It was the evening of 30 December 2020, when Khairul Sheikh, a daily wage labourer of Sahajadpur village in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, vehemently knocked on the door of Matiur Rahaman. Standing at the threshold, the middle-aged man with numbed eyes and a feeble voice requested Rahaman to bring back the dead body of his son from Saudi Arabia to India.
Khairul’s 28-year-old son Jurail Sheikh went to Saudi about 5 years ago as a sweeper on a monthly salary of Riyal 700. He died due to prolonged illness at Al Munawwarah in Medina, on 23 December.
“We received the sad news on 24 December. To bring the mortal remains back from Riyadh, we ran from pillar to post of the district civil administration departments for a week but all our efforts turned futile and frustration began to creep in,” says his maternal uncle, Nesful Sheikh.
It was then that someone from the neighbouring village informed them about Rahaman — the only person in Murshidabad district who knows the procedure to bring back corpses from any country.
Being a resident of Berhampore, Rahaman (45) is a social activist who has been bringing back dead bodies from abroad. He has also liberated many labourers, who got stuck either in overseas jails or detention camps since 2017. This man does it all for free of cost.
To bring back mortal remains from abroad
Rahaman requested photocopies of Jurail’s passport, Aadhar Card and an authorisation letter to proceed on behalf of Khairul. “Having received those documents on 10 November 2020, I immediately registered a complaint at the Government of India website — Madad, for the people who are in trouble abroad and received a docket number,” says Rahaman.
Subsequently, the docket number was tweeted to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). A message was received within an hour from MEA stating that the facts would be verified. “My responsibility is to maintain constant track over the grievances registered and communicate with either MEA or the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia through emails or tweets,” reveals Rahaman, who is the founder and chief functionary of Karna-Subarna Welfare Society, established on 24 November 2006.
Transportation of corpses is a tough task. The High Commission of India in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, moves only after receiving a copy of ‘Power of Attorney’ from the relative of the deceased. “Every detail of the person is furnished on a Non-Judicial Stamp Paper before mailing it to the respective embassy,” informs the social activist.
Talking to The Better India, Rahaman says that the Indian Embassy established contact with the company where Jurail worked and requested them to produce relevant documents for transportation such as Death Report from the Ministry of Health, Saudi Arabia, Certificate of Death Ministry Non-Saudi Civil Affairs Department and Police Report (Saudi Arabia).
Thereafter, the Embassy issued a ‘No Objection Certificate’ to the company for further proceeding. The company then arranged the following documents needed for transportation such as Embalming Certificate, Forensic Medicine of Ministry of Health of Saudi Arabia, NOC from APHO (Airport Health Organisation), Delhi, Cancellation of Passport of Deceased, Certificate of Entry of Death of an Indian National and Air Ticket.
“Managing these documents is time-consuming. It may take a week or may extend to six months because of several reasons, including deliberate delay by the company. The total expenditure is borne by the Government of India; however, the government claims this amount from the company. If the deceased person is buried abroad then the ‘Burying Permit from Embassy’ is mandatory, informs Rahaman.
Finally, Jurail’s mortal remains arrived at IGI Airport, New Delhi instead of NSCBI Airport Kolkata on 12 February. The Saudi Police informed relatives about the transportation in Arabic, which they couldn’t decipher.
“The family immediately called me up to seek my service. I contacted the officials at Delhi Airport to confirm that the coffin would be shortly picked. Flight tickets for two were booked. The poor family borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh to bring the coffin,” Rahaman says.
Until the coffin reached the village Sahajadpur and was buried, Rahaman’s job wasn’t over. Transporting the coffin from Kolkata Airport to Berhampore, a distance of about 181-km one way, was another challenge. At his request, the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Murshidabad sanctioned a free ambulance service for the cause. Eventually, the coffin reached and Jurail was laid to rest in peace.
Working for the unaccounted
Born in an agriculturist family, Rahaman is the eldest among three siblings. He did his schooling at Madhupur Raja Sashanka Vidyapith. He passed his Class 10 in 1994. He couldn’t continue his education between 1994 and 1998 due to financial problems, but he finished his Class 12 and Graduation from Berhampore College with commerce stream in 1998 and 2001, respectively.
It was in 2001 that he moved to Kolkata to pursue Chartered Accountancy, but again he failed to manage the expenditure. He returned to Murshidabad in 2005 and joined an NGO Suprava Panchashila Mahila Uddyog Samity as an accountant. But he quit after working for less than a year.
He joined the Society for Community Intervention and Research, where he continued working for two years before quitting. Meanwhile, he began working for his own NGO – Karna-Subarna Welfare Society that he launched in 2006. His primary objective was to get mental satisfaction by serving the people without expecting benefits. He said that around 2 lakh people from Murshidabad district itself are out of the country and the government doesn’t have any data about them.
