In an ongoing case regarding the illegal occupation of an old Islamic graveyard in Delhi, a bench comprising acting Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar asked the authorities to find out about the burial practices adopted across the world to deal with issues such as the ‘expansion’ of graveyards. They said, “The way you are expanding graves, there will be no place to live. There is no place for people to live. There is space only for graves. Please help the city to live. Where will you bury people who die now? Find out what is the practice in the world.”
Interestingly, the judges also made a broad comparative observation underlining the practices of different religious communities. They said, “Already Christian cemeteries are facing a problem. You say the population is increasing, do you have the land to bury people now? Hindus have started opting for electric cremation as there may not be enough trees to get wood for cremation. What can be the substitute for Muslims?”
These observations, broadly speaking, raise a few questions. First, is the legal/cultural status of Islamic graveyards and Hindu crematoriums comparable? Second, are Islamic funeral practices fixed and unchanging? Third, is there a fundamental antagonism between Islamic death rituals and modern urban expansion? And finally, why are the Muslims being advised to follow the Hindu example?
Islamic graveyard and crematorium
Islamic graveyard cannot be compared with a crematorium—legally or culturally. A graveyard, in simplistic terms, could be called a collection of individual graves—a space where various individual graves are transformed into a community of graves. In this sense, graveyard, unlike a crematorium, is a space which has a very specific ‘public’ presence as it marks the co-existence of life and death.
Historically speaking, the growth of Islamic funeral practices, especially in South Asia, shows that an area of a city is always designated for construction of graveyards. This isn’t unusual as the designated burial places are largely kept outside the main urban area. However, what is remarkable is the role played by caste, sect and class considerations in determining the status of graveyards. One can find caste-based, sect-based and even class-based graveyards in various regions of South Asia.
There is another crucial legal distinction between a graveyard and a crematorium. A graveyard by definition is a wakf—a permanent dedication by an individual or a concerned Muslim community for any religious, pious or charitable work in the name of Allah. By this logic, a graveyard is an immovable property owned by Allah and managed by the immediate Muslim community.
Indian legal system and constitutional law recognise the religious status of wakfs. That has been the reason why we have an established network of wakf institutions in each state, which is run and managed by the state governments.
The popular belief that graveyard lands are actually donated by the state to Muslim communities for burial practices is absolutely wrong; instead, graveyards are wakf lands, which are legally recognised Muslim properties.
Changing Muslim responses
The observation made by the High Court bench that Hindus have started recognising the importance of urban decay and that they now prefer electric cremation is misleading.
In the absence of any authoritative data, no one can map out the changing nature of funeral practices among various religious communities. However, the court, rather implicitly, has asked the Muslims to follow the Hindu example without getting into the complexities of the contemporary Indian Islamic funeral practices.
It is worth remembering that all major sects/schools of Indian Islam encourage Muslims to go for kuchchi qabr (temporary graves) which can be easily reused for the burial of other dead bodies in a short span of time. This religious consensus has paved the way for three very interesting shifts in recent years.
The first response is clearly class-oriented. The kuchchi qabr norm has been strictly followed across graveyards in Delhi, particularly those cemeteries which have been created for the poor and marginalised communities. It is mandatory for the local community to cover the upper part of the grave using only wood in these burial grounds, so as to intensify the process of natural decay. This has resulted in the emergence of a number of kuchcha qabristan (temporary graveyards) in Delhi.
Secondly, the old Islamic graveyards of the city (such as the old Delhi graveyard situated at ITO) where the tradition of making pucca qabrs (permanent graves) is still practised, the graveyard management follows different techniques to clean up the space. The old pucca qabrs, as well as those graves which are not protected or repaired frequently, were pulled down on regular basis. This demolition exercise helped the authorities to reuse the space for new graves.
Finally, the well-to-do-Muslims, who still go for pucca qabrs, have started reusing the old graves of their immediate family members. This recycling of qabrs functions effectively as it controls the expansion of graveyards without demolition of unattended, old graves.
It is important to note that officially the Muslim death rate in Delhi is around 8 per cent (in comparison to Hindu death rate of 88 per cent). It means that effectively the existing Islamic graveyards are sufficient to deal with the situation. However, the master plans and zonal plans of Delhi do not have any specific recommendation in relation to Muslim cemeteries. In fact, the planning discourse is highly disinterested in the subject.
In such a scenario, it is important to recognise the changing Muslim attitude towards graveyards as a reflection of a different kind modernity.
Muslims and Modernity is a fortnightly column by Hilal Ahmed. The author can be contacted on Twitter @Ahmed1Hilal.