When the Jharkhand government denied reports of two starvation deaths within two months it was understandable as they had to–rightly or wrongly–defend their system of delivery mechanism.
But when The Telegraph reported from Lucknow a story about the death due to hunger on Republic Day of Amir Jahan in Moradabad, a place known for brassware industry, it was not any Muslim politician linked to the ruling BJP or any other community leader who refuted the report. And if the government machinery denies it is their duty to do so. Those who ridiculed–yes ridiculed–the report included white-collared Muslims, who have perhaps never interacted with poor–nor do they wish to.
Over 850 km east of Moradabad, that is in Patna, I was witnessed to one such display of brazen denial.
On January 29 afternoon I was standing beside a shop near the gate of the mosque in my locality, as my son was buying something. Seeing me standing there a couple of people coming out from the mosque after offering prayer (Zohar namaz) approached me. As I cannot see, offering his helping hand one of the elderly persons who lives near my house asked: “Why are you standing here?”
“My son is buying something,” I replied.
Then came another gentleman quite familiar to me. He is a retired district judge. After wishing me, he referred to a telephonic talk he had with a common friend, who is a first-class officer posted in Lucknow.
The former judge then said: “Mr So and So from Lucknow rang me up to inform me that a certain woman had died of starvation in UP.
Upon this I said: “I have read the Telegraph report. A common friend of that officer and me who lives in Kolkata had referred this news to us.”
As I finished this sentence the retired judge said: “After hearing the news from Lucknow I rang up my son (a student in the government medical college) to feed at least 30 people. My son called back to inform that he could not find anyone in need of food.”
The judge went on to add that all these are baseless news. He was then backed by the elderly gentleman who had moments earlier approached me. The two then proclaimed that nobody is dying of starvation. Seeing them talking a couple of more persons coming out from the mosque gathered to listen to them.
I cut in to say: “Aap log kis duniya me rah rahe hain” (In which world are you living). Come with me I will take you to at least 50 people in the radius of one kilometre of this place who might not have eaten last night.
Upon this the elderly gentleman said: “They might not have eaten because of their own choice. Even I have not taken my lunch till now…Sab jua khelega aur kahta hai ke bhook se mar rahe hain. (They will indulge in gambling and say that they are starving).”
This was something extremely shocking for me. I told them that you people are mixing up too many things–professional beggars with the real needy ones who seldom beg. After all neither Amir Jahan nor the two who starved to death in Jharkhand were beggars.
Then pointing towards the mosque I said: “You people would get built all the mosques like Taj Mahal. Needs all sorts of carpeting and AC for a few minutes you will be there. (Spending lavishly on decorating mosques is a practice denounced by Prophet Mohammad PBUH, who always preached simplicity). People rebuke those who seek alms. A physically handicapped person had died just outside that house beside the roadside only a few months back,” I told them pointing towards the place.
Yet they were in no mood to accept.
“I then said that the real beggars (not the professional ones) can never enter your apartment as the guards outside would turn him/her out as he (the guard) had to obey the order of Saheb and Mem Saheb. By the way what these private guards get as salary is well known–three thousands or so. He is himself as poor as that beggar.
The retired district judge felt somewhat upset and retorted: “No, we do not pay so less. Even during Eid we collect to give Rs 3,000 extra.”
I replied: “I am not talking about your apartments. Yet he had a reason to clarify as only last December one of the two guards of his apartments had died of cold.”
Any way he defended his position by stating that all these people get ration from PDS and they sell it to poor.
I wondered: what is he saying? These poor would sell the food grains only to starve. Or will they sell them in the market at the rate of Rs 15 or 20 and then would buy at Rs 25 to feed themselves.
Anyway I quoted them The Telegraph version to say that Amir Jahan, the mother of three daughters and wife of ailing rickshaw puller (he was suffering from TB) died in spite of having Aadhaar card but her application for a below-poverty-line card was rejected.
I then asked: “What is the source of your information? I have at least seen the stark reality of the poverty in my days as a journalist (before I lost my eye sight). I have even spent a night in a Dalit hamlet and I could not sleep the whole night.”
The judge then said that his chaprasi (peon) told me that they all get food from PDS. This rendered me speechless.
However, I added that the chaprasi (peon) might have told to please you.
I then said both these gentlemen to be with me and I would show them the real hungry masses–on the streets, in hospitals, in homes etc. They would even feel shy of demanding money, especially if that hapless person is a woman.
Upon this the former district judge took out a Rs 100 note and handed it to me stating that please feed anyone you think who has not eaten today.
Then he added somewhat sarcastically: “You can send him/her to me if you find any. I would feed omelette and ‘roti’ (bread) to him/her.”
“But how can I send him/her to your place your guard will turn him/her away. Aap bhejne se pahle hum ko phone kar dijiye ga. Hum akar gate par receive Karen ge. (You please ring me before sending him/her to me. I will receive him/her at the gate).
Stating so I took hold of my son’s hand only to return home.
Six and a half hours later my youngest son saw a young mother of five hiding her face with a dupatta and meekly begging outside that very mosque. As she is a regular visitor to my home my son recognized her.
He came to home asked for that Rs 100 and rushed to that place to quietly hand the money.
When the next day she came to our house my wife told her that the Rs 100 given to her last night actually belonged to a judge saheb who lives in the vicinity.
This blatant denial of starvation and poverty by sensible, educated and otherwise pious gentlemen baffled me.
Is it that crass consumerism, the display of wealth and power turned us so blind–and may be purblind–to the ground reality.
The truth is that they are not alone:there are millions others on this planet.
(Soroor Ahmed is a freelance journalist.)