The tragedy of Amritsar is that we can get away with the story that no one was responsible in a causal sense.
The train tragedy in Amritsar needs a retelling because there is something strange about news today. The papers are full of scandal and outrage, of disaster and scapegoating. One would think there is a great demand for justice and care. But once the blame game as a ritual is over, once the scapegoats are nailed, interest in a disaster fades.
There are two ways of looking at such an event. One is to set up a committee to investigate the event, list out the causes rationally and propose a set of reforms. This is more a ritual which signals the state is back after a long absence.
The other way is to look at the event the way it is consumed and consider how people responded. There are different time segments that we have to consider here. In a moment of crisis, there is a tremendous flow of energy, anger and emotion like a waterfall is waiting to be harnessed. The melodrama of the blame game exhausts and traps most of the energy. Eventually, like Navjot Singh Sidhu after the Amritsar tragedy, we tote it up as God’s wrath. Faith in God also adds up in a strange way to sense that disasters, even those which are manmade, claim no accountability. I realise causation is difficult to establish. Do we blame the railways for allowing the pandal so close to the tracks? Do we blame the police for their failure to control the crowd? In a festive moment, where no one is anticipating such a tragedy, how does one assign blame? Yet do we dismiss the Amritsar event, where 61 people died, as an act of God? Will that do? It is not only a question of responsibility. It is a question of whether such an event could have been prevented.
Think of a public space. Does it have rituals of safety? Does human life count in these cases? Are 61 deaths to be dismissed as a meaningless event, an act of chance or a strange combination of circumstances where no one was responsible? Most events in India become just part of the anarchy and the disorder of our lives does not allow for any rational narrative.
This brings one to a different set of questions. Suppose we had some kind of heuristic analysis about such events as a manmade possibility rather than something for the gods. Would that require a different culture of value and meaning? In our current culture, the 61 dead are political football in an electoral system which is looking for any issue. But suppose we were to suggest that Indian democracy values votes not lives that we write odes to citizenship and empowerment but we are indifferent to the cost of lives. People dying in disasters, accidents and communal violence are written off. I do not think our society feels any sense of responsibility for them. The railways immediately accused the dead for being “trespassers” and disclaimed any responsibility. Politicians, as political and moral luck would have it, will claim that they left the area a mere 10 minutes before the disaster took place, and were therefore ignorant to the accident or innocent. There are two sets of problems here. Everyone wants to disclaim responsibility and no one wants to sit and ponder whether Amritsar requires a new civics.
I describe civics as a moral and social relationship; a rule game that demands accounting and opts for a wager that human life is worth something. If the dead are only treated as erasable or obsolescent, nothing is going to add up. Think of a simple question how much is the worth of human life and how can society make it more worthy.
I am not proposing a cost benefit analysis or an invasion of ambulance-chasing insurance firms. Putting a price to life commoditises it, but can we put number as a metaphor for concern? Let us reverse the question what society and governance have to do to atone for the meaningless death of 61 lives? Is an act of mourning or commemoration enough? Do we accept responsibility for families of the dead? Do we promise each other that such an event will not happen again? To do that we have to value life not look at a human being as friend, kin, worker, citizen or neighbour but as person, as a set of untold stories. If such a person is potentially priceless, how does one create a civic response to an event like the Amritsar tragedy?
We need to move from politics to civics, to a sense of community with rules. A certain minimum competence is required. A wise administrator once told me that to an ordinary MLA roads and trees are sources of opportunity and corruption. Between cutting trees and building useless roads, we create landslides. Yet landslides are seen as God sent. We never ask the wider contextual question of what are the manmade forces that increase the probability of a disaster. Was Amritsar a disaster waiting to happen? I think so it was an accident which was not quite accidental. How do we minimise the disaster of such an event?
I think we begin with civics and civilisation before we move to politics or policy programmes. We have to begin with life and human life and the way we value it. Only then are we a moral community. The cities have become amoral communities because they show no responsibility for the other. The Gandhian idea of the last man should cover all. Otherwise all we will have is fragmenting bureaucracies disowning all responsibility for disaster and insisting like the railway minister that the file is mentally closed. Only this sense of morality, trusteeship and the responsibility to the other creates a moral community. What we saw in the train disaster in Amritsar was this absence of moral outrage, caring. We are looking for scapegoats like a mob but there was little sense of caring or responsibility. The tragedy of Amritsar is that we can get away with the story that no one was responsible in a causal sense. But Amritsar cannot get away with the contention that no one was responsible in a moral sense. The train disaster is a fable for whatever is going on in India. Retelling the story would be the step in returning to a moral community. Without that electoral democracies are meaningless.