Community Graveyard

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With burial land getting scarce by the day in Srinagar, an NGO has taken upon itself the task of burying the unclaimed bodies and those who are not residents of the city, reports Umar Mukhtar

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With people dying abruptly and families lacking a burying space in Srinagar, NGO SRO Batamaloo purchased land and converted it into a community graveyard. KL Image: Umar Mukhtar

Back in 2002, Ali Mohammad, a resident of Handwara, shifted to Srinagar. He settled down at S D Colony Batamaloo. After six years, one fine morning, Mohammad lost his elderly father following a long illness. It was around 7 am when his father breathed his last. Till 4 pm, they could not get a piece of land to bury him.

They had the ancestral graveyard at their native place but they wanted to bury their father in a nearby graveyard but the local committee denied them permission. Mohammad visited every graveyard in the neighbourhood, but he got the same answer everywhere.  The reply he got was: “We have a small space for ourselves, we cannot accommodate an outsider here.”

Finally, at 4 pm, Mohammad had to drive his father to Handwara, an 80 km distance for the burial.

A Concerned NGO

Taking note of this incident, a local NGO, SRO Batamaloo initiated a process of acquiring land for, what they say, a community graveyard.

“We were already getting frequent requests where people were looking for the land for the burial of their dead. It is also a religious obligation of every Muslim,” said Javaid Ahmad, a member of the NGO.

Ahmad said at that point of time the NGO was just starting out so it was difficult for them to buy land. “We were searching for a piece of land like where no construction can be done.”

Finally, they acquired 8 marlas of land at Momin Abad Batamaloo under the electricity transmission lines. “Though we got it on a lesser rate, we had no finances then. We borrowed money for its purchase. It cost us around Rs 8 lakh then,” Ahmad said.

The First Burial

Soon after the purchase of the land, they kept it open to everybody, unlike the other community graveyards. The first one to get buried in this graveyard was a non-local resident who died in an accident. “The deceased was accompanied by some friends and it was not easy for them to take his body outside. They were in a helpless situation and had no idea where to bury,” Ahmad said.

A limited number of people wearing protective uniforms offering the funeral prayers of a woman who died of COVID-19 in Srinagar on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Some had told them about this community graveyard and they approached SRO Batamaloo. Ahmad said that soon after the purchase of the land, many people approached them. “These people are those who have migrated from different places of Kashmir to Srinagar.”

A section of these people come to Srinagar for work and ultimately settle in the city. Life moves smoothly until death happens in the family. It is then that the problem actually arises. Now they have to find a burial place.

City’s Cemetery Crisis

Unlike many places across the Muslim world, the graveyards are part of family possession and inheritance in Srinagar. Besides, there have been two factors that have played a serious role in holding these possessions strictly. Firstly, it is the number of casualties that were the outcome of the strife in the last three decades. There were so many killings that a few graveyards put a board outside that they lack space for burials now. This pressure was despite the fact that additional graveyards emerged. In Khanyar, for instance, part of the local park was converted into a graveyard after more than two dozen civilians were killed during the nineties. Similarly, another graveyard emerged in Batamaloo, which was refilled to bury another line of the slain, also in the nineties. This was in addition to the sprawling graveyard at Eidgah and that would take most of the conflict load.

Another factor is the ever-increasing land prices in Srinagar. Nowhere in Srinagar can one have a marla of land at Rs 1 lakh. In certain areas, it is going up to 20 lakh a marla (20 marlas make a kanal), albeit for commercial and residential purposes. This has forced the families to retain their rights over the graveyard possession they have inherited.

Interestingly, the Malkhah, city’s main graveyard might have hardly witnessed the burial of a person consumed by conflict. For this oldest cemetery, it is interesting to know, a Turkic trader, Miram Bazaz, who migrated and settled in Srinagar, donated the land. He did it because his spiritual murshid came in his dreams and suggested him to do it. Many centuries later, the same graveyard is divided between tens of thousands of families and is part of their inheritance now. The massive concrete blocks separating their shares indicate the sorry state of compartmentalising the dead.

Migrant Crisis

This is the main fact why the natives hardly give any space in their ancestral graveyards to people not related to them. So, they have no other option other than going back to their places. But they face the same treatment at their ancestral places where they are told, that they have no space there because they have already migrated.

“I know many such cases where they were disowned. Even their burials were objected to citing the reason that they were no longer inhabitants of the place”.

Aerial view of Malkha graveyard in Down Town, Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Talking about one particular incident, Ahmad said, that a person was allowed to bury his family member only after clearing the maintenance dues that had accumulated over the years.

Over the years Srinagar has witnessed a large number of people migrating from other parts of the valley, making it very congested. “There is very little space left now in the city,” said Ahmad.

“Those who can afford to pay a sum towards the NGO are asked to pay and those who do not have enough money to pay are not being charged anything,” Ahmad said.

Pandemic Deaths

In the Covid-19 crisis, many people died and people were scared to accommodate them in the local graveyards. So the community graveyard came up as a solution to the problem. Forty-five people have been buried, most of them have died because of Covid.

“Out of these 45 people, 25 are locals and 20 are non-locals,” said Ahmad.  “We had a hard time initially as we were objected to by the neighbours around but somehow, we pacified them and made them understand the seriousness of the issue.

The first non-local death that occurred because of the Coronavirus in Kashmir was that of a tailor in Magarmal Bagh area of Srinagar. “At that point in time, no one was around for such people. Police asked us for help and we buried him,” Ahmad said.  “Police often ask us for help in such cases where there are unclaimed bodies”.

Kashmir’s Grave World

 Now to cater to more people and solve the problem one more kanal of land has been added to the community graveyard.  Ahmad said that the idea of community graveyard is first of its kind in Srinagar. He believes that in coming days the land crisis will get worse and the society will need to do something about it.

“For a Muslim, it is not good to see a dead being treated this way. Also, the families who have lost their dear ones are in distress, so it is our duty to come forward and help them.”

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About Author

Umar Mukhtar is a Srinagar based journalist. He is covering human rights and the changing political landscape of the valley.

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