900, and the scenes were similar. The bodies were rotting, being eaten by animals, and the administration was not in the picture, or it appeared so. Locals said they had complained about the stench that was coming from rotting corpses, but no action was taken.  By the time bodies were found in Unnao, the visuals of bodies floating in Ganga in Bihar and in Yamuna in Hamirpur had already been reported. In Bihar, over 70 bodies were taken out of Ganga in Buxar district, close to Uttar Pradesh border.

In one of his speeches during the last assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, Modi had pitted ‘shamshan’ or crematoriums against ‘kabristan’, burial grounds. No one had perhaps imagined the rivers, which have been in the center of life, religion, as well as politics, would be laden with corpses.

The second wave of Covid 19 came as India was busy with assembly elections in five states, while Uttar Pradesh had its panchayat polls. Delhi was full of billboards with advertisements by the Uttar Pradesh government, some claiming efficient management of the pandemic in the state. One can only wonder why the Uttar Pradesh chief minister wasted taxpayers’ money on advertisements in a different state. The panchayat election results, which came close on the heels with the rising deaths and floating corpses, turned out unfavourable for the BJP. Many have blamed Covid mismanagement as one of the reasons for the poor performance of BJP which invested both resources and energy in the elections.

However, even in the middle of a tragedy of unprecedented scale, the state government appeared more interested in managing media, by banning photography at crematoriums and imposing penalties for demanding oxygen.

A retired IAS officer, Surya Pratap Singh, was booked for tweeting about dead bodies floating in the Ganga. He had said in one of the tweets that the state government had cremated 67 dead bodies in pits on the banks of the Ganga in Unnao.

First came denial, with officials claiming that the bodies disposed in and along the rivers were a part of practices of certain communities. Actor Kangna Ranaut claimed the images were from Nigeria. There were attempts to show it as a usual occurrence. BJP’s IT cell’s chief, Amit Malviya compared present reports to an earlier report of 100 bodies being found in Ganga.

The images however tell a different story. While no one has clarity where exactly the bodies came from, nor can the highly decomposed bodies be recognised anymore, it reflects the impact of the pandemic on the weakest sections. In this pandemic, affording last rites has become a luxury. However, not much thought was spared to the plight of people who were getting rid of their dead in such a way.

With reports pouring in, reaction on behalf of the central government came from the jal shakti minister, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. The minister said a “serious note” has been taken of dumping of bodies in Ganga, and said the National Mission for Clean Ganga along with district administration will ensure bodies are disposed of. There were no words of condolences for those who suffered the horror of abandoning their dead, there was no concern expressed over the situation of the pandemic in the rural areas.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who much like PM Modi, had claimed having successfully managed Covid in the state in advance, ordered patrolling and government-sponsored cremations. He also said local authorities can impose a fine on those who are found dumping bodies in the rivers. Quite ironic, as it appears that people are disposing bodies in rivers because they don’t have money for cremation. While it may sound like an insignificant detail, it reflects the attitude of the administration which still wants to impose fines on its citizens who are suffering this catastrophe, largely because of government apathy.

While neither state nor center gave due recognition or even acknowledgement to the massive humanitarian crisis, the National Human Rights Commission came forward and asked the difficult question- where is the dignity of the dead?

NHRC issued an advisory on upholding the dignity and protecting the rights of the dead, which said in both “natural or unnatural deaths (accident, suicide, homicide, etc.), it is the duty of the State to protect the rights of the deceased and prevent crime over the dead body.” It said ‘human dignity’ lies at the core of all international human rights laws. The advisory has guidelines for everyone, from government to citizens, police, media, and other categories of stakeholders. The advisory also pointed out that there is no law in India to protect the dignity of the dead. A major point here is that even before bodies started floating in Ganga, our dead were robbed of their dignity. We have seen crowds outside crematoriums and heard stories of bribes being demanded, and people spending thousands to give proper last rites to their loved ones. We have heard stories of the dead not finding space for burial next to their loved ones because of Covid protocols, and families feeling they dumped the dead body, or in some cases bodies, in a faraway place. These families have no path to closure, yet they have the consolation that some kind of last rites were performed.

Ganga has an important place in faith, but it is not where Hindus want to dispose of dead bodies. One can only imagine the pain of the families that might have dropped a corpse in the river, or hurriedly buried it under sand escaping the eyes of the administration. Imagine the plight of the people who live on these banks, and depend on the rivers for water and livelihood. They woke up one morning to find corpses, and body parts floating, stench rising, and administration missing in action. So far, we have not even been able to acknowledge their sufferings, think about the mental health impact of these incidents on the people, and the fact that they will most likely never get any medical help.

This is damage bigger than just being a setback to the mission to clean Ganga, or Yamuna, or dent on the image of a political party or government. This is a tale of apathy that will horrify generations to come. Whether we consider the rivers mythical goddesses, or just a geographical entity, in living memory, this is the worst anyone has seen on the banks of these rivers.

The Ganga has inspired literature through history. Bharat Ratna Bhupen Hazarika, who was mentioned several times by PM Modi during recent polls in Assam, asked in one of his poems, “why does the Ganga flow - ‘Ganga behti ho kyun’”.

As the nation remained shell-shocked, and the world looked at the state of the largest democracy, the ‘sacred’ Ganga, which earlier had a ministry dedicated to it, kept carrying the burden of the corpses that kept surfacing.

Online trolls meanwhile were angered by something else. They were angered by a poem. Gujarati poet Parul Khakkar’s poem titled ‘Shabvahini Ganga’ - Corpse laden Ganga, irked many.
Khakkar came under attack on social media for writing the poem critical of the prime minister. Just like the images of the rivers that suddenly became hearses and showed the truth that authorities were trying to wrap in denial, the poem and its message also could not be stopped.

Khakkar in her poem originally written in Gujarati says - “‘All is well’, said the dead in one voice… O King, in your Ram-rajya, Ganga is laden with corpses...

The poem talks about the scene of death playing out on the streets and homes, of flames of the pyres, and adds - “If you dare, come ahead and say - our king is naked…”