Indians are forced to change rituals for their dead as COVID-19 rages through cities and villages

Mass cremations in the city of Bengaluru, India, due to the large number of COVID-19 deaths.
Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

Natasha Mikles, Texas State UniversityIn the past several weeks, the world has looked on in horror as the coronavirus rages across India. With hospitals running out of beds, oxygen and medicines, the official daily death toll has averaged around 3,000. Many claim that number could be an undercount; crematoriums and cemeteries have run out of space.

The majority of India’s population are Hindu, who favor cremation as a way of disposing of the body. But the Muslim population, which is close to 15%, favors burying its dead.

A worker digging a cemetery in Guwahati,  India.
Workers digging as they prepare to bury the body of a person who died of COVID-19 in Guwahati, Assam.
David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Generally, tradition holds that the body is to be cremated or buried as quickly as possible – within 24 hours for Hindus, Jains and Muslims, and within three days for Sikhs. This need for rapid disposal has also contributed to the current crisis.

Hundreds of families want their loved ones’ bodies cared for as quickly as possible, but there is a shortage of people who can do the funerals and last rites. This has led to a situation where people are paying bribes in order to get space or a furnace for cremation. There are also reports of physical fights, and intimidation.

As a scholar interested in the ways Asian societies tell stories about the afterlife and prepare the deceased for it, I argue that the coronavirus crisis represents an unprecedented cultural cataclysm that has forced the Indian culture to challenge the way it handles its dead.

Cremation grounds and colonial rule

Many Americans think of cremation happening within an enclosed, mechanized structure, but most Indian crematoriums, known as “shmashana” in Hindi, are open-air spaces with dozens of brick-and-mortar platforms upon which a body can be burned on a pyre made of wood.

Hindus and Sikhs will dispose of the remaining ashes in a river. Many shmashana are therefore built near the banks of a river to allow for easy access, but many well-off families often travel to a sacred city along the banks of the river Ganges, such as Hardiwar or Benares, for the final rituals. Jains – who have traditionally given significant consideration to humanity’s impact on the environmental world – bury the ashes as a means to return the body to the Earth and ensure they do not contribute to polluting rivers.

The workers who run shmashana often belong to the Dom ethnicity and have been doing this work for generations; they are lower caste and subsequently perceived as polluted for their intimate work with dead bodies.

The act of cremation has not always been without controversy. In the 19th century, British colonial officials viewed the Indian practice of cremation as barbaric and unhygienic. But they were unable to ban it given its pervasiveness.

However, Indians living in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Trinidad often had to fight for the right to cremate the dead in accordance with religious rituals because of the mistaken and often racist belief that cremation was primitive, alien and evironmentally polluting.

Rituals and a long history

The earliest writings on Indian funerary rituals can be found in the Rig Veda – a Hindu religious scripture orally composed thousands of years ago, potentially as early as 2000 B.C. In the Rig Veda, a hymn, traditionally recited by a priest or an adult male, urges Agni, the Vedic god of fire, to “carry this man to the world of those who have done good deeds.”

From the perspective of Hindu, Jain, and Sikh rituals, the act of cremation is seen as a sacrifice, a final breaking of the ties between the body and the spirit so it may be free to reincarnate. The body is traditionally bathed, anointed, and carefully wrapped in white cloth at home, then carried ceremonially, in a procession, by the local community to the cremation grounds.

While Hindus and Sikhs often decorate the body with flowers, Jains avoid natural flowers for concern of inadvertently destroying the lives of insects that may be hidden within its petals. In all of these faiths, a priest or male member of the family recites prayers. It is traditionally the eldest son of the deceased who lights the funerary pyre; women do not go to the cremation ground.

