Gangtok: On May 24, a resident of Bihar died of COVID-19 in Sikkim, and his next of kin and community wanted a burial for him. Unfortunately in Sikkim, cremation is the only way the COVID-19 dead bodies are put to rest.
In the 240 COVID-19 deaths in Sikkim until Thursday, there has not been a single burial. This particular incident, however, drew the attention of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who sent a letter to Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Golay on Wednesday, requesting the body of the deceased to be handed over to the Bihar government to carry out a proper burial.
In his letter to Golay, the Bihar CM said that Nurul Huda had breathed his last in Gangtok on May 24 following “COVID-19- related complications”.
The deceased belonged to Kishanganj district in north Bihar and a request was made by the administration there, on behalf of family members, to its counterpart in Gangtok for handing over the body.
On the day of Huda’s death, the Sub Divisional Magistrate of Kishanganj had written to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Gangtok, stating “the State of Bihar doesn’t prohibit in bringing such dead body to his native place in Bihar.”
“But, this request has not been accepted so far. It is essential that the customary rights of the deceased and their family members are respected…..I request you to personally look into the matter and facilitate the early release of the body”, Nitish Kumar’s letter to the Sikkim CM added.
According to sources in the Sikkim government, Huda’s body was then taken to Bihar on Thursday, in a vehicle sent by the SDM of Kishanganj.
In Sikkim, however, there has not been a single burial in the 240 COVID-19 related deaths. EastMojo tried to understand the government ruling ‘on only cremation and no burial’.
The Gangtok Municipal Corporation (GMC), in charge of all cremations related to COVID-19 deaths in East Sikkim, has a 10-member teams responsible for ferrying the deceased from hospitals to the cremation ground in Jalipool, 11 kms from Gangtok.
GMC Commissioner HK Chettri said that COVID-19 deaths in Sikkim were never given a burial, and all bodies were cremated.
“There was no official correspondence pertaining to the death of the Bihar resident, so we held off on the cremation. So far in Sikkim, as per the SOP of our state government, there is only one government crematorium in Jalipool. The government doesn’t have a burial ground, as the burial grounds belong to respective communities,” Chettri said.
Hence, irrespective of people’s faith, Chettri said, GMC chooses to cremate the COVID dead.
“I am not sure how how the cremation process works in other districts, but in East Sikkim, all COVID deaths have been cremated at Jalipool. If a body was handed over to GMC, they have been cremated irrespective of their religion as Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian. Many communities in Sikkim, like the Rai and Subba, choose to bury the dead bodies, but even they have been cremated instead of opting for a burial,” said Chettri.
Sources in the state government say that since public safety is of utmost priority, even members of the Christian faith and the Rai-Limboo community abide by the state government protocol of cremating the dead.
The particular family from Bihar, who demanded a burial following national guidelines, belonged to the Muslim faith. The request was denied as Sikkim does not have a dedicated COVID burial ground.
The only Muslim burial ground is in Arithang near Ghonday Jhora, prone to landslides during the monsoons. As the area is densely populated, COVID burials are prohibited there. The Singtam burial ground is situated in a densely populated area. Even the Adampool burial ground does not accept COVID 19 victims.
The government had proposed a COVID-19 burial ground in Bulbuley, a forest reserve above Gangtok, but it was opposed by locals.
A top Sikkim government source said that they cannot make an exception for one family when all citizens follow the state government protocols. “It will create communal disharmony if we allow one burial against all others that were denied,” he said.
Another official highlighted the logistical challenges involved in sending one body to Bihar. “We have to follow protocols, send GMC staff and police escort all they way for one family. It will put those officials in danger of contracting the virus. We have a dedicated ambulance to ferry the COVID dead bodies, and to give that for the Bihar resident would have been an issue.”
A senior member of the Muslim community said, “Initially, the son of the deceased had agreed to cremate his father, but others in the community insisted on a burial for him. We understand that even Christians, Rais or Limboos are getting cremated, as the ideal solution is cremation. But thankfully, the Bihar government intervened and took the responsibility of ferrying the body to Kishanganj. Burial for one person would have broken the state protocol.”