As bodies piled one over the other, waiting to get cremated, the dignity of the dead got buried by systemic failure and lack of legislation in India. While those who suffered losses, including the caretakers, are trying to locate government accountability, several states are still fudging data. Hence, it’s essential to revisit and remind ourselves of the government failure amid rising cases, all of which has been conveniently brushed aside. During the second wave, death by the pandemic became banal, and Diksha Garg is writing to ask why was it so? She also asks how will the dead be assured dignity posthumously.
Diksha Garg is a student of law at the St. Joseph’s College of Law, Bangalore.
“…It is the duty of the State not only to protect the human dignity but to facilitate it by taking positive steps in that direction. No exact definition of human dignity exists. It refers to the intrinsic value of every human being, which is to be respected. It cannot be taken away. It cannot give (sic be given). It simply is. Every human being has dignity by virtue of his existence….”
Over the past few months, amid a fatal pandemic, the world grappled with the generic state apathy and administrative mismanagement. And the failure of the crisis governance yielded violation and infringement of varied fundamental rights.
Whilst the right to life was already disputed, the increased breaches against the dead gained limited air time. The images of bodies floating over the river bank and the mass under-reporting of deaths raised questions on the infrastructural lapses and the lack of executive accountability.
Reportedly, till June this year, India had reported more than 4 million deaths out of 29.75 million coronavirus cases. Therefore, with the increase in mortality rates in India, there was a simultaneous increase in the need for cremations.
This paper seeks to critically view the institutional apathy and absentia of the state leaders in providing ‘dignity after death’ or dignity of the dead. Furthermore, the paper also deliberates on the relationship of Article 21 and dignity after death and the infringement in current times.
Finding the Dignity of the Dead
Dignity, in itself, is construed to be an abstract notion. Yet, to some, human dignity is ‘the premier value underlying the last two centuries of moral and political thought’. The United Nations has recognised human dignity by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). However, ‘human dignity’ may come across as an absurd concept for some. On the similar lines, while talking about gay rights and human dignity, Dr Michèle Finck, Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute, has written,
“As a concept devoid of a precise legal meaning, dignity can be easily manipulated and transposed into a number of legal contexts.”
There is no denying that India has constitutionally recognised the notion of ‘human dignity’ and explicitly upheld the same at varied instances. Moreover, the judiciary has interpreted dignity in death and post-death as an inexplicable facet of fundamental rights under Article 21.
The apex court has explicitly recognised,
“the word and expression ‘person’ under Article 21, would include a dead person in a limited sense and that his rights to his life which includes his right to live with human dignity, (will) have an extended meaning to treat his dead body with respect.”
“the State must respect a dead person by allowing the body of that dead person to be treated with dignity and unless it is required for the purposes of establishing a crime, to ascertain the cause of death and be subjected to post-mortem or for any scientific investigation, medical education or to save life of another person in accordance with the law, the preservation of the dead body and its disposal in accordance with human dignity.”
Thus, while the laws do not inherently provide for a duty to protect the dead, there is an implied state’s obligation recognised in various judgements. These judgments assert the state’s responsibility to ensure that the deceased’s dignity is not violated or infringed.
Violation Of The Right To Dignity of the Dead
As a part of the response to the Pandemic, the World Health Organisation curated comprehensive guidelines for the disposal of Covid infected bodies in a dignified albeit safe manner.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India also formulated guidelines for the safe disposal of infected bodies in a dignified manner.
Similarly, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) cautioned the central and state governments to ensure that dead bodies are disposed of safely and with dignity.
Instances of Violation During Covid-19
Despite such advisories and set guidelines, the Indian state explicitly failed to protect its citizens.
Reportedly, due to the increase in deaths, the State capital witnessed the highest number of funerals in May. May alone averaged a death rate of nearly 300 per day in the capital region. Further, raising widespread panic when several bodies were recovered from the banks of the Ganges in Prayagraj.
According to several media reports, the bodies were dumped at the sandbanks to conceal the actual death figures and manipulate the statistics of mortality rates in Uttar Pradesh. However, a state official claimed that the lack of affordable funeral services and the prevalent religious practices of the communities could have contributed to the bodies found.
Multiple other reports also emerged on manhandling dead bodies, and several got cremated in the same pyre.
The lack of affordable funeral services led to overwhelming crowds at the crematoriums, which is why many ended up landing on makeshift pyres to accommodate the deluge of casualties.
State Inaction Amounts to Violation of Article 21.
All of the instances mentioned above happened in direct violation of the right to a dignified death. And all this happened right under the nose of the Indian state.
In response to the multiple reports of such infringement of Article 21, the NHRC released an advisory requesting the creation of legal rights to address the situation for the dead person. Its advisory also listed some recommendations, including setting up temporary crematoriums and curbing hospitals from taking undue advantage of the pandemic.
Despite the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation and the advisory issued by the NHRC, there was no attempt made to either acknowledge the institutional apathy or redress the same.