In his line of work, Rahaman undergoes tremendous mental pressure.
He started his humanitarian service on 7 September 2017 when his maternal uncle’s son-in-law, Asatulla Sheikh was struck by lightning in Malaysia, who went to work as a gardener in 2013. He learnt about Asatulla’s demise from his father and maternal uncle, who wanted to bring the corpse from Malaysia.
“I didn’t know the process to bring back a dead body. I had no idea how to handle tweeters and never heard about Madad in those days,” admits Rahaman.
He then wrote an email to the Murshidabad District Magistrate and got no reply. Sought local police help, who ignored his plea and admitted to not knowing the procedure. He then spoke to local journalists, who also didn’t have a clue. He dashed off a letter to the Chief Minister but to no avail.
“I mustered up the courage and sent my first tweet to the then Minister of External Affairs, (late) Sushma Swaraj on 9 September 2017 and instantly received a call from MEA seeking information. The very next moment, I got another call from the High Commission in Malaysia. They sent me the ‘madad link’ and asked me to stay connected with MEA,” Rahaman says.
According to him, within an hour the High Commission of India, Malaysia rang again and informed him that the body was located at Batu Anam in Johor area about 140-km away from Kuala Lumpur. “Within a week, the dead body was sent to Kolkata on September 13. It was brought to Berhampore from Kolkata Airport for burial on the next day,” Rahaman says.
In yet another case of an Indian boy who went missing abroad, Najemul Sheikh (28), a resident of village Mahalandi in Kandi, Murshidabad district, went to Malaysia with the help of an agent on 24 January 2020. He was told that the company hired him for a packaging job at the salary of 60 Malaysian Ringgit per month. But he landed up cutting green coconut.
However, he was in touch with his family till March 2020, thereafter, the communication was truncated for around nine months. He escaped from his workplace but was then caught by the Malaysian police.
His father, Khudabaux Sheikh, along with his second wife, visited Rahaman in the first week of December 2020, stating that they didn’t have any idea whether their son was dead or alive.
Based on their information, Rahaman docketed the grievance on Madad on 15 December 2020. Soon the Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra (PBSK), Kuala Lumpur Branch, sent him a message on WhatsApp stating that Najemul was alive and in a detention camp.
A week later, a letter from the High Commission in Malaysia was received on 22 December 2020. The letter read: ‘We have checked our record. Mr Najemul Sk is in Tekan Detention Camp. He is ready for repatriation. Kindly provide us with a Malaysian contact number, so that we will inform them to make payment for his Air ticket.’
The same letter was forwarded to DM, ADM and SP of Murshidabad on 29 December 2020 but there was no response from them. A reminder from MEA shook them and they picked the agent for questioning. The agent made a video call to his Malaysian counterpart. Subsequently, the name and number of the agent in Malaysia were passed to the High Commission.
Najemul was vaccinated for COVID-19 before he was repatriated to India on 23 March 2021. He was sent to a quarantine centre in New Delhi for six days and reached his village on 29 March 2021.
To date, 37 such people have already been brought back from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Malaysia by Rahaman. Seven more people are about to be repatriated, including one from a Malaysian detention camp and six from Saudi Arabia, two of whom are in jail.
Rahaman facilitated bringing 10 dead bodies back to the country. He helped in the burial of seven bodies abroad. He managed to bring the body of Ajoy Mondal (48) to Bagnan in Howrah district, within 10 days who had died of acute renal failure in Dubai, UAE, in 2019.
He also rescued 14 Indian sailors, who were taken into custody by Yemini Coast Guard in February 2020, Heron Sheikh Siddiki from Murshidabad was one of them. They were sailing from Oman to Saudi Arabia and due to inclement weather they had to anchor their ship at Yemen port. These sailors were confined to a hotel in Sanaa, Yemen. They all have been repatriated to India via Dubai on 2 December.
“Mr Girish Pant, a PBSK, Dubai award-winner, escorted Mondal’s dead body from his expenses. On which, the noted playback singer Usha Uthup facilitated his lodging, ambulance fare from the airport to Bagnan and a vehicle for sightseeing,” discloses Rahaman.
“He is the Samaritan of poor labourers. We are illiterate and know nothing about the paperwork. He does it on behalf of us for free,” says Khudabaux Sheikh.
Today, Rahaman is married with one son and is an auditor for a chartered accounting firm. He also earns from preparing audits, annual reports and conducting the renewal work for 40-50 NGOs.
With only one staff, Rahaman is relentlessly serving the underprivileged under his Karna-Subarna Welfare Society banner. He can be reached at 9434856496.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)