Jalaludheen's gift: This Kerala man gave landless Dalits a resting place for their dead

Since 1979, 19 Dalits – young and old- have been buried on Jalaludheen’s five-acre land in Ilavupalam.
Jalaludheen's gift: This Kerala man gave landless Dalits a resting place for their dead
Jalaludheen's gift: This Kerala man gave landless Dalits a resting place for their dead
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About 37 kilometres from the hustle and bustle of Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram is Ilavupalam, a village that borders a forest. It is in this non-descript village that Jalaludheen, the man who is affectionately known as Pavapettavante Arbab (Leader of the poor in Malayalam) resides. 

Early years of struggle

To understand why residents of Ilavupalam use this term of endearment to address Jalaludheen, one needs to go back to the year 1960. Like many Keralites at the time, the then 18-year-old looked to the Middle East to better his prospects. So, he illegally sailed to Dubai in a pathemari(an Arab ship), in the hope of a brighter future.

But what followed was years of struggle, with a young Jalaludheen living in abject poverty. After years of working in a farm, tending to animals, he started a tea shop. It was then that his prospects turned, with Jalaludheen slowly being able to save money for his future.

After 13 years in Dubai, Jalaludheen returned home to Ilavupalam. With his savings, he bought five acres of land in the village.

‘For death, there is no religion’

“One night, I heard a woman crying loudly from a hut near my house. She was Kunji, a Dalit woman living in a poramboke land. They did not have a proper house and her 3-year-old child had died that night. Her family didn’t have a place to bury the child,” narrates Jalaludheen.

It was then he realised that he was sitting on five acres of land. He recalls, “I thought what is the use of me owning this much land when a 3-year-old old doesn’t have a place to rest in peace. So, I allowed them to bury the child in my land, I told them they can bury wherever they want.”

That night in 1979 changed not just Jalaludheen’s life but also the lives of many others in Ilavupalam. Since then, 19 Dalits have been buried in land belonging to Jalaludheen.

“Lot of Dalit families live here. I have never asked their caste or religion. None of them are of my religion. For death there is no religion. Every living being has the right to get buried or cremated with all respect. At the end, we all return to the soil,” he says.

Children, youngsters, and elderly have been laid to rest in his land. Jalaludheen continues to allow the family of those deceased to visit their graves.  “Their relatives come here, light lamps in the place where their loved ones are buried,” he notes.

Jalaludheen’s act of selflessness, however, has been welcomed not just by his family, and the villagers but also the mosque.

“Earlier when four or five people were buried here, I thought my relatives or the mosque would raise some objection. I was ready to face it. But they all supported me, which was a surprise,” he says.

The 75-year-old recalls that over the years many desperate families have approached him at midnight, crying for help to bury their loved ones.  

Jalaludheen notes, “All the Dalit families who have lived here did not have land and their huts were very pathetic those days. Even at midnight they would come asking help. The burial will be in the morning but their insecurity brings them here at night”

The last person who was buried on Jalaludheen’s five-acre land was 70-year-old Gopalan in 2011.

Allotted land by government, but not enough for a crematorium  

In 2006, Jalaludheen turned activist, forming an action committee to fight for Dalit rights and land ownership for them.

After years of agitations, in 2011 then Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan promised to allot three to five cents of land to nearly all Dalit families in Ilavupalam. Jalaludheen also managed to get an extra five cents of land allotted for burials.  

And while several families built houses on the land allotted to them, the five cents granted was not enough for a public crematorium.

Jalaludheen says, “For years we struggled to get them land. And while that was fruitful, there is no public crematorium or a burial ground near our place. This village lies in three panchayat borders. These poor people don’t have a burial ground anywhere in the three panchayats. The rich can take their dead to faraway places, but where will the poor go?” he says.

More than six years later, in August 2017, Jalaludheen received a request from Alappuzha, asking for permission to bury a loved one, who had passed away. “That was a Muslim family, they had some issues with the mosque and the mosque denied them permission to bury. So, I allowed them to bury in my land. They were so poor,” he says. But he never heard back from the family.

Living testimony of religious harmony

But this Muslim’s acts of kindness have not stopped with allowing 19 Dalits to be buried in his land. Jalaludheen has also given 33 cents of land to the Kaipatta Ayiravalli Badra Baghavathi Temple. Besides this, he has also spent Rs 2 lakh to help clean-up and maintain a pond, which the temple uses. The pond has now been opened up to the public, with anyone being allowed to draw water from it.

But Pavapettavante Arbab’s remains humble despite his inspiring acts of kindness. A living testimony of religious harmony, he asks, “When people fight in the name of religion, it is better to think after death we all goes to soil and everyone is same. Then why can’t we unite when we live here in the earth?”

All Photos : Sreekesh Raveendran Nair

Edited by Anna Isaac

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