The people of Taoru have just one demand – “Get us out of Mewat.”

In 2005, when the district of Mewat was carved out of Haryana’s Gurugram and Faridabad, Taoru, a tehsil (administrative area) that now lies on the edge of Gurugram district, was included in Mewat district.

Nearly 15 years later, most residents of the 84 villages and urban areas that comprise Taoru are upset at being separated from Gurugram, the corporate and industrial hub adjoining Delhi.

There are many reasons for this.

“We got good rates for our land when we were in Gurgaon,” said Kartar Singh, 70, a landowning farmer in Taoru, using the old name for Gurugram. “The rate was Rs 2.5 crore per acre then. It has not increased at all, may have even dipped.”

Between drags from the communal hookah, his nephew, Manoj Ahuja, 30, elaborated why that was so.

Mewat’s reputation for being backward and prone to crime means no builder or industrialist wants to invest here. To settle disputes, he said, the residents of Taoru have to go to the district headquarters in Nuh, 17 km away. Even families do not want their daughters or sons to marry into Taoru families.

Mewat district is part of Gurugram parliamentary constituency and votes on May 12 along with the other nine parliamentary constituencies in Haryana.

In 2016, the BJP-led state government changed the name of Gurgaon district to Gurugram and that of Mewat district to Nuh, after its biggest town. But local residents still refer to both by their original names.

One reason for the name change in Mewat district is because it is part of a region of the same name that is a contiguous zone spread over three states – Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The word “Mewat” represents the land of the Meos, a community of Muslims with a distinct culture and language.

The district’s name may have changed, but one thing that has remained constant is its singular backwardness, with successive studies reiterating what its residents already know.

The district as a whole is nearly 80% Muslim and its residents believe its neglect is rooted in prejudice. “This is a Mohammedan belt, so no one cares,” said Bilal Ahmed, member of the village council of Chilla, in Taoru.

The latest 2015-’16 National Family Health Survey shows Mewat district has Haryana’s worst record in practically every parameter. It has the highest percentage of women and children with anaemia and lowest percentage of births that were assisted by a health professional.

A 2015 study by the Gurugram-based non-profit, Sehgal Foundation had found that Mewat was behind other Haryana districts even in education and standard of living. The study was funded by the Centre’s think-tank, Niti Aayog, which included Mewat in its list of “aspirational districts” – backward districts demanding special attention, in 2018.

In its baseline assessment, Mewat was declared the most backward in the country. Plus, the region has gained a reputation for being “a badland” – known for criminal gangs and illegal guns.

In a 2014 state-funded study of regional disparities within Haryana, Mewat and Gurugram occupied opposite ends of the chart on district-wise per capita income – Mewat’s was lowest at Rs 27,791 and Gurugram’s, Rs 3,16,512, per year.

Marginalised district

The National Highway that runs through Gurugram has villages flanking it. Sitting cheek-by-jowl with them are factories, luxury car dealerships and glass-and-chrome multi-storey buildings with whimsical names – Milestone Experion Centre, Park Centra and Orris Floreal Towers.

In Mewat district, however, towns are single streets that are lined with small shops.

Taoru, on the other hand, is a relatively prosperous tehsil – a warehouse for an online retail company was set up here in 2015. It is also the only tehsil in Mewat district with a sizeable Hindu population.

Naturally, Taoru residents would rather be associated with Gurugram. “To be included in Gurugram is our only demand and the only issue that influences our vote,” said Ahuja.

But for other residents of Mewat, being yoked with Singapore-lite has exacerbated the Mewatis’ sense of marginalisation.

“They [candidates] come here to ask for votes and don’t show their face even after winning,” said Mohammad Aslam, former sarpanch of Bisru, a large village in Mewat’s Punhana tehsil.

The Sehgal Foundation’s study found that even within Mewat district, Punhana and Ferozepur Jhirka tehsils are worse off than Taoru and Nuh tehsils.

The Gurugram Lok Sabha seat is held by Rao Inderjit Singh who has been its MP since 2009 – first as part of the Congress, and from 2014, as part of the BJP. He was not able to delink Taoru from Mewat district, but Ahuja and Singh have their hopes pinned on him again.

The Meo Muslims, however, appear to support Congress’s Ajay Singh Yadav who was power and environment minister in the previous state government.

Mohammad Bilal in Taoru. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Hoping for change

Mewat district’s backwardness – which it shares with the rest of Mewat region – is puzzling. Geography is not against it. In fact, it shares borders with the prosperous districts of Gurugram and Faridabad and most of the district lies within 100 km from Delhi.

Yet, its villages have the air of a region left behind. “No train comes to Mewat,” said Shekhawat Nasib, 35, an employee with a non-profit who lives in Bisru. “There are elderly people here who have never seen one.”

