The Kargil war of 1999 has come back to haunt India’s conscience – through a video statement released by a 20-year-old college student Gurmeher Kaur.
The video has become the rallying point for slanging matches between the right and left wing political types – hailing and/or vilifying young Gurmeher.
In this verbal melee, the supreme sacrifice of brave soldiers like Captain Mandeep Singh, Gurmeher’s father, who laid down his life in 1999 somewhere in India’s northwest tip, is getting tossed about needlessly. It has now turned out that Captain Mandeep was killed by terrorists in Kupwara, 170 km from Kargil!
The 7 years’ old Adarsh Society scandal, with its macabre connections to Kargil immediately springs to mind. The scam had surfaced in 2010. India’s mainstream media [MSM] had cried itself hoarse over it. The stinking stigma has stuck to the names of some of the nation’s top politicians, bureaucrats and many more of the richest individuals of India that is Bharat. All these ‘worthies’ had shamelessly robbed Kargil martyrs’ widows  . Petitions and counter-petitions in this imbroglio have led to a web of legal deceit. The cases are still in limbo. The chances of the cases’ attaining a proper closure are remote.
In 2004, a fire tragedy in a school in the southern state of Tamil Nadu had devoured the lives of 94 innocent children studying in a primary school.
The real relief for the anguished parents who lost their loved ones can never come. The piddly “compensation” helped the perpetrators take rest cures in prisons. Many of them have moved higher courts seeking relief and release.
There are no connections between the events listed above in real life. So, a poignant fictional link was artificially created to wake up patriotic Indians’ slumbering consciences.
Given below is an updated version of a short story penned in 2011.
Justice Advait Aher of India’s Supreme Court summoned his trusted stenographer Kaatyaayani Khandelwal to dictate his ruling in a school fire tragedy matter that had killed 94 school children in Tamil Nadu – a southern state some 11 years ago.
Exactly 94 children – most them little girls had perished in a devastating conflagration that had spread due to illegal thatched roofs in a building unfit to be a school, locked collapsible gates meant to prevent children from cutting classes which ensured their painful death and a rather callous teaching staff who had no pity or any feelings for the children.
The criminally culpable school management had managed to hire the best legal brains money could buy in India’s capital New Delhi. An appeal against the ruling of the Madras High Court that had sent them to prison had been filed in the Apex Court.
The judge knew that the appellants were guilty as sin for mass murder. But, numerous holes in the police investigation and the shoddy conduct of the case in the lower courts had been thoroughly exposed by Chatturbhuj Daryanaani – one of India’s senior most and smartest criminal lawyers.
The portly stenographer walked in carrying her shorthand notebook and her mobile phone – something she used to record the dictation of her boss as a kind of back up.
Ever efficient, she did not believe in getting her boss to correct her mistakes by hand on a typed draft.
“Recording the audio of what you dictate will aid its verbatim transcription without typos Sir,” she had said the first time when she had brought the gadget into his room.
Aher was surprised.
His stenographer had never hesitated to say anything before.
“Go ahead, Kaatyaayani. You want take an off today? I can always dictate the judgement tomorrow.”
“No sir, it is not that. I will switch on my mobile phone that contains a recorded conversation given to me by a friend who is researching into things termed supernatural. Please hear it before pronouncing the verdict. It will take some 7 minutes. The narration is totally offbeat in nature. I know you never believe in such things. But, do listen. It is a sincere request. Thanks.”
Without a word, she flicked on the play button and began walking away.
The way a young voice began surprised Aher.
Ouch…ooh! It’s paining Amma!
Better learn to bear pain, Jambu! You are born as a girl, you know!
I had hurt myself on the knee while playing.
My mother always called me Jambu – the shortened version of Jambukeshwaran – that ought to have been my name had I been born a male.
I had been named Jambakalakshmi.
My parents always had wanted a son.
I keep hearing my mother telling all our relatives that that sons get money into the family when new brides come home with a lot of dowry – whatever that means – and daughters are only expenses.
We have to be dressed beautifully, married off with a lot of presents and cash for our future even if we have a job and all, my mom adds to the end of each conversation.
Somehow, I feel unwanted at home.
The doctor auntie told me the other day that Amma will soon be giving birth to my sibling.
I hope it will be a brother.
But, the pain is unbearable. I feel my leg is on fire, Amma!
