At 4.30 am on 2 April, Nirmal Singh Khalsa, a 67-year-old Padma Shri recipient, became the fifth person in Punjab to die of the COVID-19 virus. Born in Punjab’s Firozepur district, Khalsa was a member of the Mazhabi Sikh community, comprising Dalits who had converted to Sikhism. For close to three decades, starting from 1979, he served as a hazoori ragi—employed to perform kirtan at a gurudwara—at the Golden Temple. He was awarded a Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award, eleven years back. But despite the accolades he garnered in his life, his death was marked by chaos—his son, Amiteshwar, accused the hospital that treated Khalsa of negligence and his last rites had to be performed on unkempt land, not in a crematorium.
Media platforms focused on just one obstacle to Khalsa’s cremation, news of which emerged on the afternoon of 2 April. The administration had tried to arrange for his cremation in Verka, a village in Amritsar, but its residents said they feared that the funerary processions would result in the spread of the novel coronavirus. Among others, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee—which manages gurdwaras spread across several states, including the Golden Temple—and the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, expressed outrage at the Amritsar district administration and the residents of Verka for disrespecting Khalsa.
The quest to find a cremation ground for Khalsa was far more arduous than what received public attention. Vikas Hira, a sub-divisional magistrate in Amritsar, and Harpal Singh Randhawa, an addition deputy commissioner of Punjab Police, confirmed that they were trying to find a cremation ground for Khalsa all day. In fact, the SGPC and the Akal Takht only stepped in to try and find such land at 4 pm that day. According to various accounts, residents of at least two villages in Amritsar, Verka and Jethuwal, had gathered at their respective cremation grounds and refused to let Khalsa’s last rites be performed there. Hira and Randhawa also said that they refused to hold the cremation in some other designated grounds as they knew it was crowded. Ultimately, Khalsa’s funerary processions were not carried out in a public crematorium, but in a secluded land—around the border of the villages of Fatehgarh Shukla and Verka—sixteen hours after his death.
On 4 April, Inder Iqbal Singh Atwal, a former member of legislative assembly from the Shiromani Akali Dal, wrote to the Punjab State Commission for Scheduled Castes that the Dalit community, and especially the Mazhabi Sikh community, feels “insulted, ashamed by disrespect by the denial of Cremation.” That day, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes directed the state government and Dinkar Gupta, the director general of the Punjab Police, to set up a special-investigation team “to enquire the Discrimination done before and after death of an Padma Shri Awardee SC person.” The next day, the state’s commission for Scheduled Castes directed the Amritsar administration and police officials to probe the reason for this delay and submit a report within seven days.
These obstacles to Khalsa’s cremation also indicate that the Punjab government has failed to educate the public about COVID-19. Guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and the ministry of health clearly state that casualties of COVID-19 can be cremated or buried with appropriate precautions, such as the use of gloves. As Amiteshwar said, his father’s “caste could be a factor” behind these hurdles as well; Khalsa had faced discrimination earlier too. Tejinder Kaur, the chairperson of the state’s scheduled castes commission, told me, “Every person is entitled to the right of dignity in death … This is unheard of.”
Khalsa did not know he had contracted COVID-19 till as late as the day before his death. According to Amiteshwar, his father had complained of fever and cough after conducting a kirtan in Chandigarh on 19 March. The family took him to Amritsar’s Sri Guru Ram Das Charitable Hospital, which is run by the SGPC. “A few tests were run and showed an infection,” Amiteshwar said. On 21 March, the family took him to the Guru Nanak Dev Hospital, run by the state government, in Amritsar, where the doctor prescribed him some medicines. For ten days, Khalsa shuffled between the SGRD and the GDNH for treatment, but did not recover. The GNDH was empowered to run tests for COVID -19 but chose not to do so, Amiteshwar said.
On the night of 29 March, Khalsa felt so sick at his home that the family had to call an ambulance and rush him to the SGRD. The next day, the hospital referred him the to GNDH, and another day later, the family found that he had contracted COVID-19.
Amiteshwar said that the GNDH was a “dirty hospital” that was negligent towards his father. “For nearly three days, I attended to him without any protective gear while none of the staff or the nurses on duty attended to him,” Amiteshwar said. “He used to cry and call for help but the nurses kept sleeping and obviously, I had no choice other than to run to him. I myself changed the water bottle of the oxygen [humidifier] twice a day.” He said the nurses stopped him from doing this often and told him, “Don’t do this, you will also become positive.”
At about 4 pm on 1 April, Khalsa was wheeled into an isolation ward at the GNDH. Amiteshwar said that at about 8.40 pm, Khalsa was in the ICU of the isolation facility and his family members were standing outside it and talking to him on call. Khalsa was in immense distress. According to Amiteshwar, Khalsa said that the hospital had not given him any medicine since he was brought to the room. The doctor on duty told Amiteshwar that they were going to intubate Khalsa. The doctor said that a nurse gave him a required dose of medicine and that he would be given a dose at night.
Around this time, Amiteshwar spoke to his father and recorded the exchange. During their conversation, Khalsa kept breaking into tears again and again. He said that if the hospital does not give him any medicine, he will commit suicide. “I am only here for a few more minutes,” he said. When his family tried to assure him that they would be together soon, Khalsa replied, “It’s difficult for me to survive this. These are my final hours. They aren’t treating me properly.” When I spoke to Amiteshwar on 5 April, he said that his father’s words from that conversation—“I want to live”; “I am going to die”—were still ringing in his ears.
I approached the SGRD and the state’s health department for a comment on the matter. According to Dr AP Singh from the SGRD, “On 24 March we asked him to isolate himself and get tested for COVID-19 at GNDH because of the flu-like symptoms.” Om Parkash Soni, Punjab’s minister of medical education and research, defended the GNDH and said that Khalsa was treated in a VIP room, but he gave up all hope upon hearing that he was positive.
Khalsa died at around 4.30 am on 2 April. That day, his family members, including his son, were quarantined in the hospital. Amiteshwar said he was informed that the administration was “trying to find a place for cremation.” But as hours passed, he said he kept wondering, “How are they not able to find a little space? Not even a few feet?”
That afternoon, the administration reached a cremation ground in Verka for Khalsa’s last rites—his body remained in the mortuary till the cremation ground was not finalised. Its residents feared that if they allowed Khalsa to be cremated there, they too would contract COVID-19 from him. Baldev Singh Hundal, a professor who presides over the village’s the mushtarka malkana committee—which is incharge of the village’s common land—and Harpal Singh, the husband of Parminder Kaur, the Congress councillor from Verka, led this opposition.
According to Harpal, the sub-divisional magistrate Hira and the additional deputy commissioner Randhawa reached the cremation ground at 2.30 pm. “The employee manning the cremation grounds in Verka, on getting to hear that it was a corona patient, refused to let them enter the grounds. But we agreed to hand over the keys when we got to know that it was bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa whose body was being brought,” Harpal said. The police took the keys, but by then, a crowd had gathered, refusing to let the authorities inside.
“Don’t create new problems for us,” Harpal, who worked in a government school in Amritsar’s Majitha town at the time, told the media gathered outside the cremation ground that day. “So far, Verka has been spared of the wrath of coronavirus. Why don’t they go for electric cremation or give it to us in writing that cremating so close to the residential area will not spread the infection?”