Relatives gather around the body of a man who died of COVID-19 in India, to perform religious rituals.
Family members perform rituals at a crematorium for a person who died of the coronavirus in India.
Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

After the ceremony, mourners return home to bathe themselves and remove what they regard as the inauspicious energy that surrounds the cremation grounds. Communities host a variety of postmortem rituals, including scriptural recitations and symbolic meals, and in some Hindu communities the sons or male members of household will shave their head as a sign of their bereavement. During this mourning period, lasting from 10 to 13 days, the family performs scriptural recitations and prayers in honor of their deceased loved one.

The changing times of COVID-19

The wave of death from the COVID-19 pandemic has forced transformations to these long-established religious rituals. Makeshift crematoriums are being constructed in the parking lots of hospitals and in city parks.

Young women may be the only ones available to light the funerary pyre, which was previously not permissible. Families in quarantine are forced to use WhatsApp and other video software to visually identify the body and recite digital funerary rites.

Media reports have pointed out how in some cases, crematorium workers have been asked to read prayers traditionally reserved for Brahmin priests or people from a higher caste. Muslim burial grounds have begun to run out of space and are tearing up parking lots to bury more bodies.

The work of the dead

While other important rituals such as marriage and baptism may take on a new appearance in response to cultural changes, social media conversations or economic opportunities, funerary rituals change slowly.

Historian Thomas Laqueur has written on what he calls “the work of the dead” – the ways in which the bodies of the deceased participate in the social worlds and political realities of the living.

In India’s coronavirus pandemic, the dead are announcing the health crisis that the country believed it had conquered. As recently as April 18, 2021, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was holding crowded political rallies, and his government allowed the massive Hindu pilgrimage festival of Kumbh Mela to proceed a year early in response to the auspicious forecasts of astrologers. Authorities began to act only when the deaths became impossible to ignore. But even then, the Indian government appeared more concerned about removing social media posts that were critical of its functioning.

India is one of the world’s largest vaccine-producing nations, and yet it was unable to make or even purchase the needed vaccines to protect its population.

The dead have important stories to tell about neglect, mismanagement or even our global interdependence – if we care to listen.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]The Conversation

Natasha Mikles, Lecturer in Philosophy, Texas State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘People are crying and begging’: the human cost of forced relocations in immigration detention


Michelle Peterie, The University of Queensland

Between July 2018 and August 2019, the Home Affairs Department spent A$6.1m flying refugees, asylum seekers and other immigration detainees around Australia.

This figure includes $5.7 million for charter flights and $400,000 for commercial flights with airlines like Qantas. It does not include the cost of keeping planes on standby and transporting staff who accompany detainees. Neither does it include the cost of transporting detainees by road.

Details of these and other expenses have led Labor to ask why minister Peter Dutton’s departmental costs continue to rise. Given revelations the government spent $26.8 million reopening Christmas Island detention centre to hold a single family last year, this is a pressing question.

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Yet deeper questions about what these relocations involve and how they affect detainees and their supporters have been largely ignored. As a researcher studying immigration detention, I can attest forced relocations impose profound human costs.

Over the past five years, I have conducted over 70 interviews with regular visitors to Australia’s onshore immigration detention centres. Speaking with volunteers and advocates, as well as detainees’ friends and family members, I have collected witness accounts of conditions and practices within the system.
A constant theme in these interviews has been the harm caused by involuntary transfers.

How many forced transfers are occurring

When we think of immigration detention centres, we often imagine places of confinement. This is accurate, but it is not the full picture.

Refugees and asylum seekers in Australia’s onshore detention system are held in prison-like facilities on the outskirts of our capital cities or – in the case of Christmas Island and Yongah Hill in Western Australia – in remote parts of the country.

In December 2019, there were at least 504 refugees and asylum seekers within the system, as well as hundreds of other immigration detainees, including those about to be deported. Detention can last months or even years.

Read more:
How people in immigration detention try to cope with life in limbo

As monotonous as detention can be, detainees are not allowed to become comfortable. Between July 2017 and May 2019, there were 8,000 involuntary movements within the system. Some of these were deportations, but others were forced transfers between facilities.

