In November 2018, 45-year-old Mohammed Jiyavudeen had come to his village in Pudukottai district for a short holiday with his family. He had worked as a heavy equipment supervisor in Saudi Arabia for two decades, but he knew in his heart that the village of Seriyalur Inam in Keeramangalam was his home.
That his perhaps why when he witnessed the damage wrought by Cyclone Gaja on the district and neighbouring villages in 2018, he quit his job to stay back and aid rehabilitation.
And now, over a year later the people he helped have rewarded him for his selfless service by electing him as Panchayat President. The Panchayat which has a majority Hindu population left behind any communal differences, as it decided to march towards development with the candidate who proved that he cared.
Mohammed Jiyavudeen's victory comes at a time when the country is protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the Centre's alleged efforts to polarise citizens. And the villagers who have voted him to power are well aware of the significance of their decision.
"When we were struggling for basic amenities after Cyclone Gaja, it was Jiyavudeen who came to rescue the people," says Kamaraj, a farmer from the village. "At that time the people we voted for - MLAs and MPs, all Hindus, did not even give us a piece of cloth as we struggled. Jiyavudeen, however, helped get sponsorship to build 15 houses in the village and he knew what every house required for relief at the tip of his fingers. He did not see if we were Hindu or Muslim before helping us. So why should we? Let our village be an example for the whole country," he adds.
In addition to cyclone relief, Jiyavudeen and his group of young men, also got rid of encroachers on a local water body, allowing villagers to access water from the Cauvery river during a punishing drought. He also desilted smaller water bodies in the village to allow for ground water levels to improve.
Despite all this work, however, his election was still a challenge. "A group of village elders had chosen a man named Shankar as the Panchayat chief in an auction that was held before the elections," reveals Jiyavudeen. "But a huge portion of the villagers were unhappy with this development and insisted that I and the youngster who work with me stand for the election. We didn't do all that work for a position or power, but realised a post would mean more ways to help people," he adds.
However, by then, the elders who wanted Shankar to be elected had already collected Rs 10 lakh to 'build a temple'. The elders then proceeded to allegedly bribe villagers and claimed that electing Jiyavudeen would lead to communal issues in the village.
"In fact, they went house by house with a kuthuvalakku (lamp) and took a promise that the family will vote for the Hindu candidate," says Kamaraj, a farmer and resident of the village, who helped Jivyavudeen in his campaign.
The village has a total of 1650 votes of which only 60 belong to Muslims. But Jiyavudeen and his supporters were not ready to back down. They went to every house to remind villagers of who stood by them in their time of need.
"We told people that religion doesn't matter in the face of basic requirement," says Kamaraj. "Jiyavudeen was the right person for the job and people couldn't deny it. They were ready to give up money and face threats, to make sure he was elected," he adds.
In fact, Jiyavudeen says, one family head came and told him that he would have to vote for Shankar because he had promised to do so but that the four others in his home, will vote for him.
"Youth and women were my biggest support," says Jiyavudeen. "They whole-heartedly stood by my side," he adds.
And this was evident when he secured 554 of the 1,360 votes polled in the village. And not only this, the four others from his youth group also won the elections in neighbouring villages.
"The first thing I want to do is work towards the welfare of women in my panchayat and help them set up self-help groups for financial sustainability," he says. "The people have trusted me, set aside religious differences and brought me here. And now I will serve them to the best of my ability,” he adds.
For the villagers, Jiyavudeen's victory has been a moment of celebration of both their efforts and the victory of secularism in their Panchayat.
"Our village will be an example for the whole of India," says Kamaraj proudly.