( Published in The Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi, on 5 January 2010 under the caption LITTLE POCKETS OF HISTORY )
Showing respect to the dead is common to societies all over the world. ‘Speak not ill of the dead’, is what we are taught from our childhood. ‘Let them rest in peace’ comes instantly to mind as we pass a grave. Encroaching and vandalising their final resting place can therefore be viewed as sacrilege. Shakespeare sounded a grim warning in the epitaph inscribed in his gravestone at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in England:
"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones."
Shakespeare supposedly wrote it himself because in his time old bodies were dug up and burned to make room for new burials. Many British men and women of the Raj era would have aspired to borrow from Shakespeare's epitaph and wished their final resting places to remain untouched by the encroaching, marauding hand.
There are few well kept graveyards, such as the Bhowanipore Cemetery in Kolkata, Viceroy Lord Elgin's memorial at McLeodgunj in Himachal Pradesh, the Nuns' cemetery near St Bedes College for Women in Simla, and the War cemeteries at Kohima, Delhi, Pune and Comilla in Bangladesh. Most, however, have fallen prey to encroachment, vandalism and pilferage. Some have disappeared due to the vagaries of nature or to the greed for land. It is the same story from Peshawar to Chittagong, Baramula to Trivandrum. Peshawar’s Gora Qabristan, witness to the Afghan Wars, and the cantonment cemetery in Meerut, where the Indian Uprising of 1857 began, are typical of the decay now facing old British graves. As a result, it is nearly impossible to put an exact number, far less to decipher the inscriptions on them. Criminals take away headstones making it difficult to identify the tombs.
Non-British cemeteries have fared no better. The Jewish cemetery, located off Lloyd's Road in Madras, now Chennai, is adjacent to the Chinese cemetery and both cemeteries have clusters of vendors and squatters with vegetables displayed on the road itself at the entrances. Portuguese, Spanish and French tombs have all but disappeared from the Indian soil.
Whereas most of the inscriptions on the grave stones speak of the survivor’s grief and loss, some speak of the vanity of their occupants ignoring Thomas Gray’s famous Elegy “… The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” In most cases, the tombstones are not of Viceroys and other high and mighty of the British Raj but of the countless British civil servants, soldiers, merchants, missionaries, townspeople and teachers, their spouses and children most of whom succumbed not to sword but to summer heat and tropical diseases. They are all part of India’s past. If some headstones contain doggerels we also come across some fine quotes and original compositions. At least some of the tombs can claim to be fair representatives of Indo-European architecture. Much has been lost but not all. If properly maintained these cemeteries can become virtual 'al-fresco museums'.
The care of these graves has become no body’s baby. Lack of interest and resources lie behind this callous neglect. But it is more a question of mindset. Local sensitivities have of course to be taken care of. The Indian public and their representatives in parliament and government have to be sensitised to the fact that conservation of the Raj era cemeteries is not meant to glorify and perpetuate British imperial history but to give us a valuable perspective on India’s heritage. We have to look at these graveyards as ‘little pockets of history’, a who’s who of the British Raj. However much we may resent the British rule in India we cannot wish it away.
The conservation of these tombs and cemeteries is simply beyond the capacity of local church committees. A concerted effort is called for lest this valuable source of history is lost for ever. Sadly, in India the Central and State Minority Commissions and the nominated Anglo-Indian members of state assemblies have been indifferent. The least they can do is to pressurise the government to have pucca boundary walls erected to prevent further encroachment as the hunger for land can drive people to any length. The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), a London-based charity, has done a great job in listing out a large number of graves and even pays for the upkeep of some. Lately, Lt. Col. Lake has launched a trust in UK with an ambitious target to raise £700,000 a year from corporate donors such as HSBC, Rothschild, Lloyds and other major foundations so that these places can be maintained in perpetuity throughout the erstwhile British empire. India-based NGOs and public authorities may also pitch in and play a coordinating role.
An estimated two million graves of the Raj era, lying in isolation or in clusters in designated cemeteries, dot the Indian sub continent. If the government can catalogue and put them on the net many of the present generation Britain may want to visit India to connect with their ancestors and put a wreath on their tombs. In the process they will be unwittingly promoting what can be crudely termed as "graveyard tourism". Most of all, we must create public awareness to defer to the dignity of the dead for, to borrow from the epitaph on Viceroy Lord Elgin’s grave, “He being dead yet speaketh”.
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
NIRVANA’ Buddha Colony
Patna 800 001
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar and a free-lance researcher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)