A live question about our dead

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes had told his friends that when he died, he wanted them to throw his body over the city wall, where it could be devoured by the animals. But, as Plato would believe, Diogenes was “a Socrates gone mad.” That sounds true because people have cared for the bodies of their dead since 10,000 BC, as exhaustively discussed by the University of California professor Thomas Laquer in his book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has made mass deaths a new norm. People die with more frequency than our societies were used to. When it comes to India, Muslim deaths entail yet another challenge: Where to bury the dead. The shortage of graveyards is posing yet another problem for our fight against the lethal pandemic. According to a recent report the graveyards have less space left than the currency of deaths. We’ve witnessed how the intra-community clashes take place for Muslim burials. The disturbing reports from Maharashtra and elsewhere about the Muslim dead bodies being thrown into the sea reinforce the need for a state-led Graveyard Management Authority. Pandemics come and go yet they also recur after certain intervals of time. Delhi Waqf Board had in 2018 proposed a draft graveyard policy to the central government to which the Board is yet to receive a reply.

Jammu and Kashmir is no exception to the mess the graveyard management is in across the country. Adjoining localities often resort to clashes over the ownership of graveyards. A 2007 media report (Hindustan Times) highlighted the acute shortage of graveyards in Kashmir. Due to the lack of space for burials, people often bury their dead on the roadside or hilltops.

Graveyards in Kashmir are usually managed by the local committees. Most of the graveyards are actually situated on the state land and the localities erect a signboard saying it’s Maqbooza ahle Islam, meaning “occupied by Muslims”. This arbitrary land grab in the name of community has also encouraged encroachments. Although several graveyards are managed by the Muslim Wakaf Board in Kashmir yet the Board doesn’t enjoy discretionary powers and the officials budge before the local elders.

Malkhah  (gravedigger’s field) is the Srinagar City’s oldest and largest graveyard. The land was purchased by the most revered saint Syed Ali Hamadani and donated for the public good. But over the centuries the encroachers have reduced Malkhah from 1300 kanals to less than 700 kanals.

In Kashmir, it’s not pandemic that should cause concern about the burial of the dead. The conflict also spikes the death rate in Valley. According to a 2019 report by J&K Coalition of Civil Societies, 2018 was the bloodiest year in a decade with 586 deaths of security force personnel and militants. The toll included 160 civilians. Before the article 370 was removed in August 2019, the death toll in first three months of the year had crossed 160.  Besides conflict, the mortality rate in hospitals has been showing an upward trend over past few years. In such a scenario it becomes all the more necessary to look into management of graveyards more seriously.

Pertinently, the J&K Reorganization Act 2019 has done away with the local J&K Muslim Specified Waqf Properties (Management and Regulation) Act 2004. From 31Oct 2019, J&K is now directly governed by the Central Waqf Act 1995. This should make it easier for the local authorities here to think of a broad-based Graveyard Management Authority, that would oversee the graveyards, frame rules of construction, management and allotment of new spaces for the expanding population.

J&K Muslim Waqf Board has an annual income of more than Rs. 30 Crore. It is reportedly the richest organization of Kashmir and occupies vast tracts of agricultural and forest land. The Board runs hundreds of schools and three nursing colleges and runs Islamic University of Science and Technology with government support. For several decades, the Board could not come up with a graveyard policy.

Populations keep shifting, and the towns and cities keep transforming. There is no longer the culture of clinging to one’s ancestral home or the hometown. When people settle elsewhere they are denied space in the local graveyards by the same “ahl-e-Islam”. This results in further encroachment of road flanks and hillsides. Due to natural calamities, animal intervention or flooding these graveyards become potential causes for epidemic.

The administration should contemplate the setting up of a government-controlled Graveyard Management Authority so that the arbitrary declaration of graveyards and clashes between localities are checked for good. The Authority can have an official management structure with nominated members from the recognized Muslim bodies from all 10 districts of Kashmir. This Authority could manage not just the burial issues smoothly but also mark land for developing new graveyards. After all, the civilized authorities are supposed to prevent the civilization from descent into chaos, which might compel people to follow the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes and the people here would be compelled to tell their kin that their bodies should be thrown to dogs rather than buried with dignity.

(Author is social activist. Contact 9469679449)