Davender Ghai worked to get Hindus & Sikhs right to cremate their dead as per beliefs

12 February 2012 by Sukrat Desai | TNN

AHMEDABAD: He fought battles inside and out of courts to fetch minorities Hindus and Sikhs in the UK and Pakistan the rights to cremate their dead as per their religious believes. Baba Davender Kumar Ghai, who was in the city recently, says though the ban on open air cremation in the UK is lifted, his fight for the rites is not over yet.

“The court of appeal in London has removed the ban on open air cremation, however, the government there has refused to grant land for the purpose. They have asked us to buy the land and generate fund from the Indian community. The British government has donated the land to Jews and Muslims for graveyards, but it is not acting in the same spirit with us. I will take up this issue once I go back to the UK,” Ghai, who is president of UK-based Anglo Asian Friendship Society, told TOI. He was in Ahmedabad for medical treatment.

The story begins in Pakistan with Ghai’s visit to Lahore in November 2005 to help the earthquake victims. Hundreds of Hindu and Sikh families told him that they were not allowed to perform last rites of their dead in proper way. They had no option but to bury their loved ones or cremate them in secret.

The wakf board there had possession of the land at Lahore’s Bund Road that was marked out as a cremation ground for Hindus in 1972. However, years of religious and geo-political turbulence never allowed Hindus to use it. Moreover, all hope seemed shattered after the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy in Ayodhya, when 242 Hindu temples were destroyed in reprisal attacks in Pakistan.

Ghai took up the issue with then Pakistan’s president General Pervez Musharraf who allotted a land on Bund Road in Lahore where both Hindus and Sikhs had purpose-built facilities to perform proper last rites of their deceased. “Not only this, the Pak government also granted land for Krishna Temple in Lahore and funded its construction. It was an unthinkable generosity exhibited by the rulers of an Islamic country,” he says.

“This encouraged us to take up the similar cause in the UK which had banned cremation in the open ground. We felt that if a so-called orthodox Islamic country could show such largesse, we can expect some consideration from the country like Britain that boasts of liberalism,” Ghai adds.

Just after his Pakistan visit, Ghai grappled with this issue back home in the UK. An illegal immigrant from Kapurthala in Panjab, Rajpal Mehat was found drowned in December 2005. His body remained unclaimed for six months. “After the Uxbridge coroner office refused permission to transport Rajpal’s body, I flew out to consol the deceased’s family in person. His family, consisting of only his widowed mother and unmarried sister, requested me to arrange for his cremation in the UK. I accompanied the ladies back to the UK and personally lit Rajpal’s funeral pyre on a private farmland in Northumberland. Though it invited police action, the cops allowed me to proceed with it,” Ghai narrates.

After this, Ghai decided to take up this as a legal issue. He filed the first petition in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne City Council in 2006 which turned it down. He then moved the London high court where he lost the case again in 2008. The HC justified the ban, terming it as ‘abhorrent’ and ‘smelly’ and stated that it would offend the British public.

This prompted Ghai to move the court of appeal in London where he contended: “This spiritual practice of millennia is not abhorrent, but his religious birthright a wish shared by India’s elite. Indeed, the funeral pyres of former Indian prime ministers had even been attended by British royalty and televised on British television.” The court ruled in favour on 10 February, 2010, observing: “Mr Ghai’s wishes as to how, after his death, his remains are to be cremated can be accommodated under the act and the regulations.”

Last rites of Hindus had to be performed in church

When the ban on open air cremation was in place, the Hindus used to follow an unusual practice for the last rites of their dead. “Finding no other option, they would go to churches with the coffin, where staff would remove the sign of cross and replace it with that of ‘Om.’ However, the Bible would still be kept there. The priests would say the final prayer, in which Hindu priests are allowed to take part, and send the coffin into gas or electric furnace for cremation,” described Ghai.

Ban on open air funeral pyres

Open air funeral pyres were made illegal in the UK by the Cremation Act, 1930. Prior to this, though in limited numbers, open air cremations were indeed performed when several Hindu and Sikh soldiers of the British Army, who were killed in the World War I, were cremated in Brighton. The last open air pyre was in 1934, when the British government granted special permission to Nepal’s ambassador to cremate his wife outdoors in Surrey.

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