Many Opposition parties, including the Indian National Congress, the Trinamul Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, asked for the resignation of the railway minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw.
Nothing can be more predictable or niggling than the responses excerpted above of some Opposition parties to the grim tragedy of the triple rail collision in Balasore district of Odisha on June 2, 2023.
Could a train accident of this kind not have happened when the railway minister of the day was from any of these parties? Or when the Railway Board of the day was one set up by the government of the day? And would not the Opposition at that time — including the Bharatiya Janata Party — demanding the resignation of such a railway minister or the Railway Board, have seemed unfair to the man or woman running that ministry or serving on the Railway Board of the day?
Resignations, like apologies, are routinely demanded by those who are lucky enough to be on the right side of the incident. But a resignation or apology so demanded is not a resignation or contrition. It is an extraction, a toll or a levy made by the contextually strong from the situationally weakened. And, therefore, morally, not the gold of a heart’s mint but the small change of a niggard smeltery.
I do not know if, at the time of writing, the railway minister, Vaishnaw, has indeed offered to resign or, in fact, has resigned and whether his resignation has been accepted. If he has done so, or does so after this has been written, all honour to his sense of accountability, his own personal code of ethics. If he has not, no discredit to him, no minus marks, for he has his own sense of his dharma, his karma, and his perception of where his duty lies.
But before I dwell on the duty-sense of another railway minister — Lal Bahadur Shastri — a brief discussion of history in the Odisha region.
Did anyone ask the emperor, Ashoka, for his abdication or apology after the Kalinga war, which must have played out not far from the scene of this collision? Doubtful. In fact, no. None is known to have done so, unless it was someone in his immediate circle among his kin or his advisers who advised him in his royal chambers and has left no record of such a conversation. From all we know, Ashoka felt his agony, atoned, and announced his remorse, all in the solitude of his lonely contemplation and entirely of his own accord. He had his anguish and apology carved on stone-faces in places as far removed from Kalinga as the northwest of the Indian landmass and in the far south.
Again, in the temple town of Puri in 1938, there occurred another act of contrition. With his wife, Kasturba, his secretary, Mahadev Desai, and Desai’s wife, Durga, Gandhi had gone to Puri at the end of March, 1938. Kasturba did what many Hindu pilgrims at Puri do. Along with Durga Desai and another associate, she visited the Puri temple. This upset Gandhi who had declared day in and day out that whoever believed in the removal of untouchability should shun temples which were not open to Harijans. Gandhi writes: “The agony was enough to precipitate a collapse. I turned pale. The machine recorded an alarmingly high blood pressure, but I knew better than the machine. I was in a worse condition than the machine could show. The three who went there were the least to blame. They went in ignorance. But I was to blame, and Mahadev was more to blame in that he did not tell them what their dharma was and how any breach would shake me. He ought to have thought also of its social repercussions.” Mahadev, when he came to know of Gandhi’s pain, cried and, starting a fast, said he would like to leave Gandhi’s service. That is, he offered to resign. But Gandhi, who had been furious with Desai, refused to consider his secretary’s offer to leave.
Odisha has been the scene of great churnings of the human spirit.
To now return to rail accidents and railway ministers. The year, 1956, had not been an easy one for the then railway minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. In August, a major railway accident in Mahbubnagar, Andhra Pradesh, killed 112 people. Owning moral responsibility for the accident, Shastri tendered his resignation to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who persuaded Shastri to withdraw it. On November 23, a worse railway accident occurred in Ariyalur, in what was then the state of Madras, involving the Madras-Tuticorin Express, causing 142 deaths. The engine and the first seven bogies had plunged into the Marudaiyar river while crossing the bridge over it in torrential rain, hurtling its passengers into the swollen waters. Shastri submitted his resignation, once again; this time, non-negotiably. In his resignation letter, Shastri said that “it will be good for me and the Government as a whole, if I quietly quit the office I hold.” The use of the word, “quietly”, by Shastri invested it with a meaning all its own.
Nehru was in a dilemma. He went on to say in the Lok Sabha that he had the highest regard for Shastri but “from the broader point of view of constitutional propriety” he was accepting his resignation so “that… no man should think that whatever might happen, we carry on without being affected by it.”
Those in the Opposition, no less than those on the Treasury Benches, were flabbergasted by the resignation. Such was the esteem in which Shastri was held. But some people will never be satisfied. And skirmishing is always attractive, especially when the receiving party is in the dock. A member of the Lok Sabha from the region, K.M. Vallatharas, of the Krishak Mazdoor Praja Party, in a rasping speech said Shastri’s resignation was of no use when the deputy minister and local officials did not resign. Vallatharas singled out the Railway Board for special attention, calling it “a lethargic organisation”. Shastri’s response has to go down as something of a classic: “I am perhaps small in size and perhaps soft in tongue and people are apt to believe that I have not been firm with the Railway Board. Though not physically very strong I think I am internally not so weak. There are different ways of doing things…”
O.V. Alagesan, the MP for Chingleput, was in a dilemma of his own. He was from the state — Madras — where the accident had occurred and was then the Union deputy minister for railways under Shastri. Alagesan, in Madras on the day, hearing the news of the accident over the radio, rushed to the site with officials for an immediate assessment. Shortly thereafter, calling on Nehru, he said he would like to quit as well. Panditji refused to accept the resignation and saying, “Don’t be silly,” he advised the only minister now left for Railways: “You take charge of the ministry and continue the good work both of you have been doing.” Alagesan’s family cherishes his staying on the burning deck, an act no less exacting than leaving it.
Accountability is best determined by the accountable, not others. And one’s own sense of accountability can include resigning and not resigning. And accepting or not accepting another’s resignation. Gandhi’s “collapse” in Puri, Desai’s wanting to leave and Gandhi’s asking him, nonetheless, to stay, Shastri’s “different ways of doing things”, Alagesan’s responses and Nehru’s direction are about conscience’s working for one’s own inner peace, not another’s outer skirmishing. One’s own moral acknowledgment, not another’s admonitory judgment.
Dharma is about being accountable to one’s own self but in the daylight of the world’s gaze.
The Balasore train accident has shown the perilous vulnerability of poor passengers in ‘unreserved’ bogeys which, if battered in an accident, make identification of the nameless dead virtually impossible. Packed into the bogeys their journeys, even when uneventful, are a nightmare. When exposed to an accident, the nightmare turns into a tragedy. How is this problem to be addressed and by whom? Until that is done and train travel made equally safe for all passengers, accountability rests not just on a minister or a board but on the entire system of railway travelling in India.