LUCKNOW: In the midst of heightened communalism, Mohammad Sharif is one angel shining in Faizabad town, just adjacent to the temple town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. While lynchings on the basis of religion and caste are on the rise around the country, Sharif works silently in his home town, picking up abandoned corpses to give them a dignified funeral. He does not care whose corpse it is.

After all the colour of the blood of all human beings is the same, says Sharif at a time when many insist that they are either Hindu or Muslim.

This amazing, soft spoken 80 year old is a bicycle mechanic Sometimes he worries as to who will continue the work he began nearly 25 years ago to give dignity to the dead.

Sharif started this after he lost his 22 year old son to murderers who were allowed to run amok in 1992, fuelling communal tensions that led to the eventual demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

At that time Raes, the eldest and pharmacist son of Sharif went missing from his office and his body was later found stuffed in a gunny bag after weeks of search. The family went out of its mind with grief. After the tragedy Sharif’s wife went into deep depression and one of his four sons also lost control of his mind.

But the loss of Raes instilled in Sharif a respect for the dead, irrespective of religion. Today it is not rare to find Sharif digging a grave or lighting the fire at the cremation grounds when nobody else is there to perform the last rites for a human being who is no more. To date Sharif says he may have performed the last rites of at least 25,000 unclaimed corpses.

This mission of his takes up so much of his time that Sharif is unable to earn much from his profession of repairing bicycles. Today he lives with his wife and a son in utter poverty in a tin shed he calls home, and whatever little he earns he spends it on bathing, burying or cremating corpses.

These days it costs about Rs 5000 to prepare the last rites for a Muslim corpse that demands a coffin and shroud, and about Rs 3.500 including wood for cremating a Hindu corpse. He must pay the rickshaw puller for transporting corpses to the graveyard or to the cremation grounds, and a pandit for lighting the fire at the funeral pyre. Often when there is none other to help out, Sharif performs all the above tasks himself.

Sharif depends on donations to do this work and these are forever in short supply. But his work has also made him famous. For being so human he has earned the respect of all those who know him and who affectionately address him as Sharif Chacha.

When actor Aamir Khan heard of Sharif Chacha and the great work that he does, he invited him on his television show called Satyamev Jayate. That appearance on television beside the Khan, made Sharif Chacha a little more famous but it attracted no financial help to make his work easier for him.

However when Shoulder to Shoulder (S2S), a Lucknow based volunteer group of social workers heard how difficult it was becoming for the octogenarian Sharif Chacha to continue working, and generated an online campaign. Within days Rs 58,000 was collected.

A S2S volunteer then carried the cheque from the donors to Sharif Chacha recently. He was visibly overwhelmed and with brimming eyes said that for him Eid this year was like none other.