City of faith healing: How a 11-year-old girl’s death exposed a sorcerer’s clutch in this Kannur neighbourhood

Faith healer Muhammed Uwais
Faith healer Muhammed Uwais (right), who is under police custody is the Imam of this mosque (left) in Kunhippally in Kannur City.

Clad in white with a matching skull cap and neatly trimmed beard, the young religious teacher had a busy daily routine until recently.

Men and women with illnesses flocked his house for his special ‘healing treatment’. He would serve them water ‘blessed with Quranic verses’ and advise them against consulting medical practitioners.

“Doctors are devils. Hospitals are hells. If you die in a hospital, you will not go to Heaven. So you should never visit hospitals,” he warned them.

He led them by example. He did not take his wife to the hospital during her pregnancy. She delivered their first baby at home. This helped him expand his cult and his followers were all praise for ‘showing them the right path’.

Apart from in-person ‘consultation’, he used to ‘infuse Quranic verses’ in the water “over the phone too”.

Thirty-five-year-old Muhammad Uwais, who hails from Kannur, thus had a secretive yet trouble-free run for eight years with faith healing as a guise.

Not anymore.

The death of 11-year-old M A Fathima at Kannur City, a densely populated neighbourhood under Arakkal and Ayikkara divisions of the Kannur corporation appears to have exposed his unscrupulous practices. It has nearly 6,000 residents.

Faith healer Muhammed Uwais
Faith healer Muhammed Uwais who is in police custody lives in this house in Kannur City.

Uwais had a firm influence on Fathima’s father, Abdul Sathar. When the young girl developed a fever on October 26, she was forced to fast and recite verses from the Holy Quran.

After her condition deteriorated on October 31, she was rushed to a private hospital, where she breathed her last. The foul play came to light after the girl’s paternal uncle complained to the police to inquire about the unnatural death.

Later, the postmortem report revealed the girl died of lung infection, fever and anaemia.

The police subsequently took the faith healer (Uwais) and the girl’s father (Sathar) into custody.

During interrogation, Sathar confessed Uwais directed him not to take the girl to the hospital. Uwais, meanwhile, told the police that he still believed there was no need to go to a hospital for treatment. He denied performing any sorcery. He, however, said he served ‘Quran-infused’ water to those who visited him.

Both the accused have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder (Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code) and punishment to cruelty to child (Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act). They have been remanded in police custody till November 17.

Many deaths, no evidence
Fathima’s death appears to have opened Pandora's box.

At least four other deaths have come under scrutiny after it emerged Uwais treated them all.

Seventy-five-year-old Safiya was the first to die under mysterious circumstances in December 2014.

She was taking allopathic medicines for breathing difficulties before Uwais convinced her to stop it and follow his ‘medication’.

Safiya’s son Ashraf, 53, died in August 2016. Safia’s sister Nafeesu, 67, died in April, 2017. The fourth mysterious death of 57-year-old Anwar happened in May, 2018.

Nafeesu’s son Siraj Padikkal, a businessperson and political worker, has been aggressively demanding an investigation into the deaths for over four years, but his demands fell on deaf ears.

Siraj and Uwais had been living in the same house in Azad Road in Kannur City, but the former left the place after falling out with the family because of his fierce opposition to the occult practices.

Siraj said his mother was under allopathy treatment after she broke her leg following a fall. In 2017, Uwais took charge of her ‘treatment’ and abruptly stopped the medication. Her condition deteriorated soon, which resulted in her death.

“I had filed a complaint with the police after my mother’s unnatural death. But the police neither registered a first information report nor conducted a postmortem. The callous approach helped the culprits go scot-free. It is time to re-investigate all the mysterious deaths,” Siraj said.

Fathima’s death has convinced the Kannur City dwellers and the police about the gravity of the issue. It also forced many City-based organisations to echo Siraj’s demand for a re-probe into the mysterious deaths.

Women healers
Kannur City appears to have become a favourite breeding ground for faith healers and sorcerers. At least three faith healers -- Uwais, Uwais’s mother-in-law and another woman -- are active in just one square kilometre. And all of them seem to be following a tried and tested modus operandi for convincing their clients.

Irshadul Muslimeen Madrassa
The Irshadul Muslimeen Madrassa in Kannur City where faith healer Muhammed Uwais gave religious lessons.

A person who sought Uwais’s services said, on condition of anonymity, that he never insisted on remuneration. “But I had given a handsome amount as a token,” the person said.

Uwais made the best use of his networking skills to mislead his close relatives and convince them of the importance of faith healing.

“He misguided around 10 families in our neighbourhood. Their children have never received immunity vaccinations. The adults haven’t taken COVID-19 vaccines so far,” Siraj alleged.

Though everybody knows about the presence of faith healers, the absence of strong witnesses hampers the investigation.

But the police hope to make some breakthrough this time. Kannur City Police Commissioner R Ilango said the presence of strong witnesses in Siraj has given a big boost to the police.

“We will investigate all suspicious deaths in the neighbourhood during the last seven years. We will seek legal advice on how to proceed with the investigation,” he said.

Another promising development is the emergence of community organisations in Kannur City to spread awareness against the faith healers.

A WhatsApp collective that claims to represent the residents of Kannur City - City Snehatheeram - is one among them.

Muhammed Younus, an activist of the City Snehatheeram, said the influence wielded by faith healers indicates the spread of neo-conservatism in the society.

“People like Uwais wield considerable clout in the society. They enjoy a cult following. Their followers are ready to do anything for them. It is a dangerous trend. The society should take initiatives to educate common people about the hazards of following them,” he said.

Awareness programmes
Religious institutions too have woken up from slumber and have decided to launch awareness programmes against the social menace.

The Kodapparamba Mosque, which lies close to Uwais’s residence, will soon launch a house-to-house campaign to educate people on why they should desist from seeking help from faith healers.

Marzooque Saadi  Imam of the Kodapparamba mosque
Marzooque Saadi Imam of the Kodapparamba mosque says a house-t-house campaign against faith healing will be launched soon.

“We will educate people that faith healing is illegal. We will also teach them that Islam abhors such practices. That is the only way to dissuade people from the clutches of black magic practitioners,” said Marzooque Saadi, the Imam (head priest) of the mosque.

Marzooque said the mosque committee had summoned Uwais three years ago and asked him to explain his treatment methods. “We summoned him after we came to know about his fraudulent activities. He failed to give us a clear explanation. So we told him to stop such practices. But he continued his activities secretly,” he said.

Anti-superstition law
City Snehatheeram activists say Uwais and some women linked to him influenced hundreds of people in the Kannur City and the government should rehabilitate them. “The government should provide medical care and counselling to those who fell prey to the fraudsters. Else the legacy of the faith healers will continue,” said Muhammed Younus.

Fathima’s tragic death has reignited the debate on the need to promulgate a law against superstitions in Kerala. Kerala has been waiting for a law ever since the Law Reforms Commission had submitted the draft of the anti-superstition bill to the State government in 2019. The draft bill was modelled on the lines of anti-superstition and Black Magic bill passed by Maharashtra in 2013 and Karnataka in 2017.

Kannur City Police Commissioner R Ilango, who is overseeing the investigation into Fathima’s death, vouched for the anti-superstition law. He said such a law would have ensured stringent punishment for the guilty. “Existing laws are a bit general and anti-superstition law would have ensured stringent punishment for those involved in sorcery, black magic and occult practices,” he said.

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