Punjab and the nameless dead

By Inderjit Singh Jaijee


On September 1, in District Jind just near the Padarth Khera bridge over the Barwala Link, some 3 kms east of Khanauri, five bodies were spotted. They had floated down the Bhakra Canal – somehow going over the Khanauri barrage. As the horror of this sight was sinking in, a sixth body was spotted caught under the bridge. And then, out of the five bodies, a body was spotted near the canal bank – two dogs were dragging it out of the water. Passersby told us that bones and skulls are often found in the fields near this place – all that is left of the victims after the dogs have fed.

Who did those bodies belong to? Few are ever identified by name and village. By the time they reach Khanauri or the Barwala Link, wallets, clothes and shoes are gone. Submersion generally takes less than ten days to obliterate the features and erode the skin so that even marks such as tattoos are no longer visible. It is logical that most of the bodies belonged to people who lived in Ropar or Patiala districts because, of the Bhakra Canal’s 164 kms, only 5 kms fall in Haryana, 159 km fall in Punjab and of this 159, 157 kms pass through Ropar and Patiala district.

The very fact that these bodies are unidentified makes it imperative to care about them. One obvious reason we should care is ethical and compassionate. If the phrase, “human dignity” has any meaning at all, then no body should end up as a sodden corpse attracting only the attention of dogs. Indifference to such a situation demeans the living no less than the dead.

A less idealistic reason, we should care about these bodies involves the State as the upholder of law and justice. An effort must be made to not only establish the identity of the body but also the cause of death. Some may have died of accidental drowning, some may have committed suicide, some might have been murdered and then thrown in the canal. These latter cry out to the State for justice.

The police aversion to filing missing person reports is well documented. A body fished out of the canal is no longer a missing person – they have been found. Every effort must be made to piece together the story of who they were and how they died. In doing so, it will also throw into sharp relief the difference between the number of unidentified persons whose whereabouts come to light and the number of persons whom the police record as missing. In other words, if 40 bodies turn up in the Bhakra Canal every month and the total number of missing person cases recorded monthly by the Ropar and Patiala police is less that ten, then something is wrong.

To the credit of the police, the department has recently taken corrective action on this front. A police officer has been posted at Khanauri to watch for bodies at the Khanauri head. An officer is on duty every day and maintains a register of detected bodies. For the past several months, the average number of bodies sighted has been between 35 and 40 per month. This is a good first step towards seriously addressing the ‘missing persons’ issue.

The watchful officer has noted around 35 to 40 per month – but some bodies float past Khanauri at night and remain unseen. Others may be submerged or may otherwise escape notice. Suppose that an additional 8 to 10 bodies go unnoticed (ie. About 20 per cent) – that would take the monthly average up to about 60. Multiplying by 12, gives an annual number of not less than 700. This is a conservative estimate. Over a period of ten years, the figure would be 7,000. It may be recalled that the statewide rural suicide census conducted by Punjab universities for a ten-year period, mentioned close to 7,000 suicide deaths by all means (poison, hanging, drowning, etc). Here we have 7000 deaths in ten years in just two districts from drowning alone. As per studies of rural suicides, death by drowning accounted for only about 5 per cent.


Ensure recovery

Bodies should not be allowed to float downstream into Haryana. The Haryana police do not care about a stolen car from Punjab, much less will they care about some unidentified body from Punjab. Every effort should be made to recover bodies from the Bhakra Canal at the Khanauri barrage. This can be done by exercising close attention and facilitating the detection of the bodiesInstall underwater lightingInstall sieve nets just behind the off take to the Barwala Link that flows into Haryana to keep the bodies from passing into Haryana.

Appoint divers (Today a diver charges as much as Rs 20,000 to recover a body. A poor man cannot pay so much. Government should appoint divers.)

Set up a mortuary

Haryana has established a modern mortuary at Agroha about 60 kms downstream from Khanauri. Many of the bodies of drowned persons would be from Punjab.The Punjab government should set up a mortuary at Khanauri

Follow forensic procedureEstablished forensic procedure should be followed in the case of every body recovered

It should be photographed, fingerprinted and a DNA sample taken

Exact cause of death should be established. A person may be murdered and then thrown in the canal

Police records should be checked to try to match the recovered body with descriptions of missing persons. If the local police was not informed about a missing person whose discription matches the recovered body, then police should seek to find out why they were given no such information.

Photographs of the recovered body should be published in widely circulated newspapers.

De-criminalise suicide.

Often families do not disclose suicide out of fear that they will be victimized by the police. Specifically, they fear extortion at the hands of the police and/or they fear that they will be compelled to take the body to a distant hospital for post mortem although they cannot afford to do so.

Other measures:

Residents of Khanauri have built a guest house and maintain it. The local gurdwara supplies food to people who come in search of their missing relatives. The government should contribute to this laudable local initiative.

Government should provide an ambulance to carry bodies. Earlier this year, the government sent an ancient broken-down vehicle to Khanauri. When this vehicle proved to be past repair, the local MP provided an ambulance out of his MPLAD.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.