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Poll Bound Kerala Jolted by Temple Tragedy

Electoral politics with communal tinge is defining the aftermath of Kollam temple tragedy

Policy Pulse
Publish Date: Apr 25 2016 3:05PM | Updated Date: Apr 25 2016 3:07PM

Poll Bound Kerala Jolted by Temple Tragedy

Electoral politics with communal tinge is defining the aftermath of the Kollam temple tragedy. The same might well be the reason to its cause, writes Vijay Grover 


If the Kolkata flyover tragedy triggered a raging political debate in the run-up to the West Bengal polls, the Kollam temple tragedy which left over 109 dead and 350 injured was preyed on by local and central leaders to gain political mileage. 
 
The game of one-upmanship started with both the State and Centre vying with each other to take credit for responding first to the tragedy. While the Kerala Police, which lost a sizeable number of its men to the tragedy, dived in to reach the injured to the hospitals and save lives, the Central government spared no effort in demonstrating its concern for the victims. The Prime Minister flew in the same day to oversee the relief work. The Central Government pressed into action its resources. The Defence forces based in Kochi were deputed to lend a helping hand by providing rescue helicopters to move the victims for specialized treatments in Kochi and Trivandrum.
 
But it was the spirit of the citizens of Kollam which came to the fore, as thousands gathered resources to help the injured and joined the relief work.  Twitter was used actively to seek volunteer support and information flow was facilitated with media playing a dynamic role in updating information. 
 
Despite the shock and personal losses, residents of the temple neighbourhood wasted no time in moving the injured to the hospitals in Kollam, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. Shrijeet, a resident of Paravoor, Kollam whose own house was damaged, was a witness of the tragedy early Sunday morning.  Speaking to Policypulse Shrijeet recalls the nightmare - “I was standing with my friend at a distance watching the fireworks which started around 12:30 am. Towards the end, at 3:30 am all hell broke loose as crackers started bursting just behind us. I hid behind a concrete house so I escaped with minor injuries, my house has suffered severe damage, but my friend who was with me was caught in the middle and suffered severe burns”. 
 
The Puttingal Devi temple tragedy made international headlines due to the trail of death and destruction it left behind. 
 
As the VIP visits ended, the investigation began and judicial probe was ordered into the tragedy. The million dollar question that every resident of the locality around the devastated temple asking now is how did the fireworks display take place on such a big scale when permission was denied for the same in the first place? Who gave the covert go ahead? Which party or politician yielded to the pressure of the Puttingal Devi temple management?
 
Pankajakshi, a retired teacher, whose house is barely 30 metres from the temple had been protesting the display of fireworks, which had become a competitive sport, for the last few years. The Temple management had ignored her repeated pleas to stop the fireworks show for over four years. Pankajakshi said that while the people in the area were disturbed every year, they would not complain due to the clout of the Temple authorities and fearing the wrath of the goddess housed in the Temple.
 
Despite the intimidation and the pressure of the Temple authorities Pankajakshi’s family approached the district officials with a complaint against the fireworks competition. Pankajakshi’s daughter Anita told Policypulse, “How can one have a competition for fireworks in a residential area with deafening sounds and call it a sport? My mother complained to the district collector on April 1 against the fireworks show as it had damaged our house. Besides, the huge noise created by the show, which lasts several hours, had been causing health problems for us”. Pankajakshi being a heart patient has had to move away from the locality during the event. 
 
The family whose hose has been extensively damaged in the fireworks tragedy has the same question to ask, but none seems to have a clear answer.
 
The powerful Temple administration simply ignored the ban order, as they got the backing of local politicians with an eye on elections. On the streets around the temple, one could find banners and posters of several prominent local leaders greeting the people for the temple festival. Despite the ban, the temple authorities had managed to spread the word that the display and the annual firecrackers competition would take place. 
 
Shrijeet’s friend was one of the many who had received a message on Whatsapp informing that the fireworks would start past midnight. “I was told by my friend that though the competition was not permitted by the collector, but the ban order was only till 9th April. So Temple authorities would wait till past midnight, which technically made it 10th April to start the fireworks”, added Shrijeet.
 
Fireworks have been an integral part of not just the Puttingal Devi temple festivities but of every temple in the State. While fireworks display takes place every year, the District Administration had refused to allow the same on 9th April acting on the complaints it had received. Questions are being raised about the nod given by the local police station. But the answers to all the hows and whos might emerge only when the judicial team investigating into the incident tables its report after six months. 
 
In the election season, it is emerged clear though that politics has a hand in the tragedy. Policypulse has learned that both Additional District Magistrate A Shanavas and District Collector A Shainamol, who were instrumental in denying permission for the fireworks display also had to face the ire of local politicians and Hindu groups. The local politicians painted the issue of denied permission with communal colour taking advantage of the fact that both Shanavas and Shainamol belonged to the minority Muslim community.
 
The vague response of the Kollam Police to the issue of permission for the fireworks also proves that the local police buckled under political pressure. The deployed policemen failed in their duty to enforce the ban and stop the fireworks display. Kollam City Police Commissioner P Prakash told the media, “The organisers requested us to allow the show as a ritual at least. We asked them to come to us with permission. Just before the event, they said they had got the permission. When we demanded a written order, they refused to show it and started the show.” 
 
Did J Krishnankutty Pillai, secretary of the Puttingal Dewaswam Managing Committee mislead the district administration? In his application, Pillai had said the fireworks display was being organised by a single party and was not a competition between various contractors. Despite the plea, the ADM Shanavas in his order refused permission and marked a copy to Superintendent of Police, Kollam, and Assistant Commissioner of Police. 
 
Policypulse learns that once the order was issued and the Collector, Shainamol, agreed to the ban, that communal angle came to the fore.  The role of Labour Minister Shibu Baby John is being probed. The Minister had called the Collector to demand a change in her stand and advised her not to upset religious sentiments. Even local Hindu groups also used the ban order to target the ruling Congress party. It has emerged that at the last moment the police officers and local politicians decided to go ahead with the fireworks display.  
 
Defending the Police for being a mute spectator and not stopping the fireworks display, Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala told Policypulse, “When there are thousands of people, if there was police action (sic), it would have lead to another problem. So we have to consider all these aspects.”
 
Meanwhile the UDF government led by Oomen Chandy has announced a compensation of Rs.10 lakhs for the deceased, and ordered a Judicial probe well knowing that any lapse would be exploited by the Opposition. The BDJS- BJP alliance in particular would keep a close watch on the relief and rehabilitation to detect any lapses and pin the blame on the State government.
 
But the question that would haunt people like Shrijeet and Pankajakshi and hundreds of other victims of the tragedy is who gave the go to the fireworks display despite the ban order?