The video of a baby trying to wake its mother, lying dead at a train station in Bihar, horrified the nation and emphasized, once again, the appalling state of migrants making their way home after being stranded by the coronavirus lockdown. On Thursday, the Patna High Court took up the case, calling it "shocking and unfortunate".
The woman, Arbeena, had taken a special train for migrants from Ahmedabad in Gujarat to Bihar. Her family says she died of extreme heat and lack of food and water on the train just before it reached Muzaffarpur, where her body was laid out.
In a distressing video, Arbeena's infant son Rahmat was seen pulling at a shroud covering her body and playing with it, as if to rouse his mother.
The Patna High Court raised a series of questions, to which the government said the 27-year-old woman, who was travelling with her sister and brother-in-law, was "mentally unstable" and had died a "natural death" on the train journey on Monday.
"The following issues would warrant immediate attention for our consideration," the High Court said, raising several questions. "Was a postmortem done? Did the lady actually die of hunger? What action stands taken by the law enforcing agencies? Were the last rights of the deceased performed as per the custom, tradition and the instructions issued by the government? Above all, who is now taking care of the children/sibling(s), who unfortunately lost their mother in these times of distress?" the judges asked.
Representing the Bihar government, Additional Advocate General SD Yadav said, "The woman was mentally unstable and had died a natural death during the course of her journey from Surat which was a fact reported by her companions - her sister and brother-in-law."
Mr Yadav also told the court no post-mortem was conducted, neither was any FIR registered; the family was allowed to take the body after recording statements with the railway authorities at Muzaffarpur station.
The Bihar government lawyer said Arbeena, who was from Katihar, had been living with her sister and brother-in-law after being deserted by her husband and her child was "in safe custody in the guardianship of the sister". He said the boy was an only child, which, the family later said, was incorrect. Rahman has an older brother, four-year-old Farman.
Mr Yadav said he would "personally pursue" the case with the authorities, who would again reach out to the family and ask whether they needed assistance.
The Patna High Court said it would hear the case again on June 3 and asked for facts to be submitted "on the personal affidavit of the concerned principal secretaries" before that.
Arbeena's family has contradicted claims that she was suffering from mental illness. "My daughter was not suffering from any disease and we are hurt (at the allegation)," said Mohammad Nehrul, her father, at his home in Katihar.
On Monday, a five-year-old boy also died at Muzaffarpur railway station. The child died in his mother's lap as his father desperately looked for some milk to feed him after they got off a train they had taken from Delhi.