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  In pursuit of a place to rest in peace

In pursuit of a place to rest in peace

Published : Feb 28, 2016, 1:49 am IST
Updated : Feb 28, 2016, 1:49 am IST

Manager Assad Askari of the Irani Shia Ithna Ashari Trust that maintains Rehmatabad points to the filled-to-capacity graveyard that houses almost five to six deceased in each grave. (Photo: Debasish Dey)

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Manager Assad Askari of the Irani Shia Ithna Ashari Trust that maintains Rehmatabad points to the filled-to-capacity graveyard that houses almost five to six deceased in each grave. (Photo: Debasish Dey)

Rehmatabad, the Shia cemetery at Mazgaon (Reay Road) becomes a battlefield almost everyday as members of the community try to get space for burying their dead in an almost fully occupied graveyard. The reason behind the arguments and altercations the graveyard sees almost on a daily basis is because the trust that maintains it is forced to turn away families due to the limited availability of space.

 

Instances On Tuesday, February 23, a family that wanted to bury a relative at the cemetery became violent after they were told that the burial could not take place. The ensuing melee saw the manager of the graveyard getting beaten up and also requiring stitches on his hand after he was slashed by a kama (a knife used by mourners in Moharrum for self-flagellation) that was kept in his office. The situation was diffused after the Byculla police intervened and asked the relatives and the manager to resolve the issue amicably. The attackers were allowed to bury the corpse in a grave that belonged to deceased relative.

A day later, Ramzan Jalalpuri, a resident of Kurla who wanted to bury his sister-in-law, was turned away as there was no space for families that did not have existing graves. He was asked to take his sister-in-law’s body to the Mulund graveyard but he preferred to send it back to his hometown in Uttar Pradesh.

 

A week prior to the two instances, a son was caught in a dilemma after he was told that his mother could not be buried due to lack of space. The reason for the dilemma was that his mother had willed that she be buried in Rehmatabad itself and burying her elsewhere would lead to agonising her soul. After much coaxing and cajoling, a family that had an existing grave agreed to let her be buried there.

The problem The Rehmatabad graveyard located at Nariyalwadi area of Mazgaon was allotted to the Shia Iranian population living in South Mumbai more than 125 years ago. As the graveyard was close to the main hub of the Shia population at Dongri and Mohammadali Road area near J.J. Hospital it sufficed and also accommodated the deceased from the Sayyed and Hindustani community who are part of the Shia population in the city. As the city grew and the Shias also multiplied, the Rehmatabad graveyard started filling up. The community members reused family graves, thus keeping the space shortage problem at bay. However, since the year 2000 the Iranian Shia Ithna Ashari Trust that oversees the maintenance of the graveyard has seen an increased demand for graves, which they have been unable to resolve due to shortage of space.

 

“Families have sentimental attachment to the graves as it serves as a remembrance of their beloved. Even though the graves are being reused every three to five years, with an increasing Shia population in the city it is impossible to accommodate newer families and hence we have to turn away some families,” said Nasser Sadequain, one of the trustees of the graveyard.

Speaking about the attack on him by infuriated family members who were not allowed to bury their dead in the Rehmatabad graveyard, Assad Askari, the manager of the graveyard, said facing angry family members who are turned away due to shortage of space is an everyday affair. “We have around 3,800 plus graves that are being reused every three to five years. Nearly every grave has five to six people buried in it since the graveyard was started. However, due to the increasing population it is becoming difficult to accommodate the requests of newer families. Due to the emotional stress that the family undergoes on the loss of a beloved, when refused they turn violent. Very few accept the alternative arrangements willingly,” said Mr Askari.

 

The problems of the Shias are compounded by the fact that another graveyard at Marine Lines that has up to 200 graves has been usurped by the caretaker who does not allow burials since the past five to six years. “The usurper refuses to allow people from visiting the existing graves let alone allow any new burials there. We have complained to the BMC regarding this on numerous occasions but no action has been taken against him. If we had access to the graveyard we could have utilised the space to reduce the strain on the Rehmatabad graveyard,” said Ali Namazi, a trustee of the Marine Lines graveyard.

Solution As a solution to the problem of limited space in Rehmatabad, the trust and members of the Shia community have written to the government and the BMC to grant them access to an adjoining graveyard that belongs to Jews. The requests are based on the fact that the Jewish cemetery has not seen a single burial in more than two decades. The trust has said that if the adjoining plot is made available to them it will solve the problem of shortage of space and thus put an end to the squabbling that the graveyard witnesses on a regular basis.

 

Afzal Dawoodani, a BJP leader and vice-president of the transport wing of the party, has taken up the issue with the BMC and has sought the civic body’s intervention in the matter.

“I met the deputy mayor Alka Kerkar and apprised her of the situation and the problem of dwindling space for the burial of members from the Iranian, Sayyed and Hindustani communities in the Shia sect. I have also requested her to explore the possibility of handing over the Jewish graveyard to the Shia trust as it is only separated by a wall and can accommodate nearly 2,000-2,500 graves. As per unconfirmed records, the last burial took place in late 1980, after which it has remained unused. If we get access to the Jewish graveyard we will ensure that their existing graves remain undisturbed and only the vacant spaces around them is utilised,” said Dawoodani. Dawoodani’s plea is one of the many requests forwarded by the community over the past couple of decades.

 

As per the online records maintained by JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), an online portal that catalogs data about Jewish cemeteries and burial records worldwide, from the earliest records to the present, the Jewish cemetery at Mazgaon has only 22 burials in the two and a half acre plot.

The caretaker of the cemetery has built a nearly 2,000 square feet house and also rents cemetery space to street vendors who store their goods there at night.

When asked about the same, Ms Kerkar said she would look into the matter urgently and see what the status of the Jewish graveyard was. “It is a sensitive issue and the BMC will be studying the matter and the legal encumbrances involved in it. It is too early to comment on the issue, but we will surely pursue it,” said Ms Kerkar.

 

When approached, Shakil the caretaker of the Bene Israel cemetery, refused to share details or contacts of the trustees of the Jewish community.