Muslims are the most urban of the numerically significant religious communities of India. According to the 2001 census, 35.7 per cent of the community is located in towns and cities, and while they represent 16.9 per cent of the urban population, only 12 per cent of the rural population consists of Muslim.
If the great majority of urban Muslims are poor, their rural counterparts are even more so. According to data from the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), one-third of Muslims in India survive on less than Rs 550 a month, while those living in villages survive on Rs 338 a month. These figures go back to the year 2004-2005, but nothing much seems to have changed going by the situation in innumerable villages that dot rural Uttar Pradesh.
The Muslim ‘mohalla’ (neighbourhood) of Jalalpur village in Sarila block of Hamirpur district captures this reality eloquently – it is there in its derelict homes, stand posts with no taps, electricity poles with no wires. Being Muslim in Jalalpur means being overlooked on just about everything – from water for the household, to education for the children, to pensions for the elderly.
Jalalpur has a total population of 2,185 or 320 households. About 76 of them are Dalit, while Muslim families account for another 60. The location of each household here conforms to the rigid matrix of caste and community. There can be no inter-mingling. One won’t find a Dalit household emerge, even by mistake, amidst the Rajput homes, or a Muslim family sharing a neighbourhood with an Ahirwar one.
Quresha Bi, 45, moved to Jalalpur from a neighbouring village after marriage and found life here immeasurably worse. “We live in a kachcha (unplastered) hut. At least my parents’ home was a pucca (proper) structure,” she remarks, nostalgia lacing her words. Accessing water is Quresha’s daily struggle, and it has got her into many nasty scrapes. Once she even landed in the police station because someone filed a complaint against her, “We all fight to access whatever little water we have. Otherwise we are forced to go to a dirty rivulet flowing nearby,” she reveals.
Endowed with a sharp mind and a tongue to go with it, Quresha Bi goes straight to the reason why progress has bypassed her community, “The ‘pradhan’ (village head) takes all the decisions in meetings held in her house. We are not even called for them, so how will our names figure in any of the government schemes for poor people?”
She points to an old woman sitting quietly among a small group of women gathered in the courtyard of one of the larger homes, “Nusrat Bi is a widow. She must be at least 80. Ask her if she gets a widow’s pension.”
When the question is put to Nusrat Bi, she turns around with unseeing eyes, “You see ‘beti’ (daughter) I am almost blind and know nothing of what happens around me. I hold on to my ‘danda’ (stick) to get around, but mostly I sit by myself all day. When night comes, I go to sleep.” Nusrat Bi should be getting a widow’s pension given her circumstances, but she is just another old woman here who has fallen through the cracks of a callous system.
Not only women like Nusrat and Quresha but the Muslim community as a whole appears peripheral to the village, and not just socially but in terms of location as well. “We live along the border of Jalalpur next to a jungle of vilayati babool. We face all kinds of danger and can be attacked by anti-social elements as well as wild animals,” explains Jameel Ahmed, 55. He is one of the few Muslim men here to have climbed the lower rungs of the economic ladder. This is because he had the good fortune to migrate to Mumbai about 15 years ago and now runs a cycle shop there.
Ahmed knows Jalalpur intimately and returns home at least once a year. Having been exposed to the outside world, he recognises the deprivations of his community. According to him, the basic reason for the general poverty is lack of land, a crucial resource in rural India. “Most of my community owns no land; some may have a ‘bigha’ or two (1 bigha=0.25 hectare), which hardly makes a difference,” he says.
Being landless means a constant, anxious search for a livelihood. Since the few local jobs available obviously go to those who are better connected and educated, most Muslim families fall back on migration – locally termed as leaving for “pardes” (foreign country). Ahmed’s assessment of his own life is succinct, “If I hadn’t moved from here, I would have died.”
But there is migration and migration. Ahmed was fortunate enough to have made space for himself and his family in the prosperous environment of Mumbai. The great majority of Muslims of Jalalpur, however, with far less negotiating power, end up in the brick kilns that rise from wheat fields all over Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring states.
This is migration that yields no assets but drains every ounce of energy from the body and every bit of hope from the heart. Work is available for eight-month cycles that begin right after the festival season around November and end with the onset of the rains the following year. The payment is minimal – in fact, people here when asked how much they earn will not be able to come up with a direct answer. They will say, for instance, that they get Rs 350 to make a thousand bricks, which could take a couple of able-bodied men two days to make. Nothing is clearly defined in terms of a regular wage.
What they do get is a certain sum of money per family – anything from Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 – as an advance at the beginning of their journey to “pardes”, from which their wages are supposedly deducted. Since most families are already in debt, this sum quickly disappears to pay off loans. What is left is a black hole that no amount of labour can fill: Bonded labour in an era that claims to have abolished it.
The section of the community most affected by migration to the brick kilns are young children, for whom any hope of regular schooling simply disappears. Says one mother, “When we come back after eight months, our children have forgotten whatever they had learned in school. In any case, their names are struck off the school rolls because of inadequate attendance, so they cannot sit for the annual examinations, and the master-ji doesn’t do anything.”
The children are either inducted into the brick-making work – their labour hardly recompensed in any way – or they wander around aimlessly. Many take to petty crime, or simply disappear without a trace. The story is told about one young boy from Jalalpur who was captured by a trafficking mafia from a brick kiln near Kanpur, the industrial hub of the state. His mother fortunately was quick to register his absence and he could be rescued; others are not as fortunate.
“If the boys are so vulnerable, imagine the situation of our daughters. That is why we somehow marry them off as quickly as possible. At least they will have the security of their husband’s homes,” explains one Jalalpur mother.
But for these young girls, marriage marks no escape. It only means the burdens of life bear down even earlier. As we leave Jalalpur, we catch up with 20-year-old Rahisa. Pale-faced, emaciated and heavily pregnant with her second child, she has yet to receive a proper medical examination, although the baby is expected in a few weeks.
And so another generation will emerge in Jalalpur and so too will another cycle of deprivation begin.