Don’t worry, darling! A little coconut oil and turmeric powder on your wound will make it go away in a day. But, you should be more careful. Supposing you get scars from wounds, it will be very difficult to find a good husband for you. Now, now! Don’t cry, please! It is just a small wound on your knee.
Sometimes, I do not understand whether you are comforting the child or mouthing misogynistic statements!
My father, an officer in the Indian army, loves me more than my mother. He sometimes scolded her because my mother said something which my father thought wasn’t right.
His words comforted me more than mom’s turmeric mix.
Dad spends most of the time guarding our country in a place called Siachen – somewhere in north India.
He came home yesterday afternoon after six long months.
Just before I was tucked into bed yesterday, he said it was very cold out there.
The temperature, most of the time, hovers around minus 25 degrees Celsius, Jambu. The mountainous surroundings are beautifully white in a cloak of fresh snow, but the cold leaves an unpleasant feeling. One of my friends recently died while urinating in the open. Apparently, the salty liquid waste froze in an upwardly direction when he relieved himself without protection. Somehow, the cold always gets into our feet despite our wearing the correct dress, shoes, woollen socks and a lot more.
So how do you manage the cold, Appaa? How do you sleep at night?
The human mind is all powerful because it is given by God. It can do anything. The blankets, smokeless fire, sleeping bags and a lot of other equipment, for some strange reason other, allow the cold to enter our bunkers all the time. High altitude fighting involves psychological warfare. My commanding officer lieutenant colonel Simranjeet Singh Chibber taught me a trick which always helps me relax.
Whenever the cold is so unbearable, I imagine that I am at home – here – where most of the year, it is unbearably hot. The imagination takes over and the mind, with some concentration, makes my physical body forget where I am. Slowly, I feel comfortable. The discomfort returns only upon being jolted when gunfire erupts.
Can one forget one’s cold by just imagining the heat?
Yes. And the opposite is also true. You can forget the heat by imagining the cold.
But I have never been to Siachen…because you have never taken me there.
Not a place for young ladies, darling! But, you have been to the nearby hill station Kodaikanaal many times! Supposing it is very hot somewhere, just imagine you are there without a blanket. Sometimes, you may feel cold enough to ask for one!
You are joking!
I am dead serious!
I tried it out.
The green Kodai hills swam into view revealing the hat lifting and suicide points besides – the snapping, whistling wind.
Suddenly I felt cold.
The wound no longer hurt.
It was miraculous!
Amma broke my reverie.
Come on Jambu! You are getting late for school.
At school, as usual the teacher was scolding some of us, including me.
I put the trick to use again.
By thinking that my grandmother was narrating a funny story, I even began to smile.
The nice feeling was cut short rudely when I began smelling hot smoke.
A moment later, I saw it coming from the first floor of our school.
The teachers sternly ordered us to stay put.
I began teaching my trick to as many of my friends as possible.
Many began giggling.
Suddenly, as the fire burst through the roof. All of us were scared. The trick stopped working.
The stair-case was very small and narrow.
But, we could not use it because the collapsible gate outside our classroom on the corridor that led to the exit downstairs was locked as always.
The princi does not want as to escape from school and play truant.
So the exit is locked and can only be opened by the watchman uncle.
Perhaps he has gone for his cup of tea and Beedi smoke.
Some of my friends passed out.
The actions of the fire brigade breaking open the ventilator – the only one in the room caught my attention.
I called out to the firemen and helped them locate us through the thick smoke that was blinding them and us.
I think I managed to help many of my classmates.
The firemen uncles scolded me.
Charity begins at home, young woman! Save yourself first!
The sari of my class-teacher who had asked us gruffly to stay put was on fire and she was screaming.
Even as she was being rescued, I fainted.
When I surfaced, I felt a burning sensation all over my body.
I used the trick again and began feeling comfortable.
So far 91 children have perished. I am afraid you daughter will add to this tally, major!
Is it paining too much, Jambu?
My father’s kind voice felt like a cool balm.
No Appaa! Your trick is working fine. Where am I?
You are in a government hospital, getting treated for burns.
I lost consciousness again.
My father’s kind touch patting me on the head woke me up.
I found him crying.
Major Krishnan, your daughter has only a few more minutes to live. Nevertheless, please don’t tell your wife who is here in the neighbouring maternity ward as I do not want her to go into a shock and worse.
I did not understand why doctor uncle looked so worried.
Suddenly I felt a very pleasant breeze and very light.
I could see a girl’s burnt body in a completely singed dress…upon close examination, I recognised myself from the red ribbon that held my pigtails.
