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Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Day Qutab Minar 'Burst'

Grieving relatives  of the deceased
On December 4, 1981 , Delhi heard that Qutab Minar had “burst”. It was a misunderstanding, but the outcome could not have been worse had the Minar really collapsed. A stampede inside the tower had left 45 dead and 24 injured. It was the most terrible accident in the Minar’s 800-year history, and one of the blackest days in post-Independence Delhi.

Later that day, a Delhi Administration order was hung outside the tower: “The Qutab Minar will remain closed till further notice”. And it has remained closed to the public ever since. Two generations have grown up without once walking up or looking inside the Minar. The facts of that fateful day are forgotten but hearsay and unfounded theories have made an urban legend of the accident.

So, what really happened that Friday? Why was the city’s grandest living monument reduced to a cold souvenir from the past? I dug through old files for answers.

When the accident happened in 1981, unrestricted access to the 72.5-metre Minar was already a thing of the past. Since 1955, visitors had been allowed to go up to only the first balcony — 29 metres and 154 steps above the ground, which is as high as an eight-storey residential building. While the Minar’s ‘tilt’ and consequent repairs are often blamed for the restrictions, frequent suicides from its upper balconies were the real consideration. Even after the top four storeys were sealed and the entry of unaccompanied visitors prohibited, suicides from the Minar continued at the rough rate of two per year.

Bags and other possessions
of the deceased piled up outside
the gate leading to the steps
But more than these deaths, what the Minar remained famous for was its breathless climb, fantastic views and windy galleries. The diary of British agent Thomas Metcalfe’s daughter, Emily, records fond Qutab memories from the 1840s: “Many a time have I, with Colonel Richard Lawrence, taken a basket of oranges to the top of the Kutab pillar, two hundred and thirty eight feet high, to indulge in a feast in that seclusion…”

That happy era went out with the lights inside the Minar on December 4, 1981 . The blackout happened just after 11.30 am, when 300-400 visitors were already squeezed inside the tower and a crowd was pushing on from outside to gain entry. The rush was especially heavy because the entry to monuments used to be free on Friday in those days. Amongst the visitors were 58 students from an industrial training institute in Ropar, Punjab; 130 schoolchildren from Pali and Bhankri villages in Faridabad and some other students from YMD College, Nuh.

Power cuts don’t make news in Delhi , but in the Minar accident case three causes were reported. The first was a conspiracy theory: some miscreants had molested two foreign women tourists at the balcony level and then tripped the lights to trigger chaos. The second: someone had touched an exposed live wire. And the third: a truck had knocked down a power pole outside.

Although the Minar looks like a long, closed shaft from the outside, some light streams in through the balconies. The masonry also has some gaps for ventilation along the steps, and a little light gets in through these. But on that day, the stampede plunged the Minar’s inside into complete darkness. As the screaming started, people who were at the top, crowded close to the balcony window, cutting out most of the light. Those who were near the outer edge of the stairway pressed themselves against the wall to avoid being pulled into the turmoil, and cut out whatever little light that could have come in through the ventilators.      

The painful cries were either absorbed by the Minar’s thick walls or ignored by those outside, for even as the trapped tourists tried to push their way out, climbing over fallen bodies, the crowd at the doorway did not give way, and pushed on to gain entry. They were finally stopped by the inward opening main door that became immovable with the pressure of the desperate crowd behind it.

It was all over in a few minutes, because by 11.45 am the first SOS had been flashed across to the police’s flying squad (it’s another thing that the first cop reportedly showed up at 12.15 pm and the fire brigade only at 12.40 pm). Most of the victims had no outward injuries. After the last autopsy at 1.30 am next day, doctors declared that almost all deaths had happened due to internal crushing and traumatic asphyxia (suffocation). But journalists who looked inside the tower immediately after the accident reported finding blood, broken bangles and glass all over.

Bodies lying in hospital
With the main door jammed (some said it had been locked up by a guard to stop entry) and the Minar’s tight staircase — 1.5 metres at the bottom, narrowing to 1.2 metres at the first balcony — pitch dark, the rescue effort got delayed. Finally, rescuers got in using a maintenance scaffolding rising up along the Minar’s wall, and drew out bodies through the ventilation ports. There was no telling the living from the dead. Passing vehicles were stopped and the bodies rushed to AIIMS and Safdarjung hospitals, where the Emergency wards resembled mortuaries. It was a traumatic sight, and the cop who mistakenly flashed the message “Qutab phat gaya hai” acted on the only plausible explanation that came to his mind.

A day later, a judicial probe started into the causes of the accident. More witnesses were heard. Some said the stampede started when a child got electrocuted and the lights went out. Others maintained that women who were molested at the top of the stairs started screaming and tried to rush down in the blackout. But the most plausible explanation was also the simplest: the lights went out, and somebody near the top of the stairs fell. “We then heard ‘gir gaya ’...”

A tourist had tripped, but in the darkness everybody thought the cry meant Qutab Minar was falling.

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