A grave matter: Illegal land deals have made Muslim burial a costly affair

Updated on Nov 16, 2014 12:24 PM IST

As if finding a piece of land to live on wasn't difficult enough, the search for an eternal resting place, those precious 'two-yards', is making many Muslims lose their sleep. Shrinking urban spaces and illegal land deals have made Muslim burial a costly affair.

Hindustan Times | ByFurquan Ameen Siddiqui with Afroz Alam Sahil, New Delhi

As if finding a piece of land to live on wasn't difficult enough, the search for an eternal resting place, those precious 'two-yards', is making many Muslims lose their sleep. With an increase in the Muslim population and the absence of urban planning in many cities, the hunt for graves is becoming a serious problem and has led to such trends as the advance booking of graves and the reuse of old family graves.

In 1971, Muslims in Delhi formed just 6.5% of the population. Now they form 11.7% of the city's 1.78 crore population. 18.56% of Mumbai's population of 1.26 crore are Muslims, while Lucknow has 29 lakh Muslims. Most Muslims in these cities are ghettoised, often living in close proximity with each other in a small geographic area. These areas lack basic resources; so having a graveyard near your locality can then even be considered a luxury.

But every luxury comes at a price. These days, the cost of your final resting place can range between a few thousands and more than a lakh. Many sniff a business opportunity in the space crunch that afflicts graveyards across the country.

Pervez Khan, who came to Delhi from Patna five years ago, earns about Rs 5,000 a month tailoring clothes on the sewing machine that he operates at the side of a road in Jamia Nagar. When Khan's sons, Shabbir (9) and Sohail (8), were accidentally electrocuted to death late last year, he went to the Jamia Nagar graveyard to bury them. He was asked to pay a total of Rs 10,000 for the burial. After much negotiation, the graveyard caretaker agreed to Rs 6,500. "They don't think about the situation of the person. For them, it is someone else's problem. They demand whatever they feel like," says Khan who had to borrow the money from his landlord.

Reclaiming graveyards
Earlier this year, a campaign led by Ameeque Jamei, a local CPI activist, urged locals to speak out against the irregularities in the running of the only available graveyard in the locality. Parvez Khan's plight was shared widely on social media.

The graveyard serves a population of around 5 lakh people and witnesses about 150 burials a month. According to a survey conducted by Dr Firdous Azmat, assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia university, the lack of sufficient burial places is one of the main problems faced by Jamia Nagar's migrant population.

"The two portions of land, which serve as the graveyard, is engulfed in a dispute between the family of the caretaker and the Wakf board," says Jamei, who adds that a committee formed by the Board was supposed to take over the land. "But a nexus between local politicians and the caretaker, who claims it is his ancestral land, is preventing the proper functioning of the graveyard."

Caught in this trap are poor people like Parvez Khan.

An RTI filed with the Delhi Wakf Board revealed that, according to the state Wakf 's 1970 gazette, there were 488 Muslim graveyards in the city. Khurshid Farooqui, a section officer at the Board, put the number of existing graveyards in the city at around 75.

Two graveyards of the listed four in Jamia Nagar area survive; Nizamuddin has 25 listed graveyards, of which about four survive; Mehrauli has 41 against its name, but in reality only a few remain. The same RTI also revealed that Rs 13.9 lakh was spent on the maintenance of the surviving graveyards between 2006 and 2013.

"Many of these listed graveyards are not even directly overseen by the Wakf board, but are done by local committees," says Farooqui who adds that in several areas where the local Muslim population has dwindled, the local land mafia has been encroaching freely upon the graveyards as the Board dare not raise its voice.

Real estate of graves
Delhi is not alone. Other major cities are facing a similar crisis. Mumbai has 71 Muslim graveyards. Fourteen of these are managed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) with the remaining 57 being entrusted to Muslim organisations. Until 1984, you could pre-book a grave at Badakabristan, the largest Muslim graveyard in the city with 7,000 graves. That system was abolished and the graveyard now reuses land after a year. Incidentally, Christian burial which requires a coffin, Muslim burial only requires the body to be swathed in cloth with a layer of wood or stone then being placed over it.

