“I didn’t want anyone to suffer the same fate as my son. I decided that I will do my best to give every unclaimed dead body the dignity of a proper funeral.” Mohammad Sharif, also known as Chacha Sharif in Faizabad, has been giving unclaimed dead bodies a proper funeral for 27 years. The Indian government has conferred him with the Padma Shri Award. The awards list for 2020 was announced on the eve of Republic Day.
Mohammad Sharif’s eldest son, Raees Khan, was 25 years old, working as a chemist, when he left for Sultanpur for some work. When Mohammad didn’t hear from his son for a long time, he went looking for him. After a month’s search, a station in-charge showed him a shirt. “On the collar was written Shambhu Market, Pilu Tailor, Pratapganj, Faizabad. When I saw that I went mad.” Mohammad’s son had been killed and his body thrown by the railway lines and no one claimed it. By the time Mohammad tracked down what happened to his son, all that was left of him was a shirt, the tailor’s address the only proof of his existence.
“I felt like I had lost my mind. But after a month, I decided that I had to do something about it.” Mohammad started conducting the last rites of unclaimed dead bodies in Faizabad. “I don’t see religion. There is no Hindu or Muslim for me in Faizabad, everyone is a human being.” As per his own account, Mohammad Sharif has held the last rites for over 3,000 unclaimed Hindu and 2,500 Muslim dead bodies, though some media reports have pegged it at 25,000.
“I would put the body on my bicycle and take it to the funeral home. People would call me mad, but I didn’t stop. Then after a couple of years, people in power noticed what I was doing. I started getting some help.” Mohammad has been doing this work mostly on his own time and effort, while seeking financial help from his mosque committee and patrons. He regularly visits police stations, hospitals and mortuaries to check for unclaimed bodies. If nobody claims the body in 72 hours, he performs the last rites as per the deceased’s religion. “I have four contacts in different police stations. Ashok Rickshaw puller helps me in transport and Santosh at the funeral home helps in the last rites,” he said.
Mohammad is quick to give credit. “My work is small, it is because of the great work done by the media that my work has become successful. The government has taken note of it because of your work.” He is happy with the recognition, even though he has not received any monetary help from it. “I received some 1500 rupees from the municipality for doing the last rites. I would be given some certificate or an honorary shawl but no other help from the government.”
Chacha Sharif, as he’s endearingly referred to locally, echoes what one of the viewers of this video report on Khabar Lahariya said, ‘Will the award feed him?’ However, the man himself is mostly grateful for the recognition the award brings. “I am just happy that finally my work is getting publicity.”
This year’s Padma Shri list has many unsung heroes, just like Mohammad Sharif. Tulsi Gowda, also known as ‘Encyclopedia of Forest’ who has a deep knowledge of plant species without any formal knowledge, Dr Ravi Kannan who started and runs the Cachar Cancer Hospital, Kushal Knowar Sharma who has devoted his life to the conservation of Asian elephants and many others are a part of a 118-name long list.
A man of meagre means, Mohammad is a bicycle mechanic and still supports his family with his profession. “My family has been very supportive of my work. Some days I came back with bloody clothes, smelling terrible. But they made sure I always had hot water for a bath and a cup of tea ready for me. They are happy that I am doing something to make the world a bit better.”
Mohammad Sharif is now 80 years old. He hopes that his son will walk in his footsteps but says it’s God’s will. “I cannot force him to do anything. It will be as per God’s wishes.”
A role model for selflessness, Mohammad credits his good work to the media for spreading the news of his work far and wide. “My work was just a sapling but with your help, it has become a tall tree that can be seen from all over the world.”