It seems the dead have come back to haunt West Bengal government! The state, which has been caught on the wrong foot time and again when it comes to its handling of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on multiple counts, now finds itself in a spot over the handling of dead bodies. A PIL has been filed in the Calcutta High Court with regards to disrespectful handling of dead bodies, hushed up burials and cremations keeping family members in the dark and even refusing to let near and death ones see the dead bodies one last time.
Admitted by the division bench of Chief Justice Thottahil B Nair Radhakrishnan and Justice Arijit Banerjee, the matter will come up for hearing on 11 June by when West Bengal government has been directed to file a reply.
The petitioner, Vineet Ruia, who spearheads an NGO, is breathing fire. “There is absolutely no respect for the departed souls here. We have lost two close relatives due to COVID-19 in our family but weren’t even allowed to see their faces even. The hospital called us to settle the bills and we were given a form stating that we are unable to cremate the bodies and are authorising the state government to cremate them on our behalf. We refused and asked for the bodies but were told that no one would cremate the bodies if we took it along and we would have to roam around the streets with the corpses,” he says.
The Ruia family ordeal didn’t end there. They followed the body to the Dhapa area along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass connecting the twin cities of Salt Lake and Kolkata, where the bodies — wrapped in plastic — were carried by the authorities. “The area is completely out of bounds for everyone and fully barricaded by the police. We are refused entry and my brother’s car number was also noted down. He was told he couldn’t stop anywhere on the way and must go back to Howrah. The car was stopped virtually at every signal and cops kept repeating the same advisory. We have gathered that about two or three bodies are being cremated together in electric furnaces beyond the barricades,” he adds.
Citing Article 21 of the Constitution under which right to dignity for the living and dead have been quoted in cases elsewhere in the country as well, the petitioner has also pointed to gross irregularities and lack of transparency on the part of the West Bengal government when it comes to dealing with the dead. Questions are being asked as to why in spite of guidelines issued by the union health ministry on 15 March and WHO guidelines on 24 March regarding the adoption of controlled handling of COVID-19 corpses, the West Bengal government is cloaking it with a shroud.
“As soon as a patient enters the hospital, family members are completely shut off. They are not allowed to meet, have no idea about the kind of treatment being done. Hospitals remember them only during payments and after bodies are whisked away post signing of that document prepared by the government, family members are asked to go and collect the cremation certificate. Last rites also cannot be performed as ashes aren’t being handed over either,” says Ruia.
The fact that even bodies of patients — whose cause of death is being cited as co-morbidities — are not being handed over is raising serious doubts. While Bengal BJP President Dilip Ghosh has gone on record to say that dead bodies are being secretly burnt by the Mamata Banerjee government and actual COVID-19 casualty figures are being fudged, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar too has put the government role under scanner on the same count.
The TMC on its part has been categorical to dismiss all allegations levelled by BJP and Governor Dhankhar as being politically motivated with an eye on elections. But the big question is why politics should play out on its own and the rhetoric only grow shriller in the coming months. For those who have suffered the colossal loss of loved ones during this period, is the dignity of the dead too much to ask for?