Ellamma, a 65-year-old woman from Nirmal in northern Telangana, breathed her last on 27 April when India was under lockdown due to COVID-19. She and her husband Kishan were homeless and stayed at a roadside shelter. Their neighbors refused to cremate Ellamma, suspecting that she died of coronavirus.
Shaik Irshan, a local activist who had come to check on the elderly couple for ration, was met by a sobbing Kishan. Irshan then called up his friends and organised the last rites of Ellamma after securing permission from the police.
Harmony in A Communally Tense Region
The northern part of Telangana, known to be one of the most communally sensitive areas in the state, has witnessed severe clashes in recent years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened this problem of communal disharmony across India, including Telangana state. For instance, last month there was a minor clash in Bhainsa town of Adilabad district.
However, there is also reason for hope and optimism as at the grassroots level, many people in Telangana have responded to the pandemic with a show of communal solidarity.
In Adilabad district last month, Abdul Aziz, along with his friends Vittal, Tahir and Srikanth organised cremation for one Dasharath, who died after battling Jaundice for over a week.
His neighbours in Gandhi Nagar had denied entry of his dead body in the area and refused to cremate him due to the stigma associated with COVID-19. The group continues to provide food and rations to his widow for several weeks now.
A few days later, Abdul was contacted again by the local hospital, when one of the migrant workers from Maharashtra, Kalavathi, who had been working at a cotton ginning mill in the town, died. A week later, Kalavathi’s husband, Shesha Rao, also died. The group organized the funerals for both. They arranged a decent farewell to them in the absence of family members and ensured that all the rituals are performed as per Hindu tradition.
Local Outfits Bring Together Hindus & Muslims
With the sharp rise of communal hatred in the last couple of years, the local youth have been organising themselves in welfare groups and associations in various parts of Northern Telangana, such as Adilabad, Nirmal, Kaghaznagar, Bhainsa, Mancherial, etc.
“With an objective of helping the needy and resolving the internal issues in Nirmal district amicably, we have established an association called ‘Hamara Sahara’ comprising both Hindu and Muslim youth, with up to 1000 volunteers”, 26-year-old Irshan said.
Another member of the association, Mahesh Kumar, added, “As soon as the lockdown was announced, the association sprung into action, and with the help of local administration, we started supplying rations to the homeless and the destitute.”
Several such groups have come up in different towns in Northern Telangana. They operate on the idea of strengthening inter-community ties and celebrating cultural diversity. They spend all day together doing relief work. Often, they host little dinner parties for each other on festivals and spend evenings in fun and frolic.
On 22 May, as a group of volunteers in Nirmal district were returning from the highway after spending all day feeding the migrant workers, Tirupati, a volunteer, realised that it was Iftar time (i.e., time for Muslims to break fast during Ramzan) so he immediately set up a little dinner for the fasting -volunteers at his place.
Posters with helpline numbers are seen at public places across the districts of Adilabad and Nirmal for ration, blood donation, and medical assistance. The helpline set up by a group, ‘Friends welfare society’ in Adilabad alone has received over 1000 calls in the last 2 months.
During the lockdown, the demand for blood has increased due to the unavailability of enough stock in the blood banks and hospitals. This is being addressed by local youth and their groups on a massive scale – one person, Raj Kumar Reddy, who has donated his blood a record 54 times, is quite actively involved in blood donation during the lockdown as well.
In a moving incident last week, a fasting Wajid Ali travelled 60 km on his two-wheeler in scorching summer to the communally sensitive Bhainsa town in the Nirmal district, to donate blood to a 9-months-old Vinay. Bhainsa had witnessed a minor communal scuffle on 11 May after a drunken man allegedly entered a place of worship.
Both Raj Kumar and Wajid hope that their groups’ efforts would pay off someday and help build faith between the communities.
Locals staying close to the National Highway 44 (NH-44) have been providing food, rations and footwear to the thousands of migrants walking through the highway, which is the longest-running National Highway in India that connects south and north parts of the country.
“We serve up to 1,000 migrant workers every day”, say Rajesh and Kareem who have been childhood friends, and now have come together to serve the migrant workers. Rajesh had sold-off his car to feed the hungry. “At this point, nothing is more important than saving lives”, he said.
Charan Goud, a local, said that he and his friends have been feeding up to 500 migrants every day. He acknowledges the support they receive from Sajid, a neighbor in terms of finance and planning.
Nizam, an Adilabad-based businessman, runs a community kitchen called ‘Roti bank’ along the NH-44 to feed the migrant workers and the homeless. He stands on the highway for hours together under the scorching sun, with temperatures going up to 45 degrees Celsius.
Dr K Valentina, a civil rights activist from Kaghaznagar town, with the support of a local activist Waseem Ahmed, has been extensively travelling and providing rations to impoverished Adivasi and tribal communities in the nearby tribal villages – almost 20 of them.
“Tribal communities are most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to poor sanitation and lack of nutrition,” said Valentina.
Sajid Khan, an activist from Adilabad, who had sold off his property to raise money to go for a pilgrimage, is now spending the money to provide food to the migrant workers.
While the reports of deaths, suffering, and communal violence due to COVID-19 across India have been overwhelming, the coming together of local communities and the unwavering sense of solidarity has been a silver lining.