Your presence is required in the maternity ward. Please, hurry up!
The voice was gentle.
How can I come? I am here!
That was just your body. Your mother has developed labour pains. It is time for you to become your own younger brother Jambukeshwaran.
I do not understand this. And more importantly, can you find someone else to be my brother please? I really wish to stay back here with my friends now and later, play with my younger brother!
Your existence on earth was not supposed to end now. Further, you have an important task of informing the truth of what actually happened in your school today to some important person in your next birth because your current physical condition now does not allow you to continue as the currently known Jambu. Soon, you will be a Jambu again…this time…a male. Come on, child! Let us go.
I had a final look at my friends. Sadly I will never see them again here…or in the place called heaven.
The judge slowly wiped his tears.
He knew what to dictate for the two cases for which he had reserved the judgements earlier.
The first was of course, that of those seeking to end their incarceration for killing 94 innocent children.
The second one involved what Aher perceived as an insult to the memory of the martyrs of Siachen over the years.
Faulty equipment meant to prevent seepage of the effects of chilling snow and betrayals in the Indian defence ministry had killed several army personnel without anyone being the wiser.
Worse, a massive building with 31 floors meant for their widows and children that had come up in New Delhi’s fashionable Defence Colony was being misused and abused by self-seeking, well-connected, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
With a grim expression, he pressed the buzzer to summon Kaatyaayani Khandelwal to dictate two landmark judgements.
Operative excerpts from a report published in The Hindustan Times:
Close to a thousand soldiers have died guarding Siachen since the army took control of the inhospitable glacier in April 1984, almost twice the number of lives lost in the Kargil war.
In 1999, Pakistani aggressors occupied strategic peaks in the Kargil. The operation to push them back cost India 527 lives.
Almost a fifth of the casualties were linked to enemy fire before the November 2003 ceasefire between India and Pakistan.
The remaining deaths were because of nature’s fury, accidents and medical reasons.
Figures show 997 soldiers, including the 10 men from Madras Regiment, have died on the glacier over the past 32 years. The military casualties include 220 men killed in firing from the Pakistani side..
On the glacier, soldiers deal with altitude sickness, high winds, frostbite and temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius.
Operative excerpts from the relevant Wikipedia dossier:
The Adarsh Housing Society is a posh, 31-storey building constructed on prime real estate in Colaba, Mumbai, for the welfare of war widows and personnel of India’s Ministry of Defence. Over a period of several years, politicians, bureaucrats and military officers allegedly conspired to bend several rules concerning land ownership, zoning, floor space index and membership get themselves flats allotted in this cooperative society at below-market rates.
Unearthed in November 2010, the scam led to the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, to resign.
In 2011, a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) said, “The episode of Adarsh Co-operative Housing Society reveals how a group of select officials, placed in key posts, could subvert rules and regulations in order to grab prime government land – a public property – for personal benefit.”
In January 2011, the Maharashtra government set up a two-member judicial commission to inquire into the matter.
The commission was headed by retired High Court judge Justice JA Patil, with NN Kumbhar acting as member secretary. After deposing 182 witnesses over 2 years, the commission submitted its final report in April 2013 that highlighted 25 illegal allotments, including 22 purchases made by proxy.
The report indicted four former chief ministers of Maharashtra viz. Ashok Chavan, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde and Shivajirao Nilangekar Patil. Other accused include 2 former urban development ministers Rajesh Tope and Sunil Tatkare, 12 top bureaucrats and controversial diplomat Devyani Khobragade.
The Khobragade tale’s visa fraud side has a sinister flipside if viewed from the latest context of President Trump threatening to deport illegal immigrants in the US of A.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) are currently investigating allegations that three former chief ministers of Maharashtra – Sushilkumar Shinde, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan – were involved in the scam.
Sadly, justice will never be done in the Adarsh matter, reveals a report by Shalini Nair in The Indian Express, dated January 2011.reveals a report by Shalini Nair in The Indian Express, dated January 2011. Operative excerpt:.
From the time land was allotted to Mumbai’s first IAS officials’ housing society — Lalit in Cuffe Parade [in the vicinity of Adarsh] in 1965 — all plum government plots have always been given to societies whose members were officials with crucial postings
Here is a complete list:
Lalit Society: Includes ex-chief secys P D Kasbekar, L D Lulla, R D Pradhan and ex-law secy Bobby Dalal [located in south Mumbai, within a 1 km radius of the secretariat].