The Wakf Board in Lucknow is divided into individual Shia and Sunni boards, which look after the graveyards of their own community. A few years ago, Asad Jafar from Lucknow was forced to take his father's body to the family's ancestral village for burial as he would have otherwise had to pay ` 20,000 for a grave.

"The sale of graves is like a property deal nowadays. It even involves brokers, who in turn, have deals with the mutawallis (caretakers)," says Jafar.

Of the 47 Shia graveyards registered here with the Shia Central Board of Waqfs (SCBW), 31 have disappeared and have been replaced by shops and buildings. As a result, there has been a surge in demand for Hayati Kabr or pre-booked graves. Prices range between Rs 50,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh.

"The way these graves are bought and sold, it seems like they are a door that opens directly into heaven," says Syed Waseem Rizvi, former chairman of the Shia Wakf Board. "People who prefer a place near their dear ones after death buy such Hayati Kabr. Poor people who can't afford them are forced to the outskirts." Rizvi claims the problems are not so severe in the city's Sunni graveyards, but there too, prices range around Rs 25,000 per grave.

Patna is no different. The Sheikhpura graveyard is now part of a golf club and the Sultanganj graveyard is part of a police station. A petition managed to wrest a graveyard back from the proposed site for AIIMS in the city. "Encroachment is a major issue in the city. The government should be held responsible for the widespread encroachment that has been happening even after the launch of the central scheme to protect every graveyard by fencing it," says social activist Adil Hasan Azad.

Encroachment and graveyard mismanagement has also led to communal violence in many places. In July this year, Muslims and Sikhs clashed in UP's Saharanpur when a structure was being constructed on a vacant plot that the Muslim community claimed was a graveyard. In Goregaon, Mumbai, two sects (Barelvi and Tablighi) of the Muslim community clashed over the treatment of a graveyard. In 2012, Jats and Muslims in Mathura (UP) clashed after a protest against the alleged encroachment of a graveyard. In 2011, the Meo Muslims and the Gujjar Hindus of Gopalgarh in Bharatpur (Rajasthan) rioted when the latter laid claim to land near a Muslim graveyard. In 2006, Maharashtra's Bhiwandi witnessed local Muslims clash with police over the construction of a police station on land adjacent to a graveyard.

Fighting corruption
The fight to get land allotted for a graveyard is almost as intense as these riots. And it isn't just cities that suffer. In Chakarnagar, a small village near Etawah, people bury the dead in their homes or even on the road as there is no graveyard. In 2010, the Shia community in Mumbai got seven burial grounds after fighting for two decades. It took eight years for Muslims in Delhi's Dwarka, to get a graveyard. The situation isn't entirely hopeless. Millennium Park, one of the biggest gardens in the capital that usurped around 14 acres of graveyard land will return it to the Wakf board so that a new burial ground can come up in the area.

Celebrations might be premature, however. While the land is being given back to the Board, its fate is still in doubt. At the crux of the issue of the encroachment of graveyards is the widespread corruption in Wakf boards across the country. Wakf, an Arabic word, is used typically for donations of a religious or charitable nature.

According to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Wakf under K Rahman Khan it was estimated that the total land under the Wakf in India is over four lakh acres. According to findings submitted in its ninth report in 2008, the JPC mentioned that about 80% of Wakf properties have been encroached upon. Clearly, Wakf property worth thousands of crores has been illegally handed to the land mafia. Several committees, including the Sachar Committee and the JPC, had suggested stringent actions to curb encroachment and misuse. The Union Ministry of Minorities Affairs had even directed state Wakf boards to undertake an assets survey and computerise records. However, responses to RTIs filed suggest that there has been no progress. Perhaps the Wakf (Amendment) Act, 2013, will bring some order to Wakf boards, helping to mitigate encroachment problems and make Wakf properties commercially viable.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, who was banished to Rangoon by the British after the events of 1857, lamented that he couldn't be buried in his own country: Kitnaa hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn key liye/Do gaz zameen bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein (How unfortunate is Zafar that he can't get two yards for his burial in the land of the beloved).

It would seem that, though the world has changed, the fight for do gaz zameen continues.

Note: Afroz Alam Sahil is an independent journalist who lives in Delhi.

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