By Saurabh Sharma Feb. 17, 2017
In Uttar Pradesh’s Pokar village, the dead don’t leave the house.
The ivory-white Taj Mahal has protected Mumtaz Mahal’s grave from torrential rains for centuries. But one night, three years ago, heavy rains laid bare the contents of a grave in a village not very far from the marble monument and scared an 11-year-old girl senseless. The grave was inside her house and the girl’s name, Mumtaz.
Pokar is a village in Uttar Pradesh that lies 32 kilometres from the Taj Mahal. The houses are pucca, made of brick and concrete. At this time of the year, standing mustard crops add colour to the outskirts of the village and eucalyptus trees are the only greenery of note. In this yellow village, Muslims have been burying the dead in their homes and within the compounds of their dwellings for over 90 years.
Pokar’s curious arrangements with the dead are not because of tradition or religion. This state of affairs persists solely because the village has no Muslim burial ground. With a Muslim population numbering 150-200, the strength is not significant enough to demand their share of municipal land. As a result, these families have been compelled to bury their dead within the compounds of their dwellings for decades. Some of the graves are situated right outside the main entrance of the houses.
Living with the dead leaves its mark on the living. Though this practice has not yet caused any detectable contamination of ground water or sanitation hazards, the spectre of psychological trauma looms large. When it rains, fear sets in. The chances of running rainwater splitting apart a grave and revealing its contents are all too real.
Three years on, Mumtaz still hasn’t recovered from the shock of seeing a decaying corpse. Courtesy: 101 Reporters
Three years on, Mumtaz still hasn’t recovered from the shock of seeing a decaying corpse.
Courtesy: 101 Reporters
Mumtaz is now 14, and has still not recovered from the shock of seeing human bones jutting out of the earth with stringy, putrefied flesh clinging to them. Mumtaz’s mother, Baby, says her girl has never been her normal self ever since, plagued by all sorts of ailments. She has consulted doctors and hakeems, and even tried the mumbo jumbo of the local baba. Nothing has helped. Mumtaz continues to be in a feverish state, in body and spirit, frightened to step out of the house alone.
It’s not only the Muslims who have been scarred, even Hindu kids run scared and this has soured the relationship between the two communities. Pokar resident Ram Shanker says Muslim women of the village are not welcomed by the Hindu women “because of the graves”. Even their children face a boycott.
Asgari Jaan is the oldest Muslim alive in Pokar. Asgari arrived in the village at age 14, when she got married to a Muslim boy in the village. Since then she has seen many burials in the compounds of Muslim homes. The 80-year-old’s son Hanim died three months ago. He was buried in the compound of her house. Asgari is hurt, she is angry with her Hindu neighbours for being unrelenting in their opposition to a burial ground. It’s been a month since Rukhsana, the mother of a daily wager named Salman, passed away. Salman begged the gram pradhan (village head) to grant him a slice of the village land to bury his mother. No dice. What was even more surprising was that no Muslim supported him for the fear of antagonising the Hindus, who mostly belong to the Nishad caste.
The Nishad caste dominates Pokar’s Hindu community. Their writ runs. The Muslims live apart from the Hindus, in a cluster located at the southern end of the village. Some Hindus say there is a distinct “smell” that pervades the Muslim compound. But yet the Hindu majority is not willing to part with an inch of village land for a burial ground.
With a Muslim population numbering 150-200, the strength is not significant enough to demand their share of municipal land for burials. Courtesy: 101 Reporters
With a Muslim population numbering 150-200, the strength is not significant enough to demand their share of municipal land for burials.
Courtesy: 101 Reporters
According to the Muslims, Revenue Officer Lekhpal and other officials have visited the village for an “inspection” quite a few times. There are even stories from two decades ago about the village pond, which was to be drained and turned into a burial ground for the Muslims. But the Hindus got wind of it and grabbed the pond land with the connivance of local government officials. This election season has once again raised the hopes of the Muslim community. They hope for a new government that will pay heed to their demands. But Sunder Singh, the incumbent gram pradhan, said that things are unlikely to change.
“The gram panchayat has raised the issue with government officials on and off in the past. Moreover, the Muslims do not petition the government, all they do is blame the Hindus.”
While this battle of accusations continues, the count of graves inside the houses keeps increasing. What started as an emergency measure 90 years ago, when one Aslam Khan died, has now become the law of the land with each house having at least four to five graves. Soon there will be no place for the living.