I went for Haj pilgrimage with my wife in December-January 2006. During the journey, we noticed that the Gulf region was unstable owing to the trial of the deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and emotions were running high among the Arabs. The political fever in the region also spread among Haj pilgrims. Emotions and arguments add to the atmospherics of Haj. One can imagine the energy and excitement of a pilgrimage in which millions of people from diverse linguistic, ethnic and racial backgrounds are united by religion.
Our delegation was special as we were being accompanied by former Chief Justice of India A.M. Ahmadi and other dignitaries from different parts of India. But from the beginning of the journey, I saw that arrangements on the ground were not quite right. The Saudi officials gave out instructions only in Arabic, though most of the pilgrims were unfamiliar with the language.
Countries that send the largest number of pilgrims are from South and Southeast Asia like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India. People from this region speak many languages. Special attention is needed for the elderly, many of whom undertake foreign travel for the first time and, therefore, are quite disoriented and find it difficult to adjust to sudden orders yelled out in Arabic by policemen.
Also, the Saudi rules aim at segregation of men and women which creates a lot of problems for first-time travellers from our region. Often families which are separated by the Saudi police have to endure hardship, which is multiplied because neither the pilgrims nor the police can understand each other.
The process of Haj starts from Mina where one has to begin early after a prayer, followed by the circumambulation of the holy mosque Kaaba. The pilgrimage ends at Mina following the ritual of ‘Stoning the Shaitan.’ This last ritual at Mina needs to be completed before sunset and people usually hurry to reach Mina creating tremendous risk for themselves and others. It’s during this ritual that chaos is triggered.
On January 12, as we were returning to Mina for the last ritual of Haj, we saw the big stampede from a distance as waves of people collided. Dust and fear enveloped us. Our group stopped midway out of fear and went back to Mecca.
Next morning, we started early at 3 a.m. for the dash to Mina. On the way, we saw huge piles of shoes, clothes, and water bottles left behind by the stampede victims being loaded onto the trucks by the police. Officials informed us that around 350 people had died in the stampede and hundreds more were injured. The possessions of the pilgrims left behind made me suspicious of the official account.
The road to Mina which is where the stampedes often happen is very risky as it’s the only one for the journey to Mina and for returning to Mecca. I am told that the Saudi government has created an alternative route for the pilgrims returning to Mecca but that route is longer and many pilgrims continue to return by the old, shorter and narrow route which puts them at risk.
Year after year, stampedes have taken place on the same route near Mina, yet the Saudi authorities have failed to do anything to reduce the risk.
The occasion of Haj brings more than three million pilgrims to Mecca. A number of factors can trigger a crisis and a stampede on the ground where the crowd is united by religion and divided by political sentiments of the Arab countries. Sabotage is often suspected when such tragedies take place.
The Saudi government should also be open to learning from other countries where a large number of pilgrims congregate, for example in India’s Kumbh Melas and in the Vatican where authorities take care of the linguistic differences while managing people. There is no harm in learning from others.
Prof. Pasha teaches West Asian politics in JNU.
( As told to Kallol Bhattacherjee)
Source : http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/first-person-account-professor-ak-pasha-how-i-survived-haj-stampede-in-2006/article7689895.ece#!