Detainees are rarely given an explanation when they are moved. The opacity of the practice is undoubtedly one of its concerning aspects, and has been criticised by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). In a report last year, the commission recommended that when a relocation occurs

the department and facility staff should ensure as far as possible that the person […] receives a clear explanation of the reasons for the transfer.

Federal police outside Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre to monitor a 2012 protest against refugee detention.

‘Sheer, random cruelty’

Participants in my study stressed the secrecy of relocations. Detainees were typically moved with minimal warning or explanation. At times they knew a transfer was pending, but they were often moved with just a few hours’ notice.

In some instances, the staff woke detainees up and gave them minutes to collect their belongings. As one regular visitor to Yongah Hill Detention Centre described it,

It was always early in the morning – you’ve got 10 minutes to pack your bags. And they would lose things. They were always in such a hurry. It was made to be traumatic for them.

Confronted with what a visitor to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation described as “the sheer, random cruelty of it”, detainees felt their vulnerability. So, too, did those left behind.

There’s constantly distressing scenes as one family or another is being dragged away to be put on a plane with very little notice. And it’s so upsetting for all the other refugees […] that they’re seeing people get hauled off and people are crying and begging […] You never know if it’s going to be you tomorrow morning.

The AHRC has documented the “excessive” use of restraints during transfers. Just in the last fortnight, the Commonwealth Ombudsman observed that handcuffs had become “accepted transfer practice” during transport operations.

In his recommendations, the ombudsman advised

the Aviation Transport Security Regulations [to] restrict the use of mechanical restraints to circumstances where there is a genuine risk to the safety of the aircraft that cannot be mitigated by any other option.

The human costs of forced relocations

Beyond the stress of the transfer process, relocations separate detainees from support networks within the facilities, as well as friends, advocates, doctors and lawyers in the community. As a regular visitor to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation explained, the relocation experience is one of loss.

They might put down roots and get a few mates where they are, but when they move they lose those bonds that they’ve developed. If they’re getting any medical help they lose that contact with that medical care, their ability to learn English gets less.

Interstate transfers are particularly devastating for people with families in the community. Partners and children without social or financial resources in Australia can rarely travel to visit loved ones.

Read more:
Explainer: how Australia decides who is a genuine refugee

The despair caused by relocations is perhaps best exemplified by stories I heard of detainees self-harming immediately before or after a transfer.

These testimonies accord with previous research at Victoria University that has found a link between forced relocations and self-harm in immigration detention facilities. Forced transfers, this researcher found, are among a number of “precipitating factors or triggers for self-harm” in both immigration detention and prison settings.

An unconscionable practice

The practice of moving detainees around Australia’s immigration detention network is doubly unjustifiable on economic and humanitarian grounds. A consistent finding from my research is that forced relocations cause harm. They harm detainees, and they harm the people who love and support them.

As a country, we can find better ways to spend taxpayer money.The Conversation

Michelle Peterie, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nigeria: Persecution News Update

The link below is to an article reporting on the kidnapping and forced conversion of a pastor’s daughter to Islam.

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The link below is to an article reporting on the persecution of Christians in Laos, where Christians have been forced to leave their homes.

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Indigenous People Forced Off Their Land

The link below is to an article that reports on the increasing numbers of indigenous people being forced of their land in Asia.

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Bangladesh: Persecution News Update

The link below is to an article reporting on persecution news from Bangladesh where Christian girls are being abducted and forced into labour and prostitution. 

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Egypt: Latest Persecution News

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Facebook: Email Outrage

  1. Facebook just doesn’t learn. If there’s something that Facebook should know by now it’s that the social network’s users don’t like things being forced upon them and having their settings changed without notification and permission. Yet despite this, Facebook has done it again and changed everyone’s default email setting to that of a Facebook email address. Poor form Facebook, poor form. It really annoyed me to find it so today, but thankfully I have processes in place that should warn be of such Facebook ineptness before too much harm is done. Not so for all, so hopefully this story will bring awareness to others, as well as providing information as to how it can be corrected.