Socially isolated and without occupation, for the Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh’s Jalalpur village it is a dismal life

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 Muslims.

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 2004-2005, but nothing much seems to have changed going by the situation in innumerable villages that dot rural Uttar Pradesh.

The Muslim mohalla 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 hut. At least my parents’ home was a pucca structure,” she remarks. 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.

A plain speaker, Quresha Bi explains the reason why progress has bypassed her community: “The pradhan 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.”

The Muslim community as a whole appears peripheral to this 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. Jameel is comparatively well-off as he had moved to Mumbai about 15 years ago and now runs a cycle shop there.

He 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. “Most of my community owns no land; some may have a bigha or two, which hardly makes a difference,” he says.

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. 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 – for instance, they get Rs. 350 to make 1,000 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. 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. The children are either inducted into the brick-making work or they wander around aimlessly. Many take to petty crime, or simply disappear without a trace.

“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. (Women's Feature Service)

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