Monday, April 12, 2010

Of Graveyards and Life

A quiet place nestled in the shadow of the Punjab Cricket Association stadium, Phase 9, Mohali is an unremarkable neighborhood. A cluster of houses, hospital and a couple of religious abodes packed together in a cubical monotony so typical of middle class neighborhoods all across India. On April 11, the monotonous predictability and order of this neighborhood gave way to intense social tension.
Phase 9, Mohali along with its homes, hospitals, temples and Gurudwaras is address for a piece of land which is legally owned by the Waqf Board and is demarcated as a burial ground. In a country that is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, this is too is an unremarkable piece of information. Waqf Board like other community bodies owns properties all over the country and burial grounds too are not an unheard of concept.
Yet on April 11, when the Muslim community of the area assembled to bury one of theirs on a piece of land that had been allotted to them for that, they were prevented from doing so. The otherwise conservative middle class homes where “Do not meddle in others’ issues” would be a common preach got together and objected to the burial.
What was to be a solemn and maybe a somber event that has been performed for ages transformed into a distasteful stand off between two social groups. I call it a stand off between two social groups deliberately. It would have been a far easier event to analyse had it been the more common and expected run of the mill showdown between two religious groups. In this case this was a standoff between two groups, but the differences between them were far deeper than merely religious.
The residents of Phase 9 who had objected to the Muslim burial were a hurriedly patched up coalition of predominantly Hindu and Sikh families. The presence of a mosque in Phase 9 means that there were Muslim families in the area too and maybe a couple of Christian families thrown in for good measure. On the other side you had a group of Muslims who were being vigorously supported by Hindus and Sikhs from their village. As both groups had all the religious groups in their ranks the only difference seems to be that one party to the dispute was Rural in nature and the other was Urban! One could also fairly assume that the “Urbans” were more “well to do” and educated than the “Rurals”.
Yet for some reason the more educated and the more “well to do’ took an uncharacteristically radical stand to deny what was a constitutional and human right of a community. Their objection to the burial was that as the plot of land was smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, they could no allow what was an equivalent to a cremation to be performed in their midst. Right from seemingly rational arguments about the need for burial grounds to be situated away from residential areas to ridiculous ones like fear of their innocent children being attacked by ghosts were presented by the Urbans. The Rurals on the other hand had a very simple submission. They needed to bury their dead and no one could stop them from doing so on a piece of land that had been allotted to them for that very purpose constitutionally. Both parties began calling for reinforcements and in no time the event had escalated to a flashpoint.
One political party did get involved and as expected did all they could to raise the tensions and there was a legal shark representing the Rurals who too did all he could to convert the issue into one of “communal” injustice instead of a disagreement and misunderstanding. The administration for a change did well, the SDM, the DC and the managed to keep the tempers down and the ranting radicals at bay.
The day finally ended with an amicable agreement being arrived at that this one burial would be allowed to proceed as the last one at that location and the Muslim community would be allotted a suitable piece of land at an alternate location.
I feel what happened on April 11 in Phase 9 Mohali was a consequence of cultural insensitivity and age old dogmas. I am sure that the residents of Phase 9 are not the typical religious hardliners and did what they did in response to deep seated fears and anxiety they have of death and finality. Our perceptions of graveyards are moderated by second rate horror flicks that present them in a rather morbid light. In a country where the educated elite still subscribe to medieval beliefs in occult and mysticism graveyards are seen as a place of evil. This is in stark contrast to the image of graveyards being solemn resting places for the departed more common in the west and even the Christian and Muslim dominated regions all over the world. I am sure that the same community which objected to the burial would have been taken aback when a British court disallowed cremation in the open on grounds of it being morbid and polluting. Was this too disconnected from French establishments disallowing turbans or the Swiss government disallowing minarets on mosques?
I am sure the very community that objected to a burial will appreciate that cremation is as morbid to other communities as it is nothing more than a desecration of the departed to cook them on an open pyre. I am sure that the pious woman who was seen coaxing the men folk of Phase 9 to arms against the other community does not consider any other form of disposing off the dead than is prescribed in her religion to be appropriate. I am also sure that she does not even have an idea of what could have happened had the men folk be stupid enough to do what she was asking them to.
For me this event underlined the deep divisions and intolerance integral t our society. What happened in Gujarat was the extreme form of this very intolerance. This event also highlights the woeful inadequacy of our education system to address religious intolerance which in my humble opinion is the most clear and present danger to India.
I have decided that as soon as my son attains an age where he begins to understand such things, I will take him on a visit to a grave yard and will tell him that this where we rest till eternity. I will tell him that there are no ghosts in graveyards and the only ones he will ever meet are the ones in is own mind. I will tell him that his Mom whom he loves so much and his Dad, his grandparents and he too will one day need to sleep…….I will tell him that all these people who sleep here want him to remain safe and happy just like his own parents want him to. I will tell him that when people go to sleep they are put to rest differently in different religions. Some bury their departed and some assign them to flames. I will tell him that even if both seem different, it is basically the same. After all fire and earth are the basic elements.
I want my son to grow without fear of graveyards……. and death. I want my son to focus on what he does best, love life and live it to its fullest!

1 comment:

Naserke said...

Hardest thing is to understand others and easiest is to judge.