Chandigarh: A renowned spiritual singer who died of Covid-19 Thursday could not be cremated for hours, as residents of his native town in Punjab surrounded the cremation ground and stalled the funeral because they believed it would spread the virus.
Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa, 67, a Padma Shri awardee in 2009, hailed from Verka, 8 km from Amritsar.
The conduct of Verka residents came in for intense criticism on social media, with Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Sukhbir Singh Badal seeking Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s intervention.
Verka municipal councillor Navdeep Singh Hundal told ThePrint Thursday evening that, after negotiations with local residents, it had been decided that Khalsa’s last rites would be performed at a secluded spot located at a short distance from the cremation ground. The body was finally cremated around 8.30 pm.
Speaking to ThePrint, Amritsar district collector Shiv Dular Singh Dhillon said the residents of Verka had declared that they would build a memorial for Khalsa at the site of the cremation.
Khalsa was a revered raagi (spiritual singer) in Punjab and among the Sikh community across the world, and served as the resident raagi at the Golden Temple in Amritsar for several years.
He is said to have had the knowledge of all the 31 raags in the Gurbani of the Guru Granth Sahib, and remains the sole practitioner of his craft to receive the Padma Shri.
He had very good relations with some of India’s top musicians. On 29 February, Khalsa and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain had visited the Golden Temple and spent several hours with staff members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
Khalsa was admitted to the Government Medical College and Hospital in Amritsar Monday and diagnosed with Covid-19 Wednesday. He was put on ventilator support but died in the small hours of Thursday. Khalsa had no recent travel history.
As word of his death spread, residents of Verka gathered around the main cremation ground and locked the gates.
“By the time we reached the cremation ground, there were a lot of people waiting there to stop the administration from bringing in the body,” said Hundal.
“After several hours of negotiations with the residents, a solution was found that his body may be cremated a few kilometres away from the cremation ground, on a secluded piece of land that is the common property of the council,” he added.
Sources in the Amritsar administration said the standoff over the funeral wasn’t the only reason the body was handed over late.
“Another reason for the delay… is that all relatives of the deceased were immediately sent into isolation and only when some of them were declared Covid-19-negative were they allowed to come out and handle the situation,” said a senior official.
The conduct of Verka residents was widely panned on social media, with some users from Punjab even offering their own houses for the cremation.
ਕਰਫਿੳੂ ਦੌਰਾਨ ਬਾਹਰ ਨਿਕਲਣਾ ਜੁਰਮ ਹੈ!ਕੀ ਭਾੲੀ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਸਿੰਘ ਖਾਲਸਾ ਦੇ ਸਸਕਾਰ ਦਾ ਵਿਰੋਧ ਕਰਨ ਲੲੀ 'ਪਾਸ' ਬਣਾ ਕੇ ਦਿੱਤੇ ਗੲੇ ?
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee also offered a local gurdwara for his cremation but by then the alternative site had already been arranged. Former Punjab deputy chief minister Badal said the act had insulted “the mortal remains of the renowned Gurmat Sangeet exponent”.
He asked the chief minister to intervene and ensure Covid-19 patients are not discriminated against. “Such acts are against the spirit of humanity and communal brotherhood and have the capacity to spiral out of control and result in serious consequences for society,” Badal said in a statement. “Those responsible for locking the Verka cremation ground must be taken to task and proceeded against.”
I strongly appeal to the CM @capt_amarinder to intervene & ensure such incidents aren't allowed to occur in Punjab. Such acts are against the spirit of humanity & communal brotherhood and have the capacity to spiral out of control & result in serious consequences for society. 2/3
— Sukhbir Singh Badal (@officeofssbadal) April 2, 2020
Health officials baffled
Given that Khalsa had no recent travel history, his case has baffled the medical fraternity. Sources in the health department said his last trip abroad was to the US in November 2019. However, in the first week of March, his aged uncle and aunt arrived from the US and went into self-quarantine for 14 days.
“The only link we have been able to establish is that the flight on which his uncle and aunt arrived had also brought into Punjab the state’s first Covid-19-positive patient,” said a senior health official. “He has now been discharged.”
According to the official, the uncle and aunt had shown no symptoms of Covid-19. “We are trying to find the source of Khalsa’s infection, and it might take a few days,” he added.
However, Khalsa’s close aides have accused Amritsar health officials of negligence, saying he had visited the medical college last month with symptoms but was not tested.
According to the aides, Khalsa was given some medicines and told to rest at home. He is also said to have consulted doctors at the Guru Ramdas Medical College and Hospital of the SGPC, but no one suspected coronavirus on account of his travel history.
It was during his last visit to Guru Ramdas Hospital over the weekend that doctors advised Khalsa be shifted to the medical college.
A source at the Amritsar government medical college admitted they had slipped up, but said their hands were tied by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines on testing.
The source, a senior doctor, said Khalsa had been visiting hospitals for the past 10 days but nobody suspected him to be a coronavirus suspect because he had no travel history and hadn’t come in contact with a patient either. “The ICMR testing guidelines in this regard are very strict,” he said.
Khalsa had roamed freely in the days before he began to show symptoms. On 13 March, he met environmentalist Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, another Padma Shri awardee. On 19 March, Khalsa also performed a kirtan at Sector 27 in Chandigarh that was attended by several people.
Seechewal issued a statement on his Facebook page Thursday night saying he was fine and had no symptoms.