Azim A. Khan Sherwani and Yoginder Sikand
A little more than a quarter of the Muslim population of India resides in Uttar Pradesh. As numerous surveys and studies have shown, districts in UP with a relatively high Muslim population are considerably more deprived than other districts in terms of economic, educational and social indices. This reveals a certain pattern of discrimination and deprivation. One of the most deprived and marginalised districts in Uttar Pradesh is Bahraich, which is located in the north-eastern part of the state, bordering Nepal. The district has a Muslim population of some 35%. The district enjoys the dubious distinction of having the third lowest literacy rate in the state. According to the 2001 census, this is a mere 35.79%. The literacy rate for Muslims is much lower than this, since Muslims in the district are, by and large, a very economically deprived community.
The vast majority of Muslims in the district are small peasants and agricultural laborers. There is a pattern of migration for employment to Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow, and Punjab, where they work generally as unskilled labourers. Much of the local economy is controlled by Marwaris. Many stories are told about the exploitation of the local farmers by Marwari businessmen. Most of them started as petty merchants and moneylenders and through different unfair means they became the richest people in the district. Muslims own relatively very few large businesses in Bahraich. Most Muslims involved in urban commerce are small stall-owners.
Most of the agricultural land of the district is owned by Rajputs, Brahmins and the Kurmis. The vast majority of the Muslims of the district are from the weaker sections (OBC) and till recently most of them worked as traditional artisans. Home-based artisanal work has succumbed to big industries, leading to massive unemployment. Consequently, these artisanal communities are left with no option but to be labourers in the unorganized sector, especially in agriculture. Mounting landlessness coupled with low wages is leading to rapidly escalating poverty in the district. In many parts of district the wage for agricultural labour is less than Rs 50 a day. The district lacks good infrastructural facilities. There is no direct railway link for major cities in the country. Local political leaders have never taken any interest in developing Bahraich and have displayed little interest in working for the district's Muslims.
Muslim leaders who represented Bahraich in the Parliament and the State legislature were imposed on the local Muslim population by different political parties. They took least interest in the development of the marginalized and excluded communities in Bahraich after they won or lost the elections. The government has instituted a special package for the development if the eastern districts of UP under the Poorvanchal Vikas Nidhi (Eastern Region Development Fund). However, most of the funds allocated under the scheme have been allotted to Gorakhpur (Veer Bahadur Singh's constituency during the 1980s), Ghosi (Kalpnath Rai's constituency in the 1990s) and Balia (Chandra Shekhar's constituency in the 1990s). An interesting instance about discrimination against Bahraich is establishment of Indian Telephone Industry (ITI) in Mankapur in Gonda district instead of Bahraich, where it was initially proposed. The then Member of Parliament from Gonda, Kunwar Anand Singh, exploited his contacts in the ruling Congress party to shift the industry to his constituency and the leaders of Bahraich could not stop it.
Bahraich is considered a haven for corrupt government officials from the Public Works, Irrigation, Forest, Revenue and Police Departments. Because of the high degree of illiteracy and widespread ignorance the poor continue to be victims of exploitation of government officials, who behave like feudal lords of the zamindari era. There are only a few NGOs working in Bahraich, and the majority of these are money-making rackets. Most of them are run by "upper" caste Hindus, with hardly any Muslim representation in the governing boards and staff.
In the backdrop of apathy of the government towards Muslim education, madarsas are trying to bridge the gap. They provide basic literacy to large numbers of children from very poor families free of cost. Several of them also arrange for their students to learn basic Hindi, English and Mathematics till the level of the fifth grade, after which they can enroll in regular state schools.
The district boasts some centuries' old Muslim institutions, but most of these are very badly managed. A good instance is the sprawling dargah of the eleventh century Syed Salar Masud Ghazi. This is one of the largest dargahs in UP, with an annual income of more than Rs. 1.2 crore. The shrine is visited by over a million people every year. The dargah managed by an official committee. A visit revealed that the committee is not engaged in any systematic development activity. People complain of massive corruption in the functioning of the committee. The welfare institutions that the dargah runs are in a very shoddy shape. The small hospital that the dargah has established boasts half a dozen beds that are in a wholly unusable condition. There is total apathy on the part of the government and the dargah administration in running these institutions. There is also no community participation in allocating funds to these institutions and in monitoring their functioning. Such is the apathy of the local Muslim leaders that in the vast impoverished Muslim locality in the vicinity of the dargah there is not a single primary health centre.
There appears to be a certain pattern of institutional discrimination in the establishment of government primary schools in the district. Thus, Muslim areas tend to have proportionally less such schools than non-Muslim localities. At times Muslim members in the local government recommend for the establishment of school in Hindu localities just to avoid the charge of being "communal" if they allot the school in their own Muslim community. Another major challenge to promoting education among Muslims is the lack of community initiative. One village we visited had a total of 127 students enrolled in the school but there were only 30 students appearing in the school examination. The Junior High School in the village presented a shocking picture. It has only 7 students on its rolls and we could see only 3 students present. Interestingly, the teachers revealed that the scholarship for Muslim students has not been released though the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste students have got the money.
Given the extreme level of deprivation of the majority of Bahraich's population, there is an urgent need to declare the district, along with neighbouring Shrawasti and Balrampur, as an "educationally most backward district" and to initiate specially designed development projects on a priority basis. Local leaders must be involved in formulating and monitoring development plans more effectively. There is a need to start a mass movement against illiteracy and poverty. Community mobilization is not only crucial but also the most suitable and sustainable method of development. The ulama can play a vital role in engaging the community with regard to education, and efforts must be made to dialogue with and involve them in promoting Muslim educational advancement.
Institutions like dargahs should be under the direct control of the community so that their income can be used for developmental programmes. Muslims need to set up many more educational and social welfare institutions, there being hardly any of these in the district at all. All this requires a team of dedicated ulama, social activists and local community leaders working in collaboration with government agencies.