Photos: A gun salute in Kerala; A Japanese hearse; Dr. KPP Nambiar; Paul Zacharia
By Shevlin Sebastian
Many years ago when retired senior technocrat cum bureaucrat Dr. KPP Nambiar worked in Tokyo, he would occasionally see a special vehicle moving around. It was shaped like a Buddhist temple. “We could not see its windows,” says Nambiar. “Since it was gorgeously decorated and painted, I assumed that it must be a vehicle for the emperor, who was regarded as a God, till the end of the second world war.”
But later, a Japanese friend of Nambiar told him that it was the hearse that took the dead bodies for the funeral. “That was how the Japanese showed respect to the dead,” says Nambiar.
But when Nambiar returned to Kerala, after several years of service abroad, he was taken aback to see what took place at the funerals of prominent people. “It all began with the funeral of the novelist OV Vijayan in 2005,” says Nambiar. “At this state funeral, there were nine policemen who were shooting into the air.” The gun salute also took place during the funeral of the film director Lohithadas as well as noted writer, Kamala Das, who was buried at Thiruvananthapuram, as well as many other notables.
“I thought this shooting was the most ridiculous thing to do, especially, for a writer, like Kamala Das,” says Nambiar. “It was being held in a calm and serene atmosphere, with trees all around.”
Says K. Kunhikrishnan, the former deputy director-general of Doordarshan: “I remember during the gun salute for Kamala Das' funeral, the birds in the trees got so frightened that they flew away in a panic.”
Nambiar wrote an article on this in 'Samakalika Malayalam'. And there was a swift response from several readers, including the late Justice VR Krishna Iyer who wrote: 'Funeral ceremonies should be conducted in a calm and serene atmosphere. Firing guns in the name of an 'official funeral' must come to an end.' Subsequently, the writer Paul Zacharia and others wrote articles in support of Nambiar’s viewpoint. Unfortunately, despite Krishna Iyer's opposition, during his funeral, in December, 2014, he was also given a nine-gun salute.
Kunhikrishnan had suggested the use of bugles, because it is more suitable during such a solemn and sad event.
Eventually, the LDF government of Kerala decided to stop this practice of gun salutes. “Instead of shooting, they begun using bugles, as suggested by Kunhikrishnan,” says Nambiar. “Unfortunately, under the current UDF rule, the practice of shooting has begun again. This was seen during the recent funeral ceremony of a prominent leader.”
A student of history, Nambiar did research to find out the reasons behind this activity. “My studies revealed that this practice took place during prehistoric times when tribal people used bows and arrows,” he says. “Arrows were sent upwards to allow the enemy enough time to remove the dead bodies.”
This practice was also prevalent among warrior groups and armies. “When people died fighting for a cause, respect was shown with a gun salute,” says Nambiar. "But why is it necessary to do this in the case of artistes or politicians?”
However, not all are averse to the gun salute. One eminent leader told Kunhikrishnan, “'We have not got one when we are alive, so why not get one when we are dead. We can leave with a bang.'”
Kunhikrishnan says, “This is just to stoke their vanity. I am sure the ordinary person would prefer that the gun salute is done away with.”
Says Zacharia: “The police is an oppressive force, especially in India. They are against the democratic forces.The gun salute is a political show. The aim is to increase the importance of the deceased person and to reinforce power.”
No writer or an artiste should ask for this. “Nor should the people in a democracy accept this,” says Zacharia.
But now that the gun salute is back in vogue, people are feeling demoralised. “It is disheartening, to say the least,” says Kunhikrishnan. Incidentally, the decision to accord a state funeral, along with a gun salute, is made by the Chief Minister based on the proposal sent by the protocol department of the government of Kerala.
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)