Dussehra this year seemed to arrive in India as misery masked with festivities. On the evening of 19th October 2018, Joda Phatak in Amrtisar stood witness to a tragedy, that will take days and days to overcome and mourn. More than 500 people were gathered in a ground near the tracks, to watch the Ravana dahan. It was amidst these festivities, that some of the revelers moved towards the tracks to get a better view of the Ravana effigy.
The loud voice of the crackers, along with the hustle-bustle of the crowd made them oblivious to the sounds of the incoming train, witnesses say. The train tragedy has claimed at least 61 lives so far, with several injured. As the families of the deceased and affected slowly come to terms with the reality, the nation has started to question. Who is to be blamed for the wreckage, for the mass grieving?
How the tragedy unfolded
The Chief Minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh has already ordered a magisterial enquiry into the mishap that gave the Dussehra festivities the most sordid twist.
On the evening of Friday, a large crowd had gathered at the Dhobi Ghat grounds for the Dussehra celebrations. While several people had already been standing near the tracks, because of the elevation advantage, many more had moved there to get a clearer view of the effigy burning. In the middle of this furore, along with the blaring noise of the fire-crackers, nobody heard as the train from Jalandhar to Amritsar came in full speed, mowing down several in the process. By a cruel stroke of luck, a train going in the opposite direction came wheezing by a few seconds later, crushing those who had jumped on the parallel track to save themselves.
Rescue operations began soon after, with the crowd still in shock. The CM has declared free treatment of all those injured in the train accident. The government of Punjab has declared October 20th as the day of mourning in the state, with all offices and educational institutions closed.
The blame game
The moment the nation began to recollect itself after the incident, naturally, people wanted to know why and how things had taken such an ugly turn. According to those present on the site, both the trains were going at the regular, not-slowed down speeds when they crashed into the crowd. So, the first fingers raised were at the Railways. However, the driver of the first train is being questioned by the Punjab and railways police. According to him, he had been given the green signal to move forward, with no information regarding the Dussehra celebrations so close to the tracks.
Upon being asked why the driver did not slow down the train, a senior railways official has said that “There was so much smoke that the driver was unable to see anything and he was also negotiating a curve”. The crossing in that region is unmanned, and according to the railways, level-crossing was closed at the time of the incident. Moreover, the Railway department has said that it had not been informed of such an event taking place, similar to the driver’s statement.
According to the police, the organisers of the event- said to be Congress officials- have gone underground and have not been traced till now. The locals say that Ravan Dahan has been taking place at the same time for over 20 years now, also adding that two other trains that passed the area earlier, had both slowed down.
Ashwani Lohani, Railway Board Chairman has issued a statement, saying that the train had been running at its assigned speed, and according to the initial reports, the driver had applied breaks, slowing the train down.
Who was responsible for the tragedy?
Like in every other mis-happening that takes place, this one also has raised several fingers- all pointing in different directions. The Railway department says the situation could have been more fatal, had the driver applied emergency breaks, thus, increasing the chances of de-railing. Amidst the confusion and the ensuing chaos, the question still lingers- who will account for so many lives that were untimely and unfairly lost?
One thing is certain- politicisng or cashing in on the tragedy is the most problematic thing one can do at the moment. This is not to say that justice shouldn’t be served, but merely that we must not lose our humanity facing this brutal incident. An event that was bound to be loud out of proportions, and swarmed with people should not have been organised barely 50 meters away from the train tracks in the first place. It remains the responsibility of local authorities,to, in their capacity, prevent any such faulty arrangement. Secondly, had the railway department been aware of the event, and all the trains subsequently slowed down, the tragedy could at least have been minimized.
Most of all, this horrific turn of events calls for an immediate introspection. At the end of the day, our lives are ours, and we must never treat them with missed vigilance or protection. The CCTV footage shows people in the crowd clicking selfies near the train tracks. Even if the authorities- be it the railway or the organisers- could put in better security measures, we must first assure our own safety.
That being said, the whole nation has come together to console those in grieving. Of course, it will take a long time before things resemble anything close to a normal life. But till then, we stand in solidarity.