On 6 August last year a launch overturned in the River Ganges near Manihari Ghat, a remote ferry station in the Indian state of Bihar. Many people drowned, though precisely how many will never be known. The district magistrate estimated the number of dead at around 400, the launch-owner at fourteen. The first estimate was reached by subtraction: 529 tickets had been sold and only a hundred passengers had swum ashore. The second estimate came from the number of bodies the launch-owner said he had counted stretched out on the bank. But then the river was in flood; hundreds of bodies could have been swept far downstream; scores may still be entangled in the wreckage or buried in the silt. The launch-owner had good reason to lie.
It was, in its causes and consequences, an accident which typified the hazards of navigating the River Ganges. Monsoon rains had swollen the river and changed its hydrography, cutting new channels and raising new shoals. The launch was overcrowded. Licensed to carry 160, it seems to have set out with at least three times that number, nearly all of whom were fervent Hindu pilgrims travelling from their villages in north Bihar to a shrine which lies south of the river. Devotees of Lord Shiva, the destroyer, they wore saffron robes and carried pots of sacred Ganges water on their shoulders. Eyewitnesses said the launch left the north bank to the chanting of Shiva’s name, the chorus ‘bol bam’ rising from the massed saffron on the upper deck; until, hardly a hundred metres from the shore, the chants turned into screams.
According to a survivor quoted in the Calcutta newspapers, what happened was this. As the launch moved off, its stern got stuck in the shallows near the bank. The skipper decided to redistribute his vessel’s weight, to lighten the stern by weighing down the bow. He asked his passengers to move forward; the stern bobbed up and the launch surged forward, head down and listing badly, to run a few hundred feet into a submerged sandbank and capsize.
In Bihar a revengeful clamour arose which sought to identify the guilty and exact punishment. The Bihar government and its servants blamed the launch-owner and charged him with murder. The opposition blamed government corruption and the conduct of the police. According to Ajit Kumar Sarkar, a Marxist member of the Bihar Legislative Assembly, the launch took six hours to sink, and many victims could have been saved had not the police beaten back agitated crowds of would-be rescuers on the shore. According to the police, corruption had made their job impossible; almost every Ganges ferry flouted safety legislation because the ferry-owners organized ‘gangs to protect their interest’. Bihar had a ‘steamer mafia’ whose profits had perverted the political administration. Chief among this mafia was Mr Bachcha Singh, the ‘steamer tycoon of Bihar’ and owner of the launch that had gone down at Manihari Ghat.
Some days after the accident another of Mr Singh’s vessels approached the wreck, ostensibly with the task of dragging it off the sandbank and on to the shore. Watchers on the bank, however, saw something different. They saw the second vessel pressing down on the wreckage of the first. It seemed to them that the other ship had come to bury the launch and not to raise it, thus destroying the evidence and, in the words of the Calcutta Telegraph, ‘obscuring the gravity of the tragedy’. In the face of public protest the second ship backed off.
Where, meanwhile, was the steamer tycoon, Mr Bachcha Singh? Nobody could say. The Chief Minister of Bihar promised ‘stern action’, charges of murder and negligence were registered in the courts and some of Mr Singh’s property was seized. But the police said they could not find Singh himself. He was, in the English of official India, ‘absconding’ and so the courts declared him an ‘absconder’.
Thereafter public interest evaporated with the monsoon rains. Manihari Ghat became just another Ganges launch disaster. The people who had died were poor. None had relatives influential enough to secure the lasting attention of the press or the government, both of which in any case were soon preoccupied with other problems.
What was the precise truth of the affair? Nobody could say. Truth in its least elevated and most humble sense, truth as detail, truth as times and numbers, truth arrived at by observation and deduction – this kind of truth left the scene early. Like Mr Singh, it absconded. Unlike Mr Singh, it did not reappear.
Six months later I met the steamer tycoon at his house in Patna, the state capital. To European eyes, the house looked like something a Nazi cineaste might have built. It had the smooth curves of a pre-war suburban Odeon and a large tower with two large swastikas etched high up in the concrete; they were visible from my cycle rickshaw long before the mansion itself swung into view. Mr Singh had called it ‘Swastika House’ – the name was on the gate – but only because he was a devout Hindu and the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol of good fortune.
Fortune had been good to Mr Singh. It was manifest in his living arrangements, the dozens of domestic servants, his house’s fifty bedrooms and thirty bathrooms, the superior quality of his tipped cigarettes. All of this (and a good deal else – apartments in Calcutta, real estate in the USA) derived from Mr Singh’s role as the Ganges’ principal ferryman. But his person as opposed to his surroundings seemed untouched by wealth. He was a small old man with heart trouble who wore loose Indian clothes and tapped ash from his Gold Flake King Size into an old spittoon.
We sat on his terrace and drank tea from mugs. I wondered about the murder charge. What had happened to it?
Nothing, said Singh, the case would never come to court. Did I understand the caste system? In Bihar caste was the key to everything. The murder charge had been instigated by the then Chief Minister, who was a Brahmin. Singh belonged to the Rajput caste, and Rajputs were the Brahmins’ greatest political rivals. The charge had been politically inspired.
