In India and several parts of the world, when the Hajis (those who perform the Haj) return home from Mecca and Medina, those unable to make the trip kiss their hands in reverence.
Ironically, in Saudi Arabia - the land where Islam's holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, are located -- the Haj pilgrims are treated with scant respect.
The Hajis are hustled and shoved around, poked with batons, and spoken to rudely by the Saudi Muttawa (law enforcers) and Mabahith (the intelligence police). The ill-treatment starts the moment the pilgrims step out of their hotels and venture towards the holy sites.
Last year, when I visited Saudi Arabia, I realised that Medina is probably the most tranquil and serene city in the kingdom. It is a developing city, but bereft of the traffic woes of other cities in Saudi Arabia. The law enforcers were not intrusive and left us alone, unlike in Mecca. The moment I landed in Mecca, the hectic construction around the Circular Mosque of Kaaba dampened the fervour of the spiritual journey. The approach to the Masjid-ul-Haram is quite complicated, and takes one through many a diversion, leaving one exhausted.
The elderly and the physically challenged found the entire experience daunting and exhausting every time they stepped out of the confines of their hotels to visit the Grand Mosque. I felt the Saudi administration could have suspended the constructions a few weeks ahead of the Haj season. Who knows, a stoppage in the construction near the holy site could have saved the lives of the pilgrims who died in the recent crane accident during the commencement of the Haj this year.
Things get worse once the pilgrims start proceeding towards the plains of Arafat, which is 3-km from Mecca. Long queues outside the limited number of toilets, bad drainage, unhygienic sanitation, inconvenient traffic restrictions which are just illogical... these are some of the things that start bogging down the Hajis. The Hajis also need to spend a couple of nights in the tents of Mina. I thought that a bit of application of mind and planning could make the Mina sojourn a pleasant one. But once again, the closure of several pathways, and circuitous routes frustrated the Hajis.
I believe the Saudi Police could take a leaf out of the Mumbai Police's handling of religious processions. I'm witness to this: the Mumbai Police handle the public with kid gloves during religious processions. For instance, during the Ganpati immersion days, the Mumbai cops are cooperative and courteous, and despite putting in long hours and getting hardly any rest, they rarely lose their cool.
In contrast, the pilgrims in Saudi Arabia have to put up with ill-mannered cops, who seem to be angry all the time. I was pained to see the treatment meted out to the poor Hajis who were sleeping on the pavement near Masjid-e-Kheef, in the south of Mina. The Saudi traffic cops were mercilessly caning those who did not wake up to the prayer call in the morning. Often, the cops would halt their vehicles near the sleeping pilgrims, and would honk incessantly to wake them up. This is no way to treat any human being, leave alone those on a spiritual journey.
As the custodians of the holy sites, the Saudis are expected to be a little more humane. The worst treatment is of course reserved for the pilgrims from the economically-weaker nations. Even after the stampede on Thursday, in which more than 700 people lost their lives, the medical readiness seemed to be missing. The eyewitnesses recalled that some of the victims were still breathing and could have been saved with timely medical intervention.
What is surprising is that Saudi Arabia, with all its wealth, does not have the wherewithal to streamline mob-management. Even an economically backward and war-torn country such as Iraq exceptionally handles a crowd of 30 million pilgrims in Karbala every year. Saudi Arabia has to deal with 2 million pilgrims during the Haj.