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Muslims in India Battle Prejudice and Poverty - 2003-09-08


One hundred fifty boys are taking an afternoon break at the Darul Quran Madrasa Azmatia in central Calcutta. This Muslim religious school is located close to the city’s largest mosque Nakhoda Masjid, which can accommodate 10,000 worshippers.

Imam Qari Fazlur Rahman says the poor families from all over India send their boys here. “This institution, the name is Darul Quran Madrasa Azmatia, is a hundred years old and the teaching of Koran takes place over here,” he says. “Hundreds of students have been studying here. They get food and board and everything is run on charity.”

The imam says the number of students and worshippers has grown significantly in the past few years. “Two aspects: one is the population is growing,” he says. “Also people are bending towards religion. People like to see that their children learn the Koran and the Koranic teachings and the practices followed by Prophet Mohammed.”

Although India’s constitution guarantees children’s education in their mother tongue, speakers of other languages often complain that Hindi, India’s official language spoken by the Hindu majority, is enforced at schools throughout the country. Calcutta’s Muslims speak mostly Bengali, the language of the state of West Bengal. A smaller percentage who speak Urdu may be especially disadvantaged. A growing number of Muslim community activists are fighting to change that.

Topsia and Tiljala are mostly Muslim areas on the eastern outskirts of Calcutta. These crumbling ghettos, crisscrossed by narrow lanes, clogged with vendors and traffic are suffocating in the fumes from tanneries and rubber factories tucked in among the crowded dwellings. Life in these bistis, as they are called, is somewhat better then in the nearby slums lining the putrid canals carrying the city sewage. Calcutta’s businessman Shahanshah Jehangir says it was much worse when he first visited the area.

“It so happened,” he says, “that one of my classmates who had a house in Topsia in the heart of the slum area invited me to his sister’s wedding. And it was the first time I went there in 1965, I still remember. I went to attend the marriage (celebration). There was a greenish area so I walked into it. It looked so green that I thought I walked into a field of grass. Actually, I got soaked with all the dirty water and somehow they pulled me out and that time I took a vow that if ever I could do something, I would come back to this area and try to develop it because people needed it.”

Mr. Jehangir did not forget his vow. In 1968, he formed the Bengal Service Society dedicated to improving the lives of slum people, especially the children. Since then his organization has helped open a hospital and a school in Topsia and secure medical services, drinking water and other basic services for the community. Mr. Jehangir says his group is also actively working to suppress religious and ethic divisions.

“I found there was a certain section of people in our society,” he says, “always trying to exploit the religious sentiment among the poor. So we stopped all this. I brought all the children, from the Hindu boys, the Muslim boys to the Christian boys and made them sit at one table, eat together and study together and that feeling of brotherhood made me happy. After that there was no ill feeling between the castes and the religious communities there.”

Calcutta’s poor may not be divided, but the majority are Muslim. Instead of sending the children to school, many families at Topsia and Tiljala send them to work, says interpreter and Muslim community activist Ayaz Ahmed.

“The Muslims over here are mainly illiterate,” he says. “Most of the population is illiterate. They are uneducated and they are lowly employed.”

Still, many parents here understand the value of education. One mother says: “We want the development at the school and we want advanced education, including computers and other things to be installed at this school.”

The interpreter Mr. Ahmed says: “All of them want to get their children educated, not only in computer science but in all fields. They also want vocational training to be imparted so that the child who gets education can be self-sufficient and independent for his livelihood.”

These mothers have met at a Topsia public school to form a parent committee to help run the school attended by about 300 children. In 1997, an amendment to the Indian constitution amendment made education for children aged 6 to 14 free and compulsory. But the population explosion has made it impossible either to enforce the law or to make sure there are enough schools for all the children. Ayaz Ahmed cites another problem.

“Actually, the government over here and the system is so much corrupt,” he says, “from top to bottom, that it is the main hurdle towards development.”

About 13% of India’s one-billion population is Muslim, yet they account for only 3% of government employees. In the cities, where one-third of them live, 30% are illiterate in comparison with 19% illiterate Hindus. India’s Muslims are also more likely than Hindus to be victims of violent attacks. In all the communal riots since independence, police records indicate that three-quarters of the lives lost and properties destroyed are Muslim. The situation is somewhat better in the state of West Bengal, which is headed by a secular government.

Nesar Waris is joint secretary of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission. “Our system of government is a democratic one,” he says. “In West Bengal, I must say that we (the Muslims) have a good representation in the state assembly. In West Bengal we are living in peaceful conditions. In other states there is less peace than in Bengal. Some people say, and I don’t corroborate their view, it is because there is a CPM government over here, a Communist, Marxist government is here. So they don’t like communalism (sectarian divisions), whether it is economic communalism or educational communalism or religious communalism. But we find that religious communalism is avoided here and other communalism still exists.”

Although officially condemned, communalism or sectarian discrimination and segregation is a fact of life throughout most of India. A number of non-governmental groups are engaged in fighting it. The Institute of Objective Studies has published numerous booklets and studies on Islamic traditions, philosophy and culture.

Calcutta-based anthropologist M.K.A. Siddiqui, who wrote many of them, says they are aimed at dispelling negative stereotypes about India's Muslims. “We work with Hindus,” he says. “We supply our books to them and of course it has its impact. Of late reviews have come praising our work. But a large segment of the media is infected by communal feelings because of political interest again.”

Many Indians, Muslim and non-Muslim blame politicians, especially the ruling party, for stirring sectarian passions.

Parwez Hafeez is Calcutta bureau chief of the daily paper The Asian Age. “For instance, they started distributing stickers and leaflets saying: ‘Say proudly that we are Hindus,’” he says. “And then we also saw that in Muslim areas. They started fixing similar posters: ‘Say proudly that we are Muslims.’ If politicians stopped manipulating people’s sentiments, I can guarantee this that Indians will stop fighting among themselves.”

Current political leadership in West Bengal has largely refrained from using religion for political gain. Muslims say that is good for them and for India, too.

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