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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Calamity demonstrated national unity

By V. B. Rawat

Nagore / Parangipattai (Tamilnadu): When Tsunami waves hit the coastal regions of Tamilnadu, Pondichery, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala on 26 December, nobody would have imagined that those cruel waves were weaving a new India in grief. An India where people care for their neighbours and believe in the oneness of humanity. In adversity people found their best pluralistic practices. Teams of social and medical volunteers rushed to the affected areas to help. A fairly large number of religious charitable organizations have been working in the area to provide relief operations.

United Muslim Jamaat activists in front of mosque in Cuddalore

United Muslim Jamaat activists in front of 
mosque in Cuddalore

One of the worst affected districts in Tamilnadu was Cuddulore where the Tsunami devastated many coastal villages like Pudukuppam, Saamiyarpettai and Chinnoor. Within minutes these villages were wiped off the map. Parangipattai is a small town with a fairly large Muslim population. It is quite far from the seashore and hence the waves did not have any impact in the area but the tremor of the killer waves was felt in this village too. In the small office of United Islamic Jamaat, its workers were holding their usual meeting when the news came from running villagers about the devastation. Within no time the Jamaat decided that it must keep aside all its other work and immediately rush to rescue the people irrespective of their religion. Within half an hour volunteers of the Jamaat were in the affected areas. Children, aged, women were first taken care of and given shelter in the Masjid of the area. Over 100 people were saved by the quick rescue operation by the Jamaat volunteers. They even called private doctors to treat people. When the information of the devastation started trickling in, the Jamaat rushed ambulances and six buses to over ten villages to pick up dead bodies. About 400 bodies were collected by the Jamaat and buried according to local traditions. Most of these bodies belonged to Hindu fishermen and women. About 50 people were still missing by the time we made a visit to these areas.

A Dalit stands in front of what used to be his house  near Nagore Railway station. Nobody  reached him. He lost his mother and the  entire locality was devastated

A Dalit stands in front of what used to be his house
 near Nagore Railway station. Nobody
 reached him. He lost his mother and the
 entire locality was devastated

More then 15000 people took shelter in the Masjid, cinema halls, schools owned by Muslims in the area. The Jamaat arranged community kitchen for the displaced people. About 4000 people were continuously staying at the Jamaat's different centers while others returned to their areas after one or two days. The community kitchen ran for 10 days. In their Muhammadia marriage hall, a huge amount of relief material was being collected and the quality of the material seemed good. It included sarees, mats, stoves, buckets, rations and other important material for relief. The Jamaat says it has over twenty thousands volunteers all over Tamilnadu and they have been collecting funds and donation from the Muslim community. Some of their friends from Karnataka also sent them relief.

According to the leader of Jamaat, they have been helping poor Muslims to overcome their problems particularly in the field of education. They help a few graduates in their higher education while taking care of the expenses of over 200 students. The organization offers ambulances to help accident victims. During Ramadan, over 800 families are helped by collecting donations in the form of Zakat. The collection is in the range of between two to 2.5 lakh rupees on the last day of Ramadan.

The Jamaat has been highly appreciative of the collector, Mr Gagandeep Singh, who has been referring to Jamaat all those who were visiting from other parts of the country to tell them that they must stop stereotyping the Muslim community. That Muslims do not stand for others is another Hindutva myth which has been exposed here.

We move on towards Nagpattinam, which has been totally devastated by the fury of nature. The train link between the historic town of Nagore and Nagpattinam collapsed due to Tsunami. All areas which fell in the route of Tsunami were wiped away. Nagore is a very historic town with a large Muslim population and culturally distinct. It reflects Islamic culture, as the presence of Muslim women is clearly visible. Unlike other parts, Muslim women wear colorful burqas and white colour seemed to be the most visible among them.
Nagore has a historical linkage with the north. Nagore's famous Dargah of Hazrat Syed Abdul Qadir Shahul Hameed is one of the most revered shrines in the South. It is a different shrine than other dargahs in various aspects. Normally, the dargah culture attracted people from different faiths and Nagore is no exception. What differentiates Nagore from other shrines is its symbolic secular architecture. The northern link is that Hazrat Syed was born in Manekpur. Though the head of the Dargah trust informed me that it is a place near Awadh and not known to him as they feel that this place might not exist today. For me it was an interesting thing because I am well aware of Manekpur which is in the Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh and famous for its temples. This Manekpur also breaks some other myths of the Hindutva historians who have been demonising the Mughal kings. Some of the temples in Manekpur received handsome grants and land from the much maligned Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and the temples still keep those papers with them.

