Where to take the dead?
By Ayesha Javed Akram
LAHORE: At Partition, Lahore had 11 shamshan ghats, or Hindu cremation sites, the main ones in Model Town, Taxali gate and near the Krishna Mandar.
“Today, not even one such structure stands,” says Munawar Chand, the information secretary for minorities and general secretary for Pakistan Balmik-Sabha, a non-government organisation named after Guru Balmik Swami, the author of Ramayan.
The term shamshan ghat refers to a platform constructed near a river where, according to the dictates of their religion, Hindus cremate their dead and float the ashes. Sikhs also use shamshan ghats, which is why appeals for such a facility have been launched by both communities.
“I have been working along side Sardar Sham Singh (co-chairman of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandah committee) for many years now, trying to obtain approval and funds for such a facility,” says Mr Chand in an interview at the mandar his grandfather built in the inner city.
This 50-year-old, father of two currently serves as information secretary of minorities and general secretary of a non-governmental organisation called Pakistan Balmik-Sabha (named after Guru Balmik Swami, the author of Ramayan).
But what happened to the shamshan ghats after partition? “Once Hindus left this area, those who moved here seized our properties. Some of the shamshan ghats were converted into homes, others into buildings and over the years all of them were demolished,” Mr Chand said.
“At the time of Partition, there were shamshan ghats in every city of Pakistan. Since a large number of Hindus continued to stay on in Sindh, the shamshan ghats in that province are still active while we have no place for cremation,” added Mr Chand’s wife Suneeta, also an active member of the Hindu community in Lahore.
According to Suneeta and other members of the community, the Hindus of Lahore have three options when it comes to disposing of their dead. The first is to take the deceased to a neighbouring city such as Nankana Sahib where shamshan ghats exist, an option few use due to the expenses involved in transporting the body as well as mourners hundred of miles away.
“But there are those who can afford to avail of this option and they do so,” said Mr Chand.
The second is to obtain permission and burn the body by the banks of the Ravi. However, there are two problems here: the first is that permission is not easily received and the second, as Mr Chand says, “In our religion, we feel it is disrespectful to burn a body without the required preparations and it is not possible to perform all the rituals unless and until the cremation takes place in a shamshan ghat.”
The third option is to bury the body and this is the choice made by most Hindus in Lahore. “It is feasible, cheap and saves them the hassle of seeking permission,” said Suneeta. She added that even in cities with shamshan ghats families buried their dead because cremation was expensive. “A minimum of 20 tonnes of wood and at least two canisters of ghee are required to cremate a body. In India, there are societies which provide financial assistance but no such help is available in Lahore,” she said.
While the exact numbers of Hindus living in Lahore is debatable, Mr Chand says that at least 2,000 Hindus are registered in the city and the number of Sikh residents is less than 100, though during the religious festivals up to 3,000 Sikhs arrive. “In the aftermath of the Babri masjid incident, Hindus were scared to even declare themselves which is why it has become difficult to estimate their exact numbers,” he said.
Mr Chand is well aware of the sufferings of Hindus for he too was victimised: a white marble temple that his grandfather had built near his home was completely destroyed and the moorti lying inside demolished. “The beating is over but the scars remain,” he says.
His struggle for a shamshan ghat has been continuing for many years now. Mr Chand says has been trying for at least 20 years now and others fought for one before him. In 1976, the Hindus came close to a victory when the Evacuee Property Trust allotted an area on Bund Road for a shamshan ghat, but before construction could begin, some Pathans laid claim to the land and it became a case of disputed property.
In May 1999, the Board of Revenue allotted 10 kanals on Bund Road for the construction of a shamshan ghat and the government agreed to pay for it. Five years later, the area has not been officially handed over to the Hindu community, but Mr Chand is optimistic the interest shown by the minorities minister will see the project through.
However, Mr Chand does have concerns for the future of the Hindu community. “I am worried because this time around we have no representation in the Punjab Assembly. All the reserved seats for minorities have been given to the Christian community,” he said, adding that it was now even more difficult for them to voice their demands. “But we are hopeful,” he says, as he displays the many awards he has received for services to the community.
The wooden plaques give the seasoned activist some pleasure, but his real reward will come when he conducts a cremation at the shamshan ghat he has spent decades fighting for.