Buena Vista Society: Members are Union cabinet secretary (retd) S Rajagopal, retired chief secretaries K B Srinivasan, S Ramamoorthy and D K Afzalpurkar, senior IPS official K Padmanabhan
Samata: Justices C S Dharmadhikari and Y V Chandrachud
Shalaka Society: Meant for government buildings but transferred to society whose members include former chief secretaries Arun Bongirwar and Ajit Nimbalkar, former BMC commissioners Sharad Kale and J D Jadhav
Dilwara Society: Members include late CBI director M G Katre, retired DGP P S Pasricha, former Anti-Corruption Bureau chief S K Iyengar and retired Mumbai police commissioner Ronnie Mendonca
Charleville Society: Members include former municipal commissioner K Nalinakshan, ex-urban development secretary L Rajwade, retired IAS officer Yashwant Bhave, IAS official Ramesh Kanade
The above residential societies are located in south Mumbai’s Nariman Point – which virtually abuts the secretariat and the legislative assembly.
Priya Society Former chief secretaries D M Sukhthankar and N Raghunathan
Sagar Tarang Society: Former police commissioners Satish Sahane, M N Singh, Julio Ribeiro, R S Sharma, S K Bapat, Hassan Gafoor and A N Roy.
Praneet Society: Land meant for government buildings given to society, with former chief secretary R M Premkumar, former additional chief secretaries Ajit Warty, Navin Kumar, Ashok Khot and Awadesh Sinha as members
Aseem Society: Built on government land in Worli, its members include State Election Commissioner Neela Satyanarayan
The above residential clusters are located in Worli – where some of the richest persons in India’s financial capital live. Till recently, Peter Mukherjea and Indrani Mukherjea lived as husband and wife in this very area. They have been accused of killing Indrani’s daughter through an earlier marriage – Sheena Bora.
Amaltas Society: This land meant for government buildings houses about 150 senior officials, including retired additional chief secretaries Jagdish Joshi, Manmohan Singh and Ravi Bhargav, former information commissioner Suresh Joshi, former principal secretary V K Jairath, former CIDCO managing director G S Gill
This building is located in Juhu, northwest Mumbai – also sometimes called the Beverly Hills of Bollywood. It has residences of the Bachchan clan, Jeetendra, [father of young female movie mogul Ekta Kapoor] and some of the real estate belonging to the late Yash Chopra, the legendary filmmaker.
Pataliputra Society: Former chief secretaries Johny Joseph, V Ranganathan and J P Dange, Urban Development (II) secretary Manukumar Shrivastav, former MMRDA commissioner T Chandrashekhar
This building is located in Lokhandwala, currently the space from where most of Bollywood operates. It encompasses the production house that belongs to Shah Rukh Khan.
Nyay Sagar and Renuka societies: This residential complex is home to many sitting judges of the Bombay High Court and politicians. The list includes the son of former Union home minister Shivraj Patil, his secretary Sudhir Khanapure, former chief secretary P Subramanyam, former Urban Development secretaries D T Joseph and Ramanand Tiwari and Nitin Kareer.
Operative portions from the relevant Wikipedia dossier:
On 16 July 2004, the fire tragedy occurred on thatched roof structure of the school. The school started at 9:15 a.m. and during one of the breaks at 10:30 a.m., one of the girls noticed the fire and alerted the teacher and the news spread to other classes. The fire sparked from the midday meal kitchen thatch and spread to the upper level, which also had thatched roofs and spread rapidly. The narrow staircase had sundry materials that prevented exit of children. The staircase was also located close to the kitchen. The kitchen did not have gas stoves and fire logs were used for cooking. The school was overcrowded, having 900 children in its rolls. The thatches and the supporting bamboo poles caught fire and fell on the children and also blocked the exit.
The total toll read: 94 children dead.
The state government deputed a committee under Justice K. Sampath to inquire into the circumstances and causes leading to the fire accident on 20 July 2004. The committee assumed office on 1 August 2004 and was constituted with expert members Dr. Rani Kandhaswami (Former Principal, Lady Willington Institute of Advanced Studies in Education, Chennai), S.K. Saxena (Fire Officer, Madras Atomic Power Station, Kalpakkam), K. Vijayan (Clinical Psychologist, Institute of Mental Health, Chennai) and P.A. Annamalai (retired Head Master).