It is said that King Achuthappa Naicker of Thanjavur granted a piece of land for the construction of the Dargah in Nagore. The importance of this huge structure is its architecture and the faith of the people who throng it. In the sanctum sanctorum there are a few things which are hallmark of the great secular tradition that this dargah carries. The burial place of Hazrat is encircled in Islamic architecture. After that a large number of lamps, beautifully decorated, encircle the structure. According to the town Qazi of Nagore, this reflects the Hindu influence. These lamps have three-fourths water and one-fourth oil. They make the shrine look beautiful. Outside is a greater circle having a big cross, reflecting the influence of the Christian faith. If you visit and see the number of people visiting the Dargah, you will be surprised.

Dargah Nagori's role during the Tsunami disaster has been of great importance. Not only people took shelter in huge campus of the Dargah, it also cremated more than 345 bodies and provided its own space for the cremation. For days, people ate at the community kitchen provided by the Dargah. It became a soothing balm for those who lost everything in the Tsunami. Relief material was distributed among the people and mentally disturbed people got a place for themselves to rest. The Dargah has several ambulances and sends it to pick up victims in different places. It was the only place within the six-kilometers of Nagpattinam town, which survived. 

Despite their dedicated work which received wide media attention, certain things need reform if we want ourselves to be called secular. The discrimination against Dalits and women was visible in these areas, not in the Dargahs, but my feeling was that there was no specific effort to reach out to them. We generalize the entire process ignoring the fact that Dalits were not getting even the relief material and there was a need to use protective mechanism so that they get the needed material. Secondly, Jamaat was not willing to work more. I pressed its president what next and he said they have done what they should have done. I even asked that organizations like theirs need to come out more in rehabilitation material where there is a danger of corrupt practices and rehabilitation is a big issue because “relief” work is over. The president of Jamaat said that they would not go beyond relief as their work is mainly among Muslims.

One of the disgusting scenes for me was the condition of women. Though Jamaat leader said that they have opened up Madrasas for girls, I could visualize his discomfort from my question on the issue of women. It is important for organizations like Jamaat to involve more and more Muslim women in their work and focus on their education. No community can progress if they fail to address an issue of such importance.

At Nagore Dargah, the scene was more shocking. There was a big presence of women, crying, weeping and kissing the floor or the walls yet they were kept at safe distance. The Dargah has seven gates and women are not allowed to enter any of these gates. They worship outside the seventh gate and pray in a hall from where they can have a glimpse of the person distributing tabarruk like a Hindu priest. I asked the head Qazi of the Dargah as to why they have kept women outside the Dargah and his answer was that due to menses and other dirt, women were not allowed to venture inside these gates. When I asked him why shouldn't they change this, he was sarcastic and said that it was a tradition and they follow these traditions strictly.

The roles of religious groups have been good in distributing relief material. There are huge tents and relief material of Sai Baba trusts, Amritamayee Ashram, Swami Chidananda in addition to Christian groups. It is not just Muslims but all of them have not thought of challenging the status quo. At one of the ashrams at Devanpattinam, the Swami allegedly had six community kitchens and when some of the fisher folks saw Dalits of other villages eating there, they opposed violently. The Swami has to start a seventh kitchen for the Dalits. Speaking to Christian groups working among the fishermen reflected the same story. 

Activities of religious groups reflect our joint concern for victims. It tore the myths of the Sangh Parivar that Muslim and Christian religious groups are out for conversion while it has been itself involved in hate-mongering. The painful aspect is that most of the religious charitable organizations, though doing great work, are not really keen on challenging the status quo. We are good, you are good, as long as we do not raise these questions. This is the tragic condition of our secularism and sooner we get out of it the better for our society.

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