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

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Volunteers have so far performed the last rites of 450 Muslims and 250 Hindus. Picture taken on June 30. (Picture credit: Bada Qabrastan Trust)
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A body is cremated at the Santacruz crematorium in Mumbai on June 7. (Picture credit: Bada Qabrastan Trust)
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A Muslim volunteer performs the last rites for a Hindu body at Santacruz crematorium on June 7. So far these volunteers have performed the last rites for 250 Hindu bodies. (Picture credit: Bada Qabrastan Trust)
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Updated 11 July 2020

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.


Kabul begins freeing Taliban

Newly freed Taliban prisoners walk at Pul-e-Charkhi prison, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 13, 2020. Picture taken August 13, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 36 min 40 sec ago

Kabul begins freeing Taliban

  • Release of final 400 inmates was approved by traditional Afghan grand assembly

KABUL: After months of delay, Afghanistan’s government has started releasing the last 400 Taliban inmates in its custody, clearing the way for long-awaited peace talks, officials confirmed on Friday.

Eighty of the 400 were set free on Thursday and, according to the government, more will be freed in the coming days. The release was a condition to begin intra-Afghan negotiations to end 19 years of conflict in the war-torn country. The talks, already delayed twice, are expected to take place in Qatar once the release process is complete.
“The release was to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide cease-fire,” the Afghan National Security Council said in a statement accompanied by video footage showing former Taliban inmates calling on insurgent leaders and the government to engage in peace talks.
The prisoner release follows an agreement signed by the US and the Taliban in Qatar in February that stipulated the exchange of prisoners between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the militants, who have gained ground in recent years.
The process, involving 5,000 Taliban detainees held by Kabul and 1,000 security forces imprisoned by the militants, was slated to begin in early March and should have been followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue.
Ghani, initially resistant to the idea of freeing the Taliban inmates, began to release them under US pressure. Some 4,600 Taliban inmates were freed over the few past months, but Ghani refused to free the remaining 400, arguing they were behind major deadly attacks and that setting them free was outside his authority.
Faced by mounting pressure, after Eid Al-Adha holidays two weeks ago, the president vowed to summon a traditional grand assembly, the Loya Jirga, to help him decide if the remaining Taliban inmates should be freed or not.

FASTFACT

Footage showing men in uniforms mutilating the bodies of purported Taliban members went viral on social media this week, raising concerns that violence between security forces and the militants may impede the peace process despite the prisoner release.

Last week, the assembly approved the release, which is now underway and expected to be followed by the peace talks, in accordance with the US-Taliban deal.
The process, however, coincides with a spike in violence in the country and mutual accusations of an increase in assaults by the Taliban and Afghan government forces.
On Thursday, the Defense Ministry said it was probing a video circulating on social media showing men in army uniforms mutilating the bodies of purported Taliban fighters.
The UN requested that the incident be investigated. It remains unclear when and where it took place.
The Taliban, in a statement, said the bodies of their fighters were mutilated in the Arghandab district of the Zabul province.
Concerns are rising that similar acts of violence will further delay the peace process.
“Let us hope that this video does not become part of revenge-taking between the two sides and affect the process of peace. It is really unfortunate,” analyst Shafiq Haqpal told Arab News.
“As the violence continues, we see more brutal and shocking tactics from the sides and examples of revenge-taking, and that is very worrying and impacts any trust in a peace process,” Shaharzad Akbar, the chief of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said in a Twitter post on Thursday.
“It is on the leadership of the two sides to have clear messages to their fighters to avoid war crimes and actions that further the instinct for revenge that will make the reconciliation that should come out of a peace process difficult,” she added.

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