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COVID-19 and Right to Decent Burial: An Examination

Asthi Visarjan is a very significant ritual in the Hindu religion which means immersion of the left ashes collected from Antim Sanskar (Last Rites) of a dead person. But in the time of Covid-19 the basic meaning of Asthi Visarjan i.e., immersion of ashes has been misunderstood as Bodies now. And we saw that Bodies are being offered to the River Ganga instead of 'Ashes.'  Uncountable dead bodies have been unearthed floating over Ganga and are so thronged that there is not even a distance of one meter between the cadavers.

India Today reported that a lot of carcasses are wandering on the river. Corpses are stuck by the rocks or floating around almost every bend. The remains of the bodies are seen being nibbled on by crows and dogs. And the number of bodies on the river is unimaginable. The situation is so exacerbated that the NHRC has to take cognizance of a complaint about the floating of dead bodies over Ganga in several parts of UP and Bihar taking a step forward for the protection of the fundamental rights of the corpses for a decent burial.

Article 21 A Life Insurance?
The term 'Life Insurance' is truly in consonant with Article 21 here in this context. It can be said that Article 21 is also a form of 'Zindagi ke sath bhi, Zindagi ke baad bhi' (in life, and after life). The intention behind correlating Article 21 with life insurance is to signify that it doesn't bestow the right to life only but makes sure that the right of a person must be protected after life as well ensuring the protection of all the rights uttered under Article 21 such as the Right to privacy, the right of dignity and fair treatment and of course, the right to a decent burial.

Different courts have extended and revised the scope of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution by making the right of cremation with dignity inseparable from the right to live in different decisions and have repetitively recognized the need to give equitable care to a dead body (human corpse) after death and doing so with proper dignity.

One of the first cases where the scope of Article 21 was expanded to embrace the dignity of a person was P. Rathinam v. The Union of India in which the Supreme Court had stressed that the right to life implies a meaningful life with human dignity, not just animal life. This right to dignity was also extended to a person who is dead.

In the case of Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India, it was contended that the right to life, which includes the right to live with dignity, means that this right exists until the death of a person which covers the right to a decent life up to death, including a decent death procedure.

It is worth getting to know that not only the 'Right to a decent burial', but 'as per the religious rules' is also a fundamental right. And the same has been reiterated by the Supreme Court in the Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan v. Union of India in which the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the dignity of the dead ought to be preserved and honoured. It also extended the right to appropriate cremations according to the religious customs of homeless deceased people.

In Vikash Chandra Guddu Baba v. The Union of India & Ors Patna High Court ruled that the hospital staff and State officials must dispose unclaimed or unidentified corpses in full compliance with the law and, in the case that the latter is identifiable, the last rites should be performed to conformity with the deceased recognized faith.

Furthermore, In the case of Pt. Parmanand Katara v. Union of India, it was upheld by the Supreme court that:
'the word and expression person in 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, to have an extended meaning to treat his dead body with respect and the State must respect a dead person by allowing the body of that dead person to be treated with dignity'.

It mentions that the government is also obligated to protect the right to a decent burial with human dignity as per religious rules.

Recent Developments
In Pradeep Gandhy v. State of Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court rejected a petition seeking a stay on the burials of the contaminated victims of Covid-19 and permitted to bury the dead body and found no reason why a person should be denied the right to a decent burial. Similarly, in the Suo Motto v. The State of Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court opined that having a decent burial is a fundamental right under article 21.

Further, in Vineet Ruia v. The Principal Secretary, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt. Of West Bengal & Ors, the Calcutta High Court ruled that to perform the last rites of a Covid-19 victim is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The court further held that doing so concerning tradition and culture is also a fundamental right that can be traced under article 25. Furthermore, the Telangana High Court in the case of R. Sameer Ahmed v. State of Telangana & Ors remarked that:
Even in death, human bodies are not being treated with the dignity they deserve' and directed the state government to let the court know if the dead bodies are being cremated/buried in a dignified manner or not.

Conclusion
Regardless of cultural multiplicity and the different religions/Rituals followed by people, treating a decedent respectfully is a common ritual all around the world. And the sense of respect is so fundamental that people tend to treat even the dead bodies of their enemies so reverently. It becomes more relevant to Indian people. But seeing the same people dumping dead bodies disrespectfully in Rivers is highly unappreciable. The people should corporate with the government by not doing the same and the government should also do the necessary to prevent inappropriate disposal of the bodies in rivers by providing all the needed amenities.

Oscar Wilde had quoted:
eath 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 forgive life, to be at peace. Let's adhere to his quote, let the death be so beautiful, let's make a collective effort to protect their fundamental right, let's not deny the right to a decent burial.

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