Amritsar train tragedy highlights public's self-destructive impulses and contempt for authority figures

Never will you see a locomotive so abysmally pathetic in its entreaties to be released from captivity. Servile and beseeching, it stays on its track, its hooter sounding as mournful as the trumpet of a mortally wounded elephant bewildered by the lack of respect for its presence.

At least 59 people were killed in the Amritsar train accident. Image courtesy: Arjun Sharma/101Reporters

At least 59 people were killed in the Amritsar train accident. Image courtesy: Arjun Sharma/101Reporters

This scene is repeated several times a day at all our 5,792 unmanned railroad crossings. There is a plan to eliminate them all by 2020 following an incident where 13 children were killed near Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh in April, but that's long way away. To describe the events in such a dramatically self-explanatory two minutes of filming is to detract from its impact. But one can make some scathing observations.

It indicts us so squarely as a people for our profound absence of civic sense, our appalling bad manners and indifference of authority. The darting across the tracks in defiance of every safety norm is further accentuated when the conductor and the guard try in vain to stop the two way flow. Pretty much like trying to catch water in your fingers. They may as well not be there as they beg for deliverance.

The train now inches along, apologising for its presence, as a contemptuous public reduces it to the power of a caterpillar, its crawl almost dismal in its surrender.

When you view a tape like this, taken in such natural honesty, you have to ask, why are we so self-destructive? It places the Amritsar travesty into a more rational perspective. We relish defying rules. The saving grace is that more such accidents do not occur. It makes us feel important to conduct ourselves in this fashion, removes the dents from our egos and balances out the greyness of our day. Ha! Fooled you, Mr Authority Figure. Writer Geeta Padmanabhan calls this genre of behaviour the great leveller. For a brief, shining moment we have the power, let the train wait.

There is a cussed Indian gene that makes us act boorishly. We see it at airports as people push and shove, in overloaded trains and buses, a curious admix of rage, immaturity, hostility, defiance and aggression which belies our belief that we are a relatively docile people. It is the same lack of self-preservation that makes over 90 percent of air travellers from India pay scant regard to the safety demonstration aboard a flight. In a test done some years ago at Toulouse in France, almost all fifty random passengers at the airport were unable to place their life-jackets accurately.

Blogger Sid Balachandran describes our antipathy to queues and courtesy in general… or lack of it: We do not do it (queue) out of the goodness of our hearts or kindness to a fellow human being; nor do we do it because it is the right thing to do, social-etiquette wise. We merely do it to appease the lathi-charging constable, or sometimes because that's the only way we can get to the counter.

Stretch this to the chaos we generate on our city and town roads and the total lack of courtesy to everyone around us and we have to accept there is a selfish disposition towards challenging authority like schoolchildren playing a trick on teacher. This cavalier approach to safety stops us from wearing helmets, encourages us to drink and drive and take selfies above a hungry sea until we fall into it.

The same chain-link mental fence that allowed scores of people to congregate on a railway track.


Updated Date: Oct 25, 2018 07:22 AM

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