Herald Exclusive: Grave concerns

Updated 06 Mar 2014

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Human rights group stage a protest outside the Karachi Press Club. -Photo courtesy Piler
Human rights group stage a protest outside the Karachi Press Club. -Photo courtesy Piler
The burial infuriated the Muslim community of the town and its adjoining areas, who gathered in the town and staged a sit-in on the Bago Canal bridge. — Photo courtesy of Hanif Samoon
The burial infuriated the Muslim community of the town and its adjoining areas, who gathered in the town and staged a sit-in on the Bago Canal bridge. — Photo courtesy of Hanif Samoon
Heavy contingents of the police were deployed in and around the graveyard under the supervision of DSP Tando Bago. — Photo courtesy of Hanif Samoon
Heavy contingents of the police were deployed in and around the graveyard under the supervision of DSP Tando Bago. — Photo courtesy of Hanif Samoon

An 18th-century red-brick mausoleum with an imposing dome easily attracts attention amid mud graves surrounded by sprawling mustard fields in Pangrio town of Sindh’s southern district of Badin. In recent months, however, it is not the architectural preeminence of the structure that has attracted attention to Haji Faqeer graveyard, named after the saint buried within the mausoleum. In October 2013, the area witnessed its first Hindu-Muslim conflict in more than two centuries.

It all started with the death of 32-year-old Bhoro Bheel, a member of the lower-caste Hindu Bheel community living side by side with the Muslims in Pangrio. Seriously injured in a road accident on October 2, 2013, he died three days later. The members of the Bheel community – which unlike upper-caste Hindus does not cremate its dead, burying them instead – took his body to Haji Faqeer graveyard for burial. The graveyard, traditionally, has been a common burial ground for both the local Muslims and Hindus. Bhoro Bheel certainly was not the first Hindu buried there, says Achar Azeem, a local social worker and human rights activist in Pangrio.

But that day, as Bhoro Bheel’s relatives were digging his grave, his elder brother Moti Bheel says, “Some people warned us against burying Bhoro in Haji Faqeer graveyard.” He says he was told that the cemetery was reserved for Muslims and that the Shariah did not allow the burial of non-Muslims in a Muslim graveyard.

As news of the problem over the burial spread, many locally influential people, including the Muslim landowner who employs Bhoro Bheel’s family as farm workers, got involved. Together, they ensured that the burial took place.

But, as the Bheels were leaving the graveyard, says Moti Bheel, a few people turned up and told him and his relatives to exhume Bhoro Bheel’s body and bury it somewhere else. “They threatened us. They said they would exhume the body themselves if we did not do so on our own,” Moti Bheel tells the Herald. The next morning, the Bheels informed the local police of the threats. This, however, did not deter the other side. “In the evening, a member of the Bheel community informed us that some people were digging Bhoro’s grave,” says Moti Bheel. “When we reached there, a charged crowed of 300 to 400 people had gathered and Bhoro’s body was lying outside the grave,” he adds.

The crowd had come together through the efforts of one Qari Abdul Basit, the administrator of a madrasa in Pangrio. Working through local mosques, he had distributed a fatwa against the burial of non-Muslims in Muslim graveyards. He also had prayer leaders announce that those who had exhumed Bhoro Bheel’s body had discharged their religious duty and had not committed any crime.

Perhaps deterred by such massive mobilisation, Shaukat Khatyan, the senior superintendent of the local police, did not take any action against those who had dug up the body even though he reached the graveyard immediately after the exhumation. Instead, says Moti Bheel, he told the Bheels to bury Bhoro Bheel elsewhere.

For the next eight hours, Bhoro Bheel’s body lay in the open because the landless Bheels did not have any place to bury it. Their employer came to their rescue again and donated a six-acre plot of land to them for a graveyard. Some of the Bheels, however, say they do not know how long their landlord will allow them to bury their dead in the donated plot.

Two months later, a similar incident took place in another part of Badin – in Goth Yar Mohammad Lund in Tando Bhago subdivision – where a recently buried body of a Hindu was exhumed because it was buried in a graveyard said to be reserved for Muslims. The only difference, this time around, was that the exhumation was undertaken by the dead man’s own family under severe pressure from the local Muslim community.

Allah Dino Bheel, an old Hindu man, had died in Goth Yar Mohammad Lund on December 23, 2013, and was buried in Bachal Shah graveyard, near Tando Bhago town. The next day, Allah Dino Khaskhaili, a Muslim prayer leader at a local mosque, approached Allah Dino Bheel’s sons – Laung, Ramchand and Dano – and told them to exhume their father’s body and bury him elsewhere. The prayer leader told them that the Islamic Shariah did not allow the burial of non-Muslims in a graveyard for Muslims. Khaskhaili said his followers would exhume Allah Dino Bheel’s body if the Bheel brothers refused to. With Bhoro Bheel’s example still fresh in their minds, Laung Bheel and his brothers decided to retrieve their father’s body and bury him elsewhere.