‘Now the Chief Minister is a Rajput. He is known to me. Case finish.’
He apologized for his English and called for his son, who, he said, would be more intelligible to me. This proved to be only partly true. The younger Singh was reading Business Administration at Princeton University, ferry profits having dispatched him to the United States when he was an infant, and his English crackled with the abrasive nouns of the new capitalism. ‘Cash-burn … acquisition and diversification … buy-out.’ It was strange to hear these words in Bihar, still governed by ancestry and feudal law, but they completely matched the younger Singh’s appearance. In T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, he might have stepped out of a college tennis game. The sight of son next to father, crouched beside his spittoon, was a testament to the transforming power of money.
The father had recalled his son to Patna soon after what both referred to, opaquely, as ‘the tragedy’. The son looked at his new surroundings with cold eyes. Corruption, poverty, ignorance, tradition – they ruled life here. It was sickening. Outside the family, nobody could be trusted. Did I know, for example, that after the tragedy peasants from adjacent villages had brought newly-dead relatives to the river, so that their bodies could be discreetly inserted among the launch’s victims and compensation claimed?
I hadn’t heard that, but maybe it was true; Bihar can sometimes be a desperate place. But what did he think had caused the accident?
‘Panic and stupidity,’ said the younger Singh. He thought for a moment. ‘Basically these people weren’t willing to make the smart move and analyse the situation.’
Of course these were ludicrous words; passengers packed on a tilting motor launch cannot be expected to plan their next five minutes like Wall Street commodity brokers. But the longer I travelled through Bihar, squashed on trains and river boats, the more I recognized the younger Singh’s detachment as an indigenous sentiment rather than an American import.
Certain facts about Bihar were undeniable. The launch-owners were greedy and their craft decrepit and dangerous; the police were corrupt and tended to enforce the law of the highest bidder – the younger Singh said himself that his family had put off police inquiries with a few thousand rupees; and covert supplies of money moved through the system at every level – an honest police-officer could have his orders countermanded by a corrupt district administrator, an honest district administrator could be transferred or demoted by a corrupt politician. To behave dutifully and honestly in this amoral environment involved great courage and sacrifice. It was no surprise that the safety of the travelling public, especially a public so lacking in clout, did not figure highly in the minds of their appointed guardians.
My fellow-travellers would talk quite frankly about all this – humbug is not a Bihari vice – but then they also echoed the younger Singh: people in Bihar, they would say, did not know how to behave. They were ‘uneducated’ and ‘ignorant’ and, most of all, ‘backward’. The populations of western democracies hesitate – still – to describe their fellow-citizens so bluntly, at least in public. But Biharis have no such inhibitions. The ancient social pyramid of caste enables those at the top to look down at those below with a dispassionate prejudice, at an inferior form of human life.
‘I’m afraid we are not a steady people,’ an old man said to me one day, and I could see exactly what he meant. Often the unsteadiness was frightening. The resources of transportation are scarce all over India; there is a continual press and scramble for tickets and seats wherever you go. But young Biharis travel on the roofs of trains even when the compartments below are empty and rush listing ferries like a piratical horde. Even the old and lame press forward as though fleeing some imminent disaster.
Towards the end of my journey in Bihar I met another Singh, a relative of the steamer tycoon, who operated a couple of old steamboats just upriver from Manihari Ghat. In an interval between crossings he took me up on to the bridge of his ferry, which was berthed at the foot of a steep bank, glistening and slippery with unseasonal rain. At the top of the slope men with staves, Singh’s employees, were restraining a crowd of waiting passengers. Then the steamer’s whistle gave two hoots; the men with staves relented; and the crowd, with its bicycles and milk-churns, came rushing down the bank towards us, slithering and whooping.
Singh looked down at his customers as they milled across the gangplank and then laughed like a man in a zoo. ‘Crazy people. What can you do with them?’
On 15 April this year ninety-five people were crushed to death on the terraces of a football stadium in Sheffield, northern England. Most of the dead came from Liverpool, and all of them were supporters of Liverpool football club, who that day were to play Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of English football’s premier knock-out competition, the Football Association Cup. The deaths came six minutes after the kick-off. The match was then abandoned.
I read about the disaster in Delhi on my way back to London. Newspaper reports speculated on the possible causes and recalled that the behaviour of Liverpool fans had prompted the crush which killed thirty-nine people at the European Cup Final in Brussels in 1985, all of them Italian supporters of the other finalists, Juventus of Turin. It seemed something similar had happened in Sheffield. Liverpool fans had swept into the ground and pressed their fellow-supporters forward until they were squashed against the barriers and fences which had been erected some years before to prevent unruly spectators rushing on to the pitch and interfering with the game.
