Ayodhya/Faizabad: A narrow but neatly paved alley in Mohalla Khirki Ali Beg, located in the Ayodhya Police Line area, leads to a modest house that is unremarkable except for the fresh-painted blue walls and a small plaque that announces in Hindi lettering that it is the home of “Padma Shri Mo. Sharif”.
Inside the rented accommodation, which houses 15 members of the family, the mood was still buoyant although it had been a few weeks since 85-year-old Mohammed Sharif, known affectionately as Sharif Chacha, attended the glittering Padma Awards ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi.
The octogenarian was conferred with India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, Padma Shri, in 2020, for his devotion to performing the last rites of unclaimed or abandoned dead bodies, but due to Covid restrictions was able to receive it only this year. The cycle mechanic-turned-social worker has so far buried or cremated 2,500 Muslims and 3,000 Hindus, ensuring that they had dignity at least in death.
Sitting on his bed in a 15×15 room in a corner of the house, Sharif Chacha proudly sported his Padma Shri medal on his black Nehru jacket. Displayed next to him were the Padma Shri scroll and the framed citation signed by President Ram Nath Kovind.
“Ab toh Dilli tak ke log aa rahe hain (now people are coming here all the way from Delhi),” Sharif told ThePrint with a broad smile, but also shared that he and his family are still living in hardship.
Grief led to a devoted mission
Through most of his life, Sharif led an ordinary, hardworking existence, repairing bicycles to run the household. The turning point for him came 28 years ago when one of his sons, 25-year-old Mohammed Rais, went to the adjoining district of Sultanpur but never returned. For weeks, the family searched for him, but in vain.
Sharif’s eyes filled with tears when he recounted what happened next. “A month later, a policewala came and showed us a shirt. It turned out to be my son’s,” he said. The family believes that Rais was murdered.
“Policewale ne bataya ki uski body laavaris samajhkar Gomti Nadi mein fenk di gayi (Police told us that they thought there was no one to claim his body and so they threw it into the Gomti River).”
This was when Sharif vowed to give a respectful farewell to as many unclaimed bodies as he could.
“Us din main tay kiya tha ki Faizabad mein kisi bhi laavaris laash ko main sadne nahin dunga. Chahe fir kisi bhi dharam ki ho. Maine Hindu logon ko Hindu pratha ke hisab se alvida kaha aur Muslim ko unke tarike se (That day, I decided that I would not let any unclaimed body rot in Faizabad, no matter what their religion. I have performed the last rites of Hindus according to their traditions, and of Muslims according to theirs),’’ Sharif told ThePrint.
A system has fallen into place. If nobody claims a body after 72 hours, the local administration hands it over to Sharif. To fund the last rites, Sharif collects donations from shopkeepers and others who believe in his cause.
“I’ve received calls from the hospital or police many times even at 2 in the night,” he said, pointing towards the packed clothes and kafan (shrouds) he keeps under his bed for emergency cases.
From ostracism to awards
Social acceptance and honours have come to him now, but Sharif said things were different 15 years ago.
Back then, people ostracised him at social gatherings and at times refused to eat with him. “I bought thelas (carts) to carry the dead bodies to the cremation grounds,” he said, recalling also that people would call him “pagal (insane)” or say “dekho jallad aaya (the executioner has come)”.
Sharif has presided over thousands of funerals, but he keeps records of as many as he can. He showed ThePrint pictures of himself performing rituals before cremations, and from an old cloth bag brought out several albums containing photos of the nameless dead, some of whom met violent ends. The images are hard to look at, and many of them are graphic.
“Log naak band kar lete hain (people pinch shut their noses in disgust). But I don’t feel disgusted looking at them,” Sharif said. “I feel satisfied that no one among these people went out of this world the way my son did.”
Sharif’s efforts have been recognised for some years now. In 2009, he was given the Real Heroes Award in Mumbai, and in 2012 was featured on the TV show Satyameva Jayate. A short documentary titled ‘Rising from the Ashes‘ has also been made on his life.
The past year, though, has taken a toll on Sharif.
The strains of Covid
Sharif told ThePrint that the numbers of unclaimed — and abandoned — bodies swelled during the deadly second wave of Covid earlier this year.
“Bhay ka mahaul tha. Pariwar ke pariwar laashon ko chhod rahe the. Pehle toh laavaris laash milti thi, lekin April mein toh vaaris ke pariwar wale bhi saamne nahin aaye (It was a time of horror. Families were leaving behind the bodies of their loved ones. Before, I’d mostly handle unclaimed bodies, but in April people purposely didn’t come forward to claim their own family members),” Sharif said, adding that he performed the last rites of more than 35 people who had lost their lives to Covid.
Sharif’s son, 50-year-old Mohammed Sageer, who works as a driver, said his father is getting old and needs help.
“Inke ghutne jaam ho gaye hain ek saal se. Pahle khud thela kheenchte the aur cycle se jaate the. Lekin ab mujhe Scooty par le jana padta hai (His knees have been giving out for a year. Before, he could cycle and pull the carts on his own, but now I have to take him on my two-wheeler).”
Sharif said that several dignitaries who have visited him, including some MPs, have promised him financial aid and a house, but that the family is still struggling.
“Itne saal ki seva mein sarkari madad nahin mili hai (After all these years of service, I have never received any help from the government),” Sharif said with folded hands. “I did everything by myself during Covid too. I hope the government can help now and give us a house.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)