When Aftab Aghim, the deputy superintendent of local police, received information about the exhumation, he rushed to the spot and ordered the Bheels to stop. This angered Khaskhaili so much that he called for a shutdown of Tando Bhago, leading to the immediate closure of all local businesses, while some of his supporters blocked all entry and exit points of the town. Aghim, then, held prolonged discussions with the elders of both communities and proposed to build a wall within the graveyard to separate the graves of the Hindus from those of the Muslims. Luckily, say eyewitnesses, the two sides agreed to his proposal and the situation was defused.

Community leaders and intellectuals in Badin attribute the two incidents to rising religious extremism which has increased particularly after the 2010 floods when, they say, some religious and sectarian organisations propagated their ideology in the garb of relief work. Mohammad Khan Samoo, who heads the Badin Development and Research Organisation (BDRO), a local non-governmental organisation, puts the graveyard incidents down to a combination of religious intolerance, criminal activities and politics. But, according to him, religious extremism takes the lead role.

The conflict over Bhoro Bheel’s burial best explains Samoo’s assertions. The people who initially opposed his burial in the Haji Faqeer graveyard belong to a group of land grabbers who enjoy the support of a political party. They were the first ones to instigate religious differences, after which extremist religious groups joined in, the Herald’s investigations reveal.

About six months ago, the mukhtiarkar (land revenue officer) of the Tando Bhago subdivision found that a large portion of Haji Faqeer graveyard was under illegal occupation. “The officer registered a case against those who were occupying the land illegally,” says social worker Azeem. “The proceedings in the case are pending at a sessions court,” he tells the Herald. The occupiers of the land made Bhoro Bheel’s burial a religious issue in order to strengthen their hold on the land. They were aided by a political party, which has a sizeable following, though no legislative representation, in the area.

Dr Muneer Bhurgari, a Sindhi columnist and intellectual, argues that religious extremism has increased in Badin over the last few years and sect-based seminaries have opened in the district in large numbers. He explains to the Herald that centuries-old traditions in the area are changing due to rising extremism. “In lower Sindh, almost every graveyard is named after some Muslim Sufi saint who is always buried in a mausoleum – commonly called a dargah – and revered by both Hindus and Muslims. The two communities have been commemorating the death anniversaries of these saints,” he says. Hindus and Muslims have been burying their dead in these common graveyards for centuries, he says, but the Muslim extremists are now staking the sole claim on these burial grounds.

Some of these extremist influences come from other parts of the country. Social and human rights activists in Badin, in their private conversations, hold Punjabi and Urdu-speaking settlers responsible for the increasing religious and sectarian intolerance. Sultanul Madaris, a madrasa set up by the settlers, is said to have played a pivotal role in fanning religious emotions over Bhoro Bheel’s burial. In another instance of outside influence, Basit, the madrasa’s administrator, had obtained the fatwa against Bhoro Bheel’s burial from a madarasa in Faisalabad.

Bhurgari says lower-caste Hindus are at a double disadvantage while facing such extremism: Their own upper-caste co-religionists do not treat them well, let alone support them. “Upper-caste Hindus do not even allow them to touch religious scriptures like the Vedas and the Bhagavadgita; therefore, most of the lower-caste Hindus know almost nothing about their own religion.”

In ironic proof of what Bhurgari says, Khaskhaili’s own late sister, Mai Bachai, was not allowed to be buried in Bachal Shah graveyard, only a couple of weeks after Allah Dino Bheel’s body was exhumed from there. Not because of religious differences, but because she came from a lower-caste Muslim family, the Herald’s investigation discovered. The graveyard, Khaskhaili was told, was reserved for the burial of upper-caste Hindus and upper-caste Muslims.

Surendar Valasai, the recently appointed advisor on minorities affairs to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the patron-in-chief of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), also blames the caste system more than he blames religious differences. Moti Bheel agrees that the problem is not as much religious as it is caste-related: A girl from his family, who died recently, was buried among Muslims in the Saman Shah graveyard, also in Badin, and nobody objected.

“It is a pity that discriminatory laws are still practised in Pakistan,” says Valasai. He adds that his party is convening a meeting next month to consider legislation to tackle caste and communal discrimination.

Local Hindus, however, point out that Valasai’s party has yet to make good on other promises it made in the wake of the exhumations. Two months have passed since Owais Muzaffar and Hasnain Mirza – two leading members of the Sindh Assembly belonging to the PPP – visited the Bheels in Pangrio and announced that the Hindu community would be allotted separate graveyards all over Sindh. “So far, no practical step has been taken in this regard,” says Allo Bheel, the father of Bhoro Bheel.