The committee was given a timeline of four months, but extended for four times and it was able to finally complete the investigation on 30 June 2005. The investigations found out that the school was not inspected by the educational official for three years. The fire officials reported that the building laws were not followed as the school had a thatched kitchen and classroom roof, had no emergency exits and it was a “death trap”.
The committee found out that the major reason for the heavy casualty was the false tactics of the management to bring the other two school students to the aided primary school to mislead the inspecting authorities about the student-teacher ratio. The management was held responsible for the whole accident. The report pointed out that the teachers were not trained in disaster management and the prohibited thatch structure was close to the classrooms. It also stated that the schools had inadequate exit facilities and had no firefighting capabilities. Pulavar Palanichamy, the owner of the schools, was reported to have used his political clout and coalesced with the municipal and the revenue department officials getting the permits for the schools. Vijayalakshmi, the noon meal organizer and also the teacher of the English Medium school, was held accountable for not performing her duties of taking safety precautions. Vasanthi, the head cook lighted the oven in the absence of her assistant, Sivasankari, who usually lights it. There was contrasting reports on whether Sivasankari was present in the school during the event. The Tahsildar of Kumbakonam Taluk, Paramasivam, was reported “dishonest” for granting licence under the Tamil Nadu Public Buildings (Licensing) Act, 1965 to the school. The chartered engineer Jayachandran was also held dishonest of giving stability certificate to the building without visiting the school once. The additional assistant educational officer, Madhavan for allowing the school to run without recognition for 6 years. Sivaprakasam, the assistant elementary education officer, was held accountable for allowing Madhavan, who was not competent to allow permit to the school. Balaji, the deputy education elementary officer was accused of carelessly passing the papers signed by Madhavan. The local health officer r Dr. Sivapunyam was accused of giving false sanitary certificate to the school. Annadurai, a friend of Pulavar Palanichamy was accounted for advising circumvention of rules. Pingapani, the deputy educational officer, who inspected the high school, did not show interest in learning that the same campus had a primary school acting beyond rules. The other officers who were earlier responsible for permitting the nursery school against the rules during 1999, namely, Shanmughavelu, Sethuramachandran, Chandrasekharan and Dr.Palanivelu. The Deputy elementary educational officer, Durairaj and assistant elementary educational officer, Balakrishnan, were held less culpable for knowing about the thatched structure and the exaggerated attendance, but not initiating any action.
The accident was the one of the four major fire accident in the state following the Brihadeeswarar Temple fire on 7 June 1997, when 60 people were killed, Erwadi fire incident on 6 August 2001 that killed 30 mentally challenged people and fire at a marriage hall on 23 January 2005 at Srirangam where 30 people including the bridegroom were killed. A private school building collapse in a private school in Madurai during the 1950s killed 35 girls and injured 137 others.
The trial of the case started after a long delay on 24 September 2012 in the Thanjavur district sessions court. The case had 21 accused and had 488 witnesses that included 18 children affected in the accident. The headmaster, Prabharan and three others turned approvers.
A total of 17 people were chargesheeted in the case and were set to face trial. The seventeen included Pulavar Palanichamy [the school’s owner], his wife and correspondent of school Saraswati, three teachers, six officers in the education department (elementary), the Kumbakonam municipal commissioner, town planning officer and four assistants in the education department. The education department officials were accused of negligence of their duties and the lower level officers for conspiring with the officials for obtaining and renewing the licenses. The three teachers were accused of showing negligence shown towards rescuing the children.
The trial was concluded on July 17, 2014. On July 30, 2014, Thanjavur district sessions court sentenced school founder Pulavar Palanichamy to life imprisonment and fined Rs 51,65,700. Palanichamy’s wife and school correspondent P Saraswathi, headmistress J Santhalakshmi, noon meal organizer R Vijayalakshmi, cook R Vasanthi were sentenced five years imprisonment. Officials in district elementary education office, officer R Balaji, his assistant S Sivaprakasam, superintendent T Thandavan and assistant G Durairaj were also sentenced five years jail. Total fine of Rs 52,57,000 was imposed and ordered the compensation of Rs 50,000 to parents of each victim.
A higher court cleared charges of 12 accused, including three teachers, six education department officials and two municipality officers.
An October 2016 report in The Times of India adds:
The Madras high court ordered to provide Rs 5 lakh each as compensation to the relatives of 94 children who were charred to death in an inferno at Krishna English Medium School in Kumbakonam The court had appointed judge Venkataraman to look into claims of the victims’ parents.