The big lesson of this week was something we have all always known but we just behave as if it is something that happens to other people and people like us don’t have to worry about it — life is cheap in India. Perhaps of no value if it isn’t your or of someone you love - in that order.
I happened to be at Mahatma Mandir on Thursday afternoon when scores of NIFT students poured on to the campus seeking help to, as they claimed, to rescue one of their classmates. The next hour showed that their expectations and claims may not have been completely in tune with reality, but the sequence of events bared to me the depravity of our society.
Just a quick refresher for someone who missed a few headlines this week. Gujarat government on Thursday was hosting a national summit on Inclusive Urban Development. A few hundred students of NIFT stormed the premises where chief minister Narendra Modi was attending a session on Affordable Housing. Just a few feet outside, these students, and several others on the campus, including yours truly, had entered without being subjected any security check whatsoever.
The students claimed one of their classmates had drowned in the Sabarmati river near Bhat early that morning and that the Gandhinagar fire and emergency services had refused to help citing unavailability of trained firefighters as they were busy in the CM’s security. It later emerged that a team of firefighters from Ahmedabad had indeed reached the spot within a few minutes, but they could not find the boy and left. The students, educated in English medium schools from different parts of the country, demanded that “divers with oxygen” should go in the river as they believed their friend might still be alive and may have drifted due to current. Is that a tall demand?
According to information given to me by fire officers, NIFT sought help of National Disaster Rescue Force (NDRF). The agency would act if it received a written request that local fire department was not equipped to deal with this. At this, our fire officers concluded that the boy would have never survived beyond a few minutes and this exercises would be futile. Besides they were busy with the CM’s function.
Now, cut to Mahatma Mandir. Chaos outside the halls where experts are discussing inclusive urban development and the chief minister is attending a seminar on affordable housing.
The students are shouting, “We need help”. Policemen, officials of a trade body regularly associated with such events and government officials step out of the seminar halls to figure out what’s happening. Not at all amused by the huge crowd of distraught students, the cops exhibit absolute insensitivity by herding them out of the premises without understanding their concerns.
When they resist, heated arguments break out among the teenagers, trade officials, cops, and government officers. One cop looking at the young adults with disdain, screams, “Your friend is dead. Stop harassing us. This is a security breach and you will be in trouble.” This obviously does not have any soothing effect on the crowd. Sobbing hard, one student retorts, “How do you know that for sure?”
Another cop, apparently at his wits end, is heard screaming on the phone, “The CM is sitting inside; the crowd has to be taken out of the building. Once he leaves, this building can come crashing for all I care.” Several delegates showed mild interest in the goings on and absently headed for their lunch.
As my job requires me to do in such situations, I am recording these exchanges on my phone and taking photographs, a well-suited delegate walks up to me and says, “Did you know him? He is dead... If you are so concerned, why don’t you jump into the river instead of taking photographs.” In the next few minutes, a cop turns on me and physically restrains me from doing my job. When I show him my identity card, he “orders” me to not take photographs. Right at this minute, the TV cameras arrive on the campus and I am no more his primary problem. It is at this point, at least 30 minutes after the students first showed up, somebody calls the chief fire officer, who within minutes, sends another team to the spot to pacify the students. NDRF officials were finally called but by then fire department had recovered the body.
The purpose of recounting this incident in such detail is not to make a judgment on the fire department or the students’ conduct but one is concerned about the attitude of bystanders and police officials. Was shouting at the grieving students the best way to handle the situation? There was indeed a security concern on the premises. Thousands of attendees were at risk with people walking in and out of the campus without any security or identity check. The baggage X-Ray scanner doubled up was a show piece at the entrance while the metal detectors beeped loud every second — after the first three hours of the inauguration. Mind you, the CM was still on the premises. The overall apathy and confusion of all officers on campus was worrisome.
Witnessing this spectacle in Mahatma Mandir, a visiting delegate who seemed to agree with me, subtly recalled Bapu’s bhajan, ‘Vaishnav jana to tene kahiye, je peed parayi jane re’.