‘Was Scared to Help’: Muslim-Christian Duo Cremate Hindu Man
Those performing last rites of people outside their own faith fear that their ‘intentions will be questioned’.
Walking on the banks of the Kaveri river in Karnataka’s Srirangapatna, Saad Khayoom and Rahul George were careful not to draw attention. They were carrying an earthen pot, its rim covered with a red cloth.
The duo feared a backlash.
“What if we get it wrong? That’s what we kept asking ourselves,” George told The Quint. “We did not want any controversy. We were afraid.”
Khayoom is a practising Muslim and George a churchgoing Christian. On the morning of 30 April, the two friends performed the last rites of a 60-year-old Hindu man who had died of COVID-19 in Bengaluru.
‘What if We Get Targeted?’
In a state ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, those performing cremations and last rites of people outside their own faith are a tense lot.
“We often joke that they could soon call it ‘last rites jihad’. But we also know that this work needs to be done,” 31-year-old Khayoom told The Quint.
The deceased Hindu man’s family – a son and a daughter – were both hospitalised after they had tested positive for COVID-19. And so, the responsibility of immersing the ashes as per the Hindu custom had fallen on Khayoom and George.
“Even if some accusations get raised tomorrow, I don’t think we are going to regret being there for people.”Saad Khayoom
Their fears are not completely unfounded. Communalism has been on the rise in Karnataka in recent years – from hate crimes against Muslims to incidents of moral policing in the garb of ‘love jihad’ to the state’s stringent anti-cow slaughter legislation. But how difficult is it to perform last rites of those outside their own faith in the state?
Fear and Apprehension
When 46-year-old George heard from the deceased man’s family, the first person he called was a Hindu friend.
“I was scared that I will do something wrong and offend the community. These are such sensitive times. I wanted to be extra careful,” George said.
But his friend was unavailable. His mother had been ailing – and he did not want to take a chance stepping out with a young daughter at home as well.
Meanwhile, Khayoom had taken a lowdown of the rituals the family wanted performed. The rest of the day was spent researching Abhishek mantra, a religious prayer which the family wanted the duo to chant during the immersion. As per the Hindu rituals, the ashes should be immersed in a flowing stream, and not in still water.
“We drove down to Srirangapatna, selected a secluded spot, and played the mantra. Though I am a practising Muslim, at the moment, I did not have any spiritual conflicts because I knew that I was doing it because there was no one else to do it,” Khayoom said. George felt that he was “called to serve” and that helping a family in need is “very much the essence” of his faith.
But why the secluded spot? “There could be all sorts of questions, we felt. ‘Who are we? What are we doing there? Why are we doing it?’. We did not want people to find fault with what we were doing given the political climate in the state,” said George.
‘Want to Give Dignity to Dead’
As COVID-19 protocols prevent family members from performing the last rites for fear of infection, only volunteers like George and Khayoom are left to cremate bodies.
And April has been particularly hard for them.
For 44-year-old Azmat, a competitive weightlifter, it has been a month of lifting stretchers.
“Cremations are difficult to perform because of the heavy load at the crematoriums. The wait time for cremations is a minimum of 10 hours. I think the government should look into this,” Azmat told The Quint. Since 2020, Azmat has performed 30 cremations.
In one of the cremations that Azmat oversaw in 2020, the pandit who was worried of infection taught him the rituals, including placing of flowers and rice on the body, and the mantras.
“I learnt them and performed them because the family really wanted that to be done,” Azmat said.
Choked with emotion, he added, “So many times people have just slipped between our fingers. In such cases, we want to make sure that they get the cremation the family desires”.
Has any case triggered communal tension? “Not on our watch,” he said.
However, fear lingers, George said.
“The last thing one wants to do is create problems for a family which has just lost a loved one. As anyone can question our intentions, we try to be discreet about each ritual,” he said.
The families of the deceased though are relieved – and grateful.
“The son of the man we cremated in Srirangapatna told me that his father was a generous man who had helped several people in his lifetime. According to him, the father would have wanted a group of unrelated philanthropists to come together for his funeral,” George said.
Though cremations have turned more humane, the volunteers have been taking precautions to keep their families safe. While George self-isolates himself for three days each time he steps out for a last rite or for caregiving, Khayoom is now fully vaccinated.
“People say deaths happen even by the flu. But here, we can feel the numbers with so many people passing every day. Each death is distressing, and each one deserves the dignity of last rites,” Azmat added.
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