Rajat Sharma

The truth about immersion and burial of bodies near Ganga in UP

AKBToday I want to touch upon a sensitive and emotional issue that relates to the soul of almost every Indian. Now that the second wave of pandemic is clearly declining, one can take a dispassionate view about why more than a hundred bodies were found floating in river Ganga from Unnao, Kanpur and Prayagraj up to Buxar and Patna in Bihar during the first two weeks of May. There are still several hundred bodies buried in the sands near the banks of Ganga in Prayagraj, which are now being cremated.

When I first saw visuals of bodies floating in river, and buried in the sands near the river bank, the first thought that crossed my mind was: How can people be so cruel and insensitive? How can people immerse bodies of their near and dear ones in the river, or bury them in the sand? Have people lost their sense? Normally, in Hinduism, bodies are cremated after performing religious rituals in the hope that the soul attains salvation.

When news broke about the floating of bodies in Ganga, several explanations were given. Some said, since the number of people dying due to Covid was large, relatives of the dead feared they would get the virus if they touched the body for final rituals. It was because of this dread that bodies were either immersed in river or buried near the banks. I could not believe this explanation because most of the bodies found floating in river Ganga were not covered with polythene as per Covid protocol. Clearly, these bodies were not taken from hospital mortuaries.

The second explanation given was: Since the number of dead was large, prices of fuel wood and ‘samagri’ (final ritual pooja articles) had gone up, and since the families were poor, they opted to either immerse the body in Ganga or bury their dead. It is true that the number of people who were dying of Covid was growing day-by-day in almost three digits, but I was unwilling to accept the fact that people would go to the extent of immersing or burying their near and dear ones.

Whatever may be the compulsions, there was huge amount of politicking on this sensitive issue. From Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra to Akhilesh Yadav’s party men, everybody was questionable who was responsible for this shameful incident? There was no harm in raising such questions, but when images of bodies floating in Ganga or buried in sand near the Ganga banks were published in international newspapers like New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian, and videos went viral on the internet, it caused a huge uproar. But nobody tried to touch the basic question: why people would immerse the dead in the river or bury their dear ones near Ganga river.

India TV reporters and researchers delved deeply into the facts, and spoke to relatives of the dead to find out what were the compulsions that made them immerse the bodies in the river or bury them in sand. What was it that made people, instead of cremating the bodies, put ‘Ramnaami’ cloth on the bodies and buried them near the river banks? The visuals were disturbing and the questions were unnerving, to say the least.

Let me read out the English translation of a report from Unnao published in a Hindi daily newspaper: 104 bodies found floating in Ganga near Unnao, local administration officials reach river banks. Local officials brought JCB machines and buried the bodies in sand near the river bank. Funeral rites were carried out with expenses borne by the government. Police prevent political workers who came to protest over burial of bodies. Administration warns of strict action against protesters.

You might be presuming that this news report was on what happened two weeks ago due to the second wave of Pandemic. The answer is an emphatic ‘No’. The newspaper publication date is January 14, 2015. This incident took place more than six years ago. The January 14, 2015 issue of Dainik Jagaran, a largely circulated Hindi daily, also reported: More than 100 bodies were found floating in Ganga at Unnao. IG, Police and local officials reached the spot. JCB machines were brought to dig graves for these bodies in sand. The news report also mentioned how crows, vultures and jackals were feeding on corpses. The year was 2015, and at that time, BJP leaders were raising questions over this incident. Local BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj demanded that the Centre should probe into the matter. He suspected these bodies may have floated to Unnao in the river from Kannauj and Farrukhabad.

Similar news reports were published this month in newspapers. This time, Samajwadi Party leaders were pointing their fingers at the BJP government. They alleged that local officials buried the bodies in sand to hide the exact number of deaths due to Covid.

In the last six years, only time has changed, the government has changed, the parties on opposite sides have changed, but the number of dead has increased. The fact is: Bodies were being immersed or buried near Ganga then, and now too. On Wednesday, the Hindi daily ‘Jagaran’ published pictures of bodies buried in 2018 and 2021 side by side. When trolls circulated pictures of buried bodies on internet, they did not check whether the bodies had been buried this month, or three years ago.

For the last two weeks, India had been getting a bad name in the international media because of images of bodies buried in the river sands. It is being projected as if Indians do not have enough money to cremate their dead properly. People are not getting fuel wood and are immersing the dead in river Ganga, or, at best, burying them in the sandy banks of Ganga. There were big banner headlines in world newspapers and videos of these bodies went viral on internet. Newspapers like The Telegraph of London, The Guardian and Los Angeles Times published these photographs and declared India as a vast graveyard. Some newspapers claimed, 10 lakh Indians have died of Covid till now, while some put their calculation of fatalities at 5 lakhs. Since the images were frightening, since there was hardly any scope left for doubts, since these were not mere claims, but images to support those claims, the news reports had a wider impact.

I sent our reporter Ruchi Kumar to Shringverpur ghat in Prayagraj. She went to nearby villages and spoke to residents. One fact became quite clear, that people had died of Covid, and their bodies were either immersed in Ganga or buried in the sands at the river banks. Locals agreed that the number of bodies floating in Ganga this year was more compared to earlier years. Most of the villagers said that it was part of customary tradition for families to immerse the bodies of their dear ones in river of bury them in sands near Ganga with ‘Ramnaami’ cloth over the grave. Villagers said, though bodies are normally cremated according to Hindu rituals, but in times of pandemic or mass deaths, they can also be immersed in river or buried in sands near river banks.

Bodies used to be immersed in Ganga earlier too, and at that point of time, nobody raised questions. Since it was the second wave of pandemic this time, which was taking a big toll daily in India, the attention of world newspapers was focused on this aspect of burial of bodies. The international media made it a big story by publishing images of those buried in sands to highlight the point that most Indians are poor and cannot afford cremation, which was incorrect. The fact is, poor families get cremation expenses from local administration, but since it was the time of pandemic, they opted to immerse or bury their dead. It was incorrect on part of international media to term Indians as “insensitive”. I can only say, our people are not “insensitive”, nor are they financially very weak. There are some customs or traditions that they follow, and to follow them is not a crime.

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