Pakistani town safeguards Hindu-Muslim brotherhood

Indian filmmaker Shilpi Batra Adwani with a Hindu Pashtun migrant woman. Both are wearing traditional Pashtun clothes. (Supplied)
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Updated 01 July 2020

Pakistani town safeguards Hindu-Muslim brotherhood

  • Muslims of Mekhtar have never opened the abandoned properties of Hindus

KARACHI: For more than 70 years, locked-up mud shops lining a street in Pakistan’s southwest Balochistan province have stood the test of time as monuments to one small town’s extraordinary Hindu-Muslim brotherhood.

The Pashtun community of Mekhtar, where a little over a thousand families reside off a main national highway, was once a tight-knit small town where people of the two faiths lived side by side.

During the violent partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the Hindu families of Mekhtar were forced to migrate to Jaipur across the border, where they formed a tiny community of 400 Pashtun Hindus with a very distinct culture.

But in all these years, the dozens of shops they left behind have never been opened again — preserved exactly as they were left by their owners seven decades ago.

“When our Hindu friends were leaving us [after partition] they handed the keys of their shops to us,” Malik Haji Paio Khan Kakar, a 95-year-old resident of Mekhtar told Arab News.

The keys were never used, he said, and the properties sit as though lying in wait for their rightful owners to return.

The town’s integrity is an anomaly in the history of the partition, where land grabbings of abandoned property were common in the absence of formal registrars after the two new countries were carved out and millions were forced to flee their homes.

Just before the Hindus of Mekhtar migrated to Jaipur, Kakar said they stayed as guests in the homes of their Muslim friends for several nights before finding safe passage across the border.

“It was like one’s brother was leaving,” Kakar reminisced.

The meat-eating Pashtun Hindus are a little known tribe in India even today, with a distinct culture carried forward from Afghanistan and Balochistan which includes blue tattoos on the faces of the women, traditional Pashtun dancing and clothes heavily adorned with coins and embroidery.

“It was lovely to hear that the people of Mekhtar still remember us and have taken care of the shops as a token of love,” said Shilpi Batra Adwani, a documentary filmmaker from a Pashtun Hindu family in Jaipur.

Her grandmother, who she calls Babai, migrated from the town during the partition.

Shilpi said that elderly members of Jaipur’s Pashtun Hindu community still sat together and spoke about the “golden period” of harmony and love they had left behind in Mekhtar.

They still speak Pashto, she said and remained fiercely proud of the culture they had brought with them to Jaipur — though acceptance had not always come easy.

“Because the women had tattoos, people in India used to be curious about looking at them. Some found them exotic, and some found them questionable,” Shilpi said.

“They would spend most of their time at their homes, remembering their lovely past times.”

Shilpi, who made a documentary about the roots of India’s Hindu Pashtuns last year, interviewed several women in her community about the days of the partition.

From them, she discovered that the Muslims of Mekhtar had come to the railway station to bid them farewell on the day they had left, with ghee and gifts of food for their long journey.

“Together, they would do embroidery, together eat their meals and together do the Attan (Pashtun folk dance). No one would feel like they belonged to a different faith,” Shilpi said, recounting stories from her grandmother.

The film-maker told many other stories — of one Pashtun Hindu who fell in love with a Muslim woman from Mekhtar and stayed behind, and of old trunks of Pashtun clothes lovingly restored and worn tearfully by the last remaining generation of the partition.

Even 73 years on, Shilpi said, Mekhtar still lived on in the memories of those who had left behind their ancestral homes and shops.

Across the border in Mekhtar, Kakar too reminisced about meeting his old friends one more time.

“My health and finances don’t allow me to travel, but if they could come here... that would be great,” he smiled.

“Then maybe once more, we could sit here. All together.”

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Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 56 min 49 sec ago

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.