All that winter in India I’d heard about death in Britain. Planes fell to earth and trains left the rails, and Mrs Thatcher’s face appeared on Indian television talking of her sympathy and concern. There were shots of disintegrated fuselages, body bags, shattered railway coaches. Indian friends tutted at the carnage, and I recognized in their reaction the momentary interest – the shake of the head, the small ripple of fascination – that passes through a British living-room when news of some distant tragedy flits before it; say, of the last typhoon to strike Bengal.
Meanwhile, the India I saw reported every day on the news – orderly, calm, soporific – looked more and more like the country I came from – or at least as I had once thought of it. Accidents such as Manihari Ghat were certainly reported, but rarely filmed. We watched the prime minister greeting foreign delegations at the airport, men in good suits addressing seminars and shaking hands, women cutting tapes and accepting bouquets. Indian news, or what India’s government-controlled television judged to be news, took place indoors in an atmosphere notably free of dust, flies and mess. There was a lot of cricket. The mess – grief and ripped metal under arc lights – came from abroad, imported by satellite and shiny film-cans – they were like luxury items, a new spice trade going the other way – which the makers of Indian bulletins slotted in between the hand-shaking and the seminars as if to prove that disaster could overtake the foreign rich as well as the native poor, and that it was not confined to terrorism in the Punjab or the chemical catastrophe at Bhopal.
There were two train crashes in the southern suburbs of London (forty dead); a Pan Am Jumbo which exploded over Lockerbie (270 dead); a Boeing forced to crash-land on a motorway (forty-seven dead). All of them had specific and identifiable causes – a bomb, signal failure, faulty engines – though the roots (what caused the cause?) led to a vaguer territory: under-investment in public utilities, ‘international terrorism’, the collapse of civic feeling under a political leader who has said she cannot grasp the idea of community. This kind of worry – the cause of the cause – had bobbed to the surface of British life like old wreckage ever since the Channel ferry Herald of Free Enterprise turned over at Zeebrugge in 1987, the first in a series of large accidents which has marked Britain out as a literally disastrous country. But from the distance of India, Sheffield looked different. It seemed to turn on the behaviour of a fervent crowd; there was, in that sense, something very Indian about it.
When my landlord in Delhi said he thought football in England must have assumed ‘a religious dimension’, it was difficult to resist the parallel: saffron pilgrims struggling to board their launch at Manihari Ghat, the mass of Liverpudlian red and white which surged into the stadium at Sheffield. And the parallels did not end there. In fact the nearer I got to home the closer they became.
Changing planes in Paris, I bought a newspaper and read about M. Jacques Georges, the French president of the European Football Association. An interviewer on French radio had asked M. Georges if he thought Liverpool was peculiar in some way, given its football club’s recent history of violent disaster. Well, said Georges, Liverpool certainly seemed to have ‘a particularly aggressive mentality’. The crowd that had stormed into the ground at Sheffield had scorned all human feeling. ‘I have the impression – I am distressed to use the expression – but it was like beasts who wanted to charge into an arena.’
The English are not a steady people. Today all Europe knows that. None the less M. Georges’s words had scandalized England. At Heathrow the papers were full of him, even though he had said little more than the Sheffield police. According to Mr Paul Middup, chairman of the South Yorkshire Police Federation, there was ‘mass drunkenness’ among the 3,000 Liverpool supporters, who turned up at the turnstiles shortly before the kick-off: ‘Some of them were uncontrollable. A great number of them had obviously been drinking heavily.’ According to Mr Irvine Patrick, a Sheffield MP, the police had been ‘hampered, harassed, punched, kicked and urinated on.’
But then the police themselves had behaved ineptly. Seeking to relieve the crush outside the stadium, they had opened a gate and sent an excited crowd – drunks, beasts or otherwise – into a section of the terracing which was already filled to capacity. And then, for some minutes at least, they had watched the crowd’s desperate attempt to escape over the fences and mistaken it for hooliganism. They had hardly made a smart move and analysed the situation.
It would have all been familiar to any citizen of Bihar. An underclass which, in the view of the overclass, did not know how to behave. ‘Drunks . . . beasts . . . uneducated . . . ignorant.’ An antique and ill-designed public facility. A police force which made serious mistakes. Clamorous cross-currents of blame.
At home, I watched television. The disaster excited the medium. For several days it replayed the scene at Sheffield and then moved on to Liverpool, where the football ground was carpeted with wreaths. Funeral services were recorded, football players vowed that they might never play again and political leaders in Liverpool demanded the presence in their city of royalty – a prince, a duke – so that the scale of the ‘national tragedy’ might be acknowledged. When members of Liverpool’s rival team turned up at a burial, the commentator spoke reverently of how the disaster had ‘united football’, as though the French and Germans in Flanders had stopped bombardment for a day to bury their dead. One football official said he hoped that ninety-five people had not ‘died in vain’. Another said that they had ‘died for football’.
Nobody in Bihar would have suggested that the dead of Manihari Ghat had made such a noble sacrifice. Nobody would have said: ‘They died to expunge corruption, caste and poverty.’ Whatever their other faults, Biharis are not a self-deluding people.
Image © Suhas Dutta