New Delhi: On Tuesday, former BJP MLA Jitender Singh Shunty received the Padma Shri in the ‘social work’ category. For 25 years, ever since he set up the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal for the purpose in 1996, Shunty has been helping the poor by arranging free cremations for those unable to afford the last rites of a family member or friend. His service was especially valuable during the second Covid wave in the country when Shunty helped cremate the bodies of 4,000 patients who died of Covid, free of cost.
“The pandemic made me almost lose my faith in humanity. People would literally leave the bodies of their loved ones with us and run away. It was hard to believe at first, but then it became the norm,” Shunty told ThePrint Wednesday, recalling how he and his team would get 10-15 such bodies every day during the second Covid wave.
During the time, Shunty set up a makeshift office at the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC)-run Seemapuri crematorium, where all bodies received by his organisation were cremated.
The former politician remembered sleeping in an ambulance for more than 22 days, after overseeing cremations till as late as 2 am.
In April, the Old Seemapuri crematorium had to be expanded to include the adjacent parking ground, as the number of deaths from Covid shot up. Drone visuals of mass cremations in the capital shook not just Indians, but people across the world.
Speaking to ThePrint about Shunty’s contribution in handling cremations at the time, former EDMC mayor and once-fellow BJP member Nirmal Jain said, “He used to oversee cremations at a shamshan ghat even before the Covid-19 pandemic. So when the pressure increased during the second wave, he pitched in.”
Jain added that “municipal corporation officials too were no less in helping people in conducting the last rites at the time”.
“They visited crematoriums daily to take stock of the ground situation. We began the initiative to expand various cremation grounds, including the Seemapuri crematorium, to tackle the problem (of mounting dead bodies during the Covid second wave),” he said.
The founder of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal
Helping a 12-year-old cremate his grandfather, consigning the body of five-month-old Pari to flames, conducting the last rites of a young bride — married just 15 days prior to her death — these are some of the memories from the traumatic months of the second Covid wave that continue to haunt Shunty.
Even though he has been conducting cremations for over two decades, the heart-wrenching heap of dead bodies at the time was not something he had ever imagined facing, Shunty told ThePrint.
Shunty’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal has helped organise free cremation for unclaimed bodies and the poor, among other services (blood donation, hearse vans, and ambulance services), since 1996. A heartbreaking episode that year set him on this path.
“I was accompanying someone to a crematorium in Delhi in 1996, when I saw a man stealing pieces of wood from the remnants of an already burnt pyre. When I questioned him, he said he had come from Uttar Pradesh for his 13-year-old son’s treatment, but the boy could not be saved and he was so poor that he could not afford to buy wood for his last rites. This made me realise how Delhi, a city where people spend crores on housing and marriages, is also a city where millions of poor people couldn’t afford to die in dignity”, he said.
The organisation now has branches in three other states, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
While accepting the Padma Shri Tuesday, Shunty dedicated the award to the team of frontline workers who he said supported him and worked tirelessly and selflessly, often putting their own lives at risk during the pandemic, to ensure a dignified farewell to the departed.
“They stood with me when I lost faith in humanity,” he told ThePrint.
His team, meanwhile, is all praise for Shunty’s efforts.
“When the municipal corporation requested him to take the responsibility (of cremating bodies) he immediately said ‘yes’, and told us that someone had to come forward to do it; everyone couldn’t just stay at home,” recalled Harjit Singh Raju, the organisation’s manager.
He added: “The first wave was still manageable, but the second wave was disastrous. He (Shunty) would reach the crematorium every day at 6 am, and would tell others to do the same. Both of his sons were also on the field all the time.”
“After his family got infected with the virus twice, he brought some clothes over and lived for a long time in the small cabin in our parking area. He would barely get to sleep for two-three hours during those days.”
Shunty is married to Manjeet Kaur and has two sons, Jyotjeet Singh and Manish Pal Singh.
For Shunty, the Padma Shri is not only a government recognition of his efforts, but the conferring of more future responsibilities on him and his organisation.
‘The spirit of service’
It is a trait those working with him recognise well. “Jitender ji had everything one would want in their lives — wealth, recognition — but still he had this ‘sewa ka jasba (the spirit of service)’ that even motivates people like us to do something for society, for the poor, even if at low wages,” said Anand Kumar, an ambulance driver for the organisation, who has been working with Shunty for 25 years.
“Not just during Covid, even in normal conditions, whenever he gets a call from a policeman or hears of a person lying dead somewhere or an unidentified person committing suicide, he acts promptly and alerts us to bring the body for cremation. There is no concept of working hours for him — even if he gets a call at midnight, he rushes with us, or makes sure we go collect the body,” Kumar added.
Like soldiers guard our nation at the border, we are also warriors standing for our people, Shunty would tell the workers, said Kumar.
Another ambulance driver, Jitendra, who has been working with Shunty for 23 years, spoke of his concern for his own workers.
“He always treats us like family. When one of our fellow drivers died due to Covid, all of us were scared (to do this work), since we have mouths to feed at home. But he consoled us and told us not to stop. The recognition that the Padma Shri award gave him was long overdue,” he said.
A former BJP MLA
The former BJP MLA built his life from scratch, according to Raju. Shunty lost his father in Class 10, after which it became his responsibility, as the eldest son, to take care of the family — including his younger siblings, a brother and a sister.
According to Raju, he sold second-hand cars for a living, often spending his nights in the trucks that would transport these cars.
He then opened a small showroom for used cars on the UP-Delhi border. His friends subsequently motivated him to contest the MCD polls, Shunty said.
“My friends motivated me to think that if we really want to serve people, it is not necessary to have an electorate,” he added.
Shunty won the Delhi Municipal Corporation elections twice, once as an Independent candidate from Jhilmil in East Delhi in 2007 and later after he joined the BJP in 2012. A year later, in 2013, the party gave him a ticket to contest the assembly elections from the Shahdara constituency and he won with 45,364 votes.
During his tenure as the Shahdara MLA, his family alleged that he started receiving threat calls, and, in 2014, he was allegedly shot at, though he managed to dodge the bullet. He was subsequently provided with a personal security officer during the day and round-the-clock security at his residence by Delhi Police. Two additional armed guards were given to him by Punjab Police.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)