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Aurangabad Tragedy: The death of an instinct

Last Updated : 13 May 2020, 01:44 IST
Last Updated : 13 May 2020, 01:44 IST

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The celebrated American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) once identified the human thigh bone with a healed fracture found in a 15,000-year-old archeological site as the earliest sign of civilisation. She observed that the healing of the bone suggested that the person must have been taken care of for an extended period of time by his own species. In the animal kingdom perhaps, such a thing would not have been possible because of the lack of this civilisational trait or instinct of care for each other. An animal with a broken bone would have possibly died for lack of healing.

That primeval instinct -- of care and empathy -- among humans is now on the wane, it appears. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Aurangabad where 16 migrants were run over by a train in the early hours of the morning while they were asleep, the kind of questions that the incident generated, especially among the urban middle class and the affluent strata of society, were shocking, even macabre. The people, in general, had this to ask: Why did they sleep on the rail track? Worse, they implied that they were idiots and crazy, that these rustics invited their fate. Prima facie, the reaction appears rational-logical.

I grew up in a village close to a railway township that had one of the prominent locomotive workshops of Eastern Railways. There were rail tracks that passed through my village almost dissecting its length and breadth. While some tracks were pretty busy round the clock, there was one called a ‘shunting yard’ track, which was occasionally used to either ferry or dump abandoned rail bogeys or just to station a fresh one. It was common to see cattle herders stray that side and let the buffaloes enjoy the lush green patches around. Many of these folks would just lie down, with their heads on the side-track of the shunting yard as if it were a pillow. The Aurangabad incident brought those childhood images and visuals rushing to my mind.

Both networks, the road and the rail, happen to be powerful signposts of colonial design that were aimed to, at one level, streamline and organise the wild and haphazard sense of direction among the natives; to bring about some order in their otherwise messy eternal sense of time and space. These networks were created, ironically, to connect the emerging metropolitan urban centres and industrial towns with the countryside. The hapless migrant workers in the Aurangabad tragedy, who after being told that the rail services were all closed in the lockdown, only followed that colonial prescription that had a certain unilinearity and certainty about direction. The rail track was a better option to walk along, given that roads were being manned by the police who were discouraging these men and women from moving ahead to their villages. With the metropolitan centres conveniently choosing to show their backs to them, and left with barely some rotis and enormous raw will-power of their feet and inexhaustible urge to reach their homes, the migrants did everything as per the charter of rational protocol. They stuck to the tracks of modernity so that they did not lose the direction to their destination. The elevated tracks must have given them a sense of cushion in that deadly dark night when they collapsed in a heap after continuous long walk. The marshy land, with wild grass around, as the visuals from the accident site indicate, would have looked relatively unsafe. In any case, they decided to walk along and sleep by the tracks under the impression that no trains would be running.

The phrases that the metropolitan middle class frequently use -- “slept like a zombie” or “slept like a log” -- would simply recoil in embarrassment at the extent of exhaustion that the deadly mix of hunger and continuous physical hardship and labour can bring forth. To empathise with that moment, one would need some exposure to the disprivileged world of the margins. Sadly, the millennial and middle-class urban India have hardly ever been trained in experiential learning. It is precisely because of this training to think in a particular way that logic trumps all other senses of enquiry and the instrumental rationality obfuscates all other modes of thinking and observing.

What is left to say about a world so dumb and numb as to ask such a question -- “Why did you sleep on the track”, indeed, to the heap of dead bodies amidst scattered rotis all around the rail track? The fact that a large number of twitterati, chatterati, whatsappers and even some genuinely well-meaning and quite educated people asked this question on social media is nothing but another reminder of the pathologies of crass modernity and the hollowness of an education system that simply ignored the humanness in the humanities and celebrated complete surrender to the dictates of technology and its associated mercantilism.

With every passing day, as hundreds and thousands of migrant men, women and children inch closer to their homes, fighting all odds and even death, the heavily masked urban India and its privileged gentry are, ironically, getting exposed by their complete lack of any connect with the world at large. The root of the malady is the loss of that primeval civilisational instinct of care that Margaret Mead identified as quintessentially human. To revive that instinct, we will have to perhaps teach our children in schools the instructions from the old vernacular moral code -- that of not belittling the dead, howsoever imperfect they were when alive. In any case, this one question, my friend, has decisively cleared the smokescreen around all our tall claims of modernity and civilizational achievements.

(The writer is a Sociologist with the Global Studies Programme, School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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Published 12 May 2020, 23:59 IST

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