Located between India’s two of the richest cities --Faridabad and Gurgaon -- lies the Muslim majority district of Mewat -- country’s most backward region. It is among 22 districts of northern Indian state of Haryana, bordering capital New Delhi, which is going to polls on Oct. 21 to choose 90-member provincial assembly.
India’s western state of Maharashtra is also going to polls on the same day. The two provincial polls are slated to be the first test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, after returning to power in May with a thumping majority.
As the district -- which constitutes 79.2% Muslim population -- reels under utter backwardness, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blames previous secular governments for low social indicators. It has also fielded two Muslim candidates, who recently defected to the BJP.
Even just 90 kilometers (56 miles) away from the national capital New Delhi, the 1.089 million population of the region has lowest literacy rate and poor health indicators, according to an official document. The literacy rate is 54.1%, against the national average of 74.04%. The female literacy stands at 36.6% against the national average of 64.6%.
According to a survey conducted by the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and the NITI Aayog -- a policy think tank of Indian government -- the region has just three colleges, one vocational polytechnic and single hospital to cater to one million souls.
According to Najmul Islam Hashmi, professor at the AMU, while the rest of Haryana province has at least one senior secondary school per village, in Mewat, the proportion is almost nearing zero.
“Poor higher education infrastructure dents the ability of employable youth to secure a livelihood. This has long drawn socio-economic implications,” he wrote in his research project, which was aimed to probe the causes of backwardness.
However, Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the government under Modi had laid out a special plan for this region in 2015. “Since then we have set up primary schools in all 512 villages in the district and various schemes were also launched to promote education and address to social indicators,” he said.
While agreeing with the minister’s initiatives, the voluntary groups active in the region pointed out that there were alarming dropout rates due to poor economy. “Economy and education go together,” said Asrar Ahmed, a Mewat-based Congress leader.
Hindu cow vigilantes sniff economy of cattle rearing region
He argues that since the region is mostly depending on cattle rearing, the Hindu vigilantes targeting cattle traders have affected livelihood of people in the region.
There are at least 270,000 people living below poverty line in the region that means their daily income is 32 rupees ($0.45) per day, estimates the 2011 census document.
“If the government has a problem with cows, calves and oxen, why is it strangulating our jobs by not allowing us to sell goats?” Down To Earth, a journal, quoted a cattle trader Nooruddin as saying.
The journal devoted to livelihood and environmental issues said that 15 out of the 20 incidents of killings over cow vigilantism, were related to movements of cattle. While killers are yet to be brought to justice, a human rights group Peoples Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR) has documented 53 cases filed against villagers regarding transport and movement of cattle.
Previously, trading of cows was a part of the circular economy -- farmers would sell less productive cows for more productive ones. Cattle would typically pass four-five households in its life cycle. This also helped improve cattle breed.
A year after the BJP came to power in the province, it enacted a law in 2015 prohibiting cow slaughter, consumption, sale and storage of beef. It has made cows pariah among villagers who earlier traded cattle or took to the dairy business. An imprisonment clause of up to 10 years and fines up to 100,000 rupees ($1,406) mean farmers are forced to keep unproductive cattle, which costs around 72,000 rupees ($1,012), according to the Down To Earth’s calculations.
Police does not come to check cows only. “A day before Eid, I was taking 30 goats on a small pickup van. Police seized all 30 goats on grounds of cruelty against animals. They asked me to carry only 17 goats, keep a doctor, fodder and water in the van,” said Imran Qureshi from Rehanganj village in the district.
It took him 15 days to free his goats, 19 of which died in the process, several ran away and he was left with only six goats and a debt of 200,000 rupees ($2,813). The trade runs on high-interest, short-term loans.
Security precedes promise of development
The region represents three assembly constituencies namely Nuh, Punhana and Ferozpur Jhirka.
BJP has given ticket to Zakir Hussain and Naseem Ahmed in Punhana and Nuh, respectively. Interestingly, in Ferozpur Jhirka, the ruling party gave a ticket to Nauksham Chaudhury, a 28-year-old fashion designer who has recently returned from Milan, Italy.
Among the major poll promises, the BJP is promising that the entire region of Mewat will be beneficiary in the Delhi-Mumbai corridor that will pass through the region.
The Congress and other opposition parties are raising issues of lynching of cattle traders by Hindu vigilantes.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency on phone, Aftab Ahmed, the Congress candidate from Nuh, said the security always precedes development.
“If you have sense of security, you can find ways to progress. But insecurity draws you to a shell. We have stayed in the country on the assurance of Mahatma Gandhi. We will not let Godse [killer of Gandhi] succeed as the country is ours too,” he said.
According to a document prepared by Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank, people in the region -- originally Hindus -- had converted to Islam at the time of the Delhi Sultanate that ruled South Asia for 320 years (1206–1526).
The inhabitants are referred to as Meo Muslims, who till recently had been sharing many beliefs and practices with Hindus.
“Meo Muslims had retained the social organization of the Hindu castes like Jats, Ahirs and Rajputs of this region until now, even intermarriage between the Muslim Meos and the Hindu communities from which they were converted, existed till early last century,” says the think-tank.
But a non-political global missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat launched by Maulana Mohammad Ismail and his son Maulana Muhammad Illyas set up centers in the region in 1926 to induce basic Islamic teachings, introducing people to Namaz and memorizing verses of the Holy Quran.
Soon Meo children began to receive free Islamic education in a Madrassa in Nizamuddin area of capital New Delhi, and these children went back to Mewat to teach rituals. The area may be reeling under backwardness, but it provides imams and muezzins to almost majority of mosques in city of Delhi, Haryana and even far off places in Rajasthan as well.