A year after Kerala waged a successful battle to contain the Nipah virus that claimed 17 lives, an old grave at Ground Zero of the outbreak is slowly emerging as a “pilgrim centre”.
The grave, of an unknown person, is now being called a “dargah” by a section of residents at the Muslim-majority Sooppikkada village in Kozhikode district. They claim the virus targeted the village because the grave was “neglected over the years”. However, other residents have questioned “such superstition” and expressed concern that the grave, located on private land, could turn out to be a “money-making venture”.
A local mosque committee, meanwhile, has adopted a “neutral stand” and is waiting for the findings of a probe ordered by the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulema, an umbrella organisation that controls the majority of such panels in the state. An imam says the dargah came up with contributions from “outside the village”.
The outbreak was reported in May-June last year after the first suspected case, Muhammed Sabith from the Valachukettil family in Sooppikkada, died on May 10. Later, a study conducted by Dr G Arunkumar of Manipal Centre for Virus Research, and supported by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), found that the virus was transmitted from fruit bats seen in the village.
Sabith’s death, however, is not officially recognised as Nipah-linked as his samples were never tested and he was buried before the infection was diagnosed. Apart from 22-year-old Sabith, three others who succumbed to the virus hailed from the Valachukettil family: his father Moosa, elder brother Salih and aunt Mariyam.
The grave, which is located about 100 metres from Sabith’s house, was first referred to as a “dargah or makham” by a group of local residents about two months ago. Today, a roofed structure has come up over the grave, with a small hall at the entrance and a flag post outside. Residents say visitors from as far as Kozhikode city, nearly 50 km away, have started arriving to pay their respects.
Says Moitheen Kunhi, a relative of the Valachukettil family: “A group of people here believe that Nipah came to the village as the grave was left in an abandoned condition. But the belief that the virus claimed lives at the village because we neglected the grave is nothing but superstition. We haven’t contributed anything to develop the grave into a dargah. I had mingled with some of those who succumbed to the virus, but I was not affected,’’ says Kunhi, a trader.
“In my childhood, I had visited the grave two or three times. Nobody knows who has been buried at that spot. Some people want to make money. We don’t agree with that,’’ says Kunhi, 61.
Abdullah, of Nazeera Manzil in the village, at whose coconut farm the “dargah” stands, says he does not know whose grave it is. “All I know is that it’s several decades old. People are coming from various parts of the district,’’ he says.
Abdullah’s wife Nabeesa says there is a “strong belief that Nipah affected the village due to the neglect meted out to the grave”. “Around 20 persons visited the dargah yesterday (Friday). A section of our community says we have developed the grave into a dargah to collect money, which is not true,’’ she claims.
At the site Saturday afternoon, The Indian Express spoke to the lone visitor — Muhammed Musaliyar from Kozhikode city, who was reading the Quran near the grave. “I am coming here for the first time. I reached the dargah after hearing about it from others. I arrived in the morning and will leave in the evening,” he says.
The local Muslim community, however, is divided over the structure. “A section of the community is against the dargah after its construction was linked to the Nipah outbreak. The mahallu (local masjid) committee has taken a neutral stand. We are neither encouraging visits to the dargah nor we are dissuading people from going there. One has the freedom to take a stand. But we don’t want to promote any superstitious belief. It was constructed using money from outside and those who visit the site are also from outside the village,’’ says Basheer Baqavi, the imam of Juma Masjid at Panthirikkara near Sooppikkada.
“The issue is being studied by a three-member committee. A final decision would be taken only after the supreme body of the Ulema takes a call on the committee’s report,” says Nazer Faisy Koodathai of the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulema.
In Kerala, around 3,000 people were placed in quarantine during the outbreak of Nipah. In all, there were 23 suspected cases although lab tests could confirm only 18. WHO has estimated the fatality range for Nipah cases at 40-75 per cent but the number for Kozhikode at the time was 91 per cent.
The state health department managed to contain the outbreak with a slew of measures, including setting up isolation wards for suspected cases and a largescale awareness drive.