Less than 48 hours after a train killed 59 persons celebrating Dussehra in Amritsar Friday, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh left on Sunday evening for an official visit to Israel, triggering a storm of criticism by opposition parties for going on a foreign trip at a time when the families of victims were yet to recover from the shock of their loss and public anger over the incident had still not abated
The Chief Minister was originally scheduled to leave for Israel on Friday night but stayed back in view of the horrific incident at Amritsar the same evening. He left on Sunday, after the one-day state mourning on Saturday. An advance team of officials is already in Israel.
Amarinder will meet Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on October 23. A government statement a few days ago had said he would hold “extensive discussions on a wide range of subjects of mutual interest” during the visit.
A government statement late on Sunday said after “feeling completely satisfied with the relief and rehabilitation measures being carried out for the victims of the Amritsar train tragedy and following assurances by his ministerial colleagues that everything will be taken due care of, the Chief Minister decided to visit Israel and hold the scheduled meetings there.”
Amarinder will visit several historic and culturally important sites in Israel, as well as some major centres of hi-tech irrigation, agriculture, horticulture and dairy farming, according to the statement. He will also visit the Commonwealth Cemetery for Battle of Haifa martyrs.
Those accompanying the Chief Minister during the visit are Media Adviser to CM Raveen Thukral, ACS Industries Vini Mahajan, ACS Development Viswajeet Khanna, DGP Intelligence Dinkar Gupta and Secretary Water Resources Arunjit Miglani.
Sources said after the Israel visit, Amarinder will continue on a personal trip to Turkey from October 25 to November 1. Sports Minister Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi will join him on the Turkey trip.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Bharatiya Janata Party and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) all lashed out at the Chief Minister for his “indifference” and “insensitivity” in leaving the state at this time. They have asked why he could not postpone the trip until the law and order situation in Amritsar had stabilised and the pain of the people had eased. Opposition politicians had already taken him on for arriving the morning after the mishap, which took place around 7 pm Friday.
SAD spokesperson Daljit Singh Cheema said, “There could be no indifference bigger than this … It is very sad that there is such a big tragedy in the state which is hard to describe in words, but the Chief Minister who visited Amritsar once and came back is learnt to have gone on a foreign visit to Israel… People are protesting there, there has been a lathicharge on them and section 144 has been imposed. Under these sensitive circumstances, if the Chief Minister of a state goes abroad, I think this is very irresponsible.”
“First, he arrived in Amritsar late and rushed back to Delhi after a hurried visit. The bodies of victims are yet to be identified and even the bhog of the deceased have not been held yet, what was the need for the CM to rush off?” asked Leader of Opposition Harpal Cheema.
The LoP also said such trips were a waste of public money. “What can Israel teach us about farming? We have several experts of our own who can be consulted. Earlier, the Badals too wasted public exchequer funds on trips to Israel. On the one hand, the CM says the state’s finances are in bad shape and on the other hand he is wasting money on such trips,” he said.
BJP National Secretary Tarun Chugh issued a statement this evening condemning the CMs trip to Israel. “Even the funeral pyres of the victims are still burning but the CM has foreign trips on his mind. The relatives of the victims are trying to find the whereabouts of the missing by identifying their shoes and bits of clothing lying on the rail tracks but going to Israel and Turkey is more important for the CM than staying and organising the administrative efforts to help the people,” he said.
Chugh added that having represented Amritsar in the Lok Sabha as an MP, Amarinder had a moral duty towards the ‘Guru ki Nagri’ (city of Guru) and should have stayed put to help the people pull through this hour of grief.
AAP MLA and former Leader of Opposition, Sukhpal Khaira, said it was unfortunate that the CM had chosen to go abroad so soon after the tragedy. “The trip could surely have been postponed for some days. Those of us who have visited the hospitals in Amritsar are certain that the death toll will go up. There is an urgent need for the administration to help in the identification of remains as well as rehabilitate those affected by the tragedy,” he said.
Patiala MP Dr Dharamvira Gandhi was, however, of the view that sometimes planned foreign meetings cannot be postponed as these have been arranged well in advance. “For me and for many people of the state the more painful issue is that the CM did not arrive in Amritsar well in time even as the Governor, union minister and other senior state functionaries did,” Gandhi said, pointing to this as a sign of the chief minister’s “insensitivity” towards the tragedy.