Interestingly, the Gujarat High Court dismissed a petition that sought rights to perform last rites which had died due to covid. The HC argued that there was nothing it could do and dismissed it as purely ‘academic’, citing another SC judgment that had taken a similar stance.
The Public Health Conundrum
The issue of dignity in death, or rather the dismissal of the same, is often justified using the notion of public health and order.
In recent decrees, the High Court of Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir have signalled that the infringement of a right is justified as public health in times of pandemic protection prevails traditional customs and rituals.
A division bench said:
“the larger public interest always prevails over personal rights and the traditions and customs have to yield to the national interest especially in these unprecedented times.”
While the narrative may hold some merit, it remains to be scrutinised whether all the scenarios can be blanketed under the same notion.
The problem doesn’t end at mismanagement. Even after the death of their family members, many are still struggling to pin government accountability against the failure of the Disaster Management Act. For instance, in June, Gaurav Kumar Bansal had filed a PIL, asking for Rs. 4 lakh compensation each to the families who lost their members to covid. In hearing the plea, the Supreme Court pulled up the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to set up guidelines to assist families who lost their kins.
Therefore, the utilisation of archaic laws such as the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 is one of the many reasons for the mounting toll. The other reason is also gross mismanagement at the behest of the government. Mere issuance of guidelines is not sufficient. There is a duty upon the executive also to ensure that such guidelines are followed.
India’s inability to provide dignity of life and death in emergencies is a subset of everyday poor governance and limited funds allocated to health. It’s also an issue that India hasn’t yet realised the necessity of end-of-life care.
Many argued the dignity of the dead is part of religious rituals. However, upholding the dignity of the dead extends way beyond just religious or cultural rituals. It involves following hygiene protocols and setting procedures to tackle the deceased’s body.
The instances of the floating bodies in the river require scrutinisation and even accountability from the state.
Recently, several reports emerged, claiming that the floating bodies might be an indication of the manipulation of the mortality rates. In some cases, it was even difficult to trace the identity of the body due to the rising flow of the water. Nevertheless, the right to a decent burial cannot be suspended even in times of emergency. As part of the right to life, the dignity of the dead remains even in times of crisis.
Lastly, the guidelines in question fall short of protecting the right to dignity of the dead. The guidelines instituted by the Ministry of Health in 2020 was never updated despite the drastic change in the fatalities, which required more structured dead body management.
As a response to the multiple petitions filed, the government has quoted the said guidelines repeatedly while not paying any heed to the NHRC Advisory or the International laws and standards established to ensure the dignity of the dead.
Moreover, the guidelines are limited in scope as they seek to cover ‘hospital deaths’ only. So, the data is already skewed if we go by the number of patients and dead bodies that the hospitals didn’t accommodate.And the guidelines based on that data are insufficient.
The government had covered up its inconsistencies and unpreparedness, citing volatility and the scale of the second wave. However, as the third wave approaches, the government must take proactive steps to ensure that the situation does not worsen further.
“Death must be so beautiful.
To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence.
To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow.
To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.”
As is the cultural and moral notion, the need for dignity is closely linked to peace after death. Unfortunately, multiple reasons, including the healthcare sector’s systemic failure, resulted in increased fatalities and unforeseeable spread of covid.
The issue of the dignity of the dead in itself is a multi-layered quandary. Some may even dismiss upholding the right to dignity in times of a pandemic as a futile exercise. However, the reasoning from a state of emergency cannot work more than one time.
While the first wave was uncalled for, it should have prepared India to build a more robust health care system for extremities like the covid pandemic. However, the government authorities, the people and political parties rallied around and held massive congregations, completely overstepping social-distancing norms even before the vaccine was ready. So perhaps, this emergency was of our own making. Thus, it is pertinent to bring to light the failures and blatant disregard of the governments.
Also, irrespective of the pandemic, India never really treated the dead with their due rights and dignity, especially when those dead belonged to the marginalised sections. For instance, in a report by The Economist in 2015, titled ‘Quality of Death Index’, India ranked at sixty-seventh position out of eighty countries.
Over the past few months, the alleged underreporting of deaths have exposed the lacunae of government data. It has also exposed the need for legislation that provides the right to dignity for the dead.
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 Michèle Finck, The role of human dignity in gay rights adjudication and legislation: A comparative perspective, 26 International Journal of Constitutional Law, (Apr 11, 2016).
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 India Const., art. 21 – Protection of life and personal liberty No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law
 Surat Parsi Panchayat Board vs Union of India, C/SCA/7585/2021
 The court on its own Motion vs UT of J&K, WP(PIL) No.5/2020
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 Supra, note 16.
 Supra, note 11.
 Nikhil Pandhi, India’s Rights Panel Wants Law for Dignity in Death – But Marginal Groups First Need Dignity in Life, Scroll, (Jun 08, 2021). Available at: https://scroll.in/article/995531/indias-rights-panel-wants-law-for-dignity-in-death-but-marginal-groups-first-need-dignity-in-life
 Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (London: Walker Books, 1997).
 Supra, note 26