Despite the sluggish pace of change, its residents are not too discouraged to vote.

“I vote with the hope that a wise man will come to power and bring change, but nothing happens,” said Aas Mohammad, 48, owner of a grocery store in Bisru.

He is echoed by the Bisru elders who gather at Mohammad Umar’s “tea-and-Pepsi” stall every morning. They vote dutifully but know they will not see their MP till the next election, no matter which party wins, said Umar.

Rao Inderjit Singh has not come to see them, they claimed. “We keep expecting the next one [MP] to think about us,” added Umar, who said he is in his early fifties.

In the gathering of over a dozen Bisru residents, only former sarpanch Aslam knew when he was born – 1976. “You won’t find two men here who can be sure of their age,” he said.

The carelessness about documenting births and the fact that many families in this district have eight to ten children are just two local indicators pointing to a deficit in education.

Educational backwardness

Traditional farmers with large families, Punhana men would drop out after matriculation (Class 10) or earlier still. Just about 56% of the district’s population is literate as compared to the national average of 74%.

Since 1986, the Nuh-based government body, Mewat Development Agency has run eight English-medium schools. But this is not enough.

The vast majority of residents rely on regular public schools that are staffed with teachers from outside Mewat who are accused of carrying their prejudices into the classroom.

“Most come from Rohtak or Rewari and seem to believe Mohammedans don’t care about education and cannot learn,” said Nasib.

Even in the punishing heat, Bisru’s children wander its lanes during school hours. Private schools are plentiful but “only the very rich” can afford them. As a consequence, children start work and marry early. Boys and girls are married in their mid to late teens with the community treating the law prohibiting child marriage as just a suggestion.

About eight to 10 years ago, said Nasib, as the surrounding districts transformed, Mewatis began demanding better education facilities – better public schools, colleges, a university for the region.

Many from the generation that reached adulthood in the new millennium went to college and discovered how difficult the pursuit of higher studies was.

“There is no university in this area,” said Arafat Hussain, 30, a graduate who now runs a shop where he cuts timber. “The colleges are affiliated to Maharishi Dayanand University in Rohtak.”

In Punhana tehsil, the closest public college is in Nuh, over 30 km away, or Palwal, over 40 km away. Urban Punhana has a private college whose name itself suggests a tenuous contact with higher education – Modish Institute of Polytechnic.

For women, the situation is worse. Most families are reluctant to send their daughters to senior secondary schools (Classes 11 and 12) because they are typically located three to four kilometres away from their villages.

“Not more than four out of 100 girls would have studied till Class 10 or 12 here,” said a 33-year-old owner of a tent business from Taoru’s Chila village. “Plus, Islam says women don’t need to be educated.”

Views differ but the distances are a problem, especially in the absence of public transport.

With the Congress in the state government from 2005 to 2014, Punhana’s urban area was put on the state bus route. With BJP at the helm from 2014, it got a bus stand. But the service is unreliable and there is no other form of transport.

Few women were out in the streets in the three blocks (district sub-divisions) of Mewat that visited, except in urban Nuh, which has autorickshaws.

Nasib’s charity had once considered donating cycles to girl students in Nagina block, but the offer was rebuffed. The measure that improved enrolment of girls in Bihar schools was considered unsafe by Mewat’s residents. Across the three blocks, did not spot a policeman or check-post.

Mohammad Umar's (standing) stall in Bisru, Punhana. Perched, cross-legged on the bench is Mohammad Aslam. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

‘Modi said: ‘Make tea’’

What Mewat has in abundance are tea stalls.

Umar’s tea stall also stocks soft drinks, which are usually lukewarm because his fridge works only for a few hours in a day. Bisru, linked to the power grid in the 1960s, gets electricity in the afternoons and evenings only.

Still, these stalls are where men gather to discuss their troubles. A pervasive concern relevant to the ongoing election is the absence of jobs.

Income from agriculture has diminished. The minimum support prices for wheat and mustard have increased, but so has the cost of inputs such as fertiliser. Even selling their crop is a hassle.

Mohammad Talha deposited his crop of mustard seeds in two lots on April 15 and April 19 at Punhana’s government purchase centre and was still waiting to be paid seven days later. “People coming from afar wait two-three days to deposit their crop,” he said.

Irrigation is a problem too. This part of Haryana is parched – most of its canals are dry and the extensive use of borewells for irrigation has depleted the water table. Women fetch water from afar or families rely on private tankers.

Mewat’s youths want a different future for themselves.

Usman Khan, 32, from Bisru, started a tea stall after working in the fields for some time. “Modi said, ‘Make tea’, so I make tea,” he said sarcastically.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often played up his past as a tea seller. In an interview to a television channel, he had said that a seller of pakodas (fried snacks) is considered employed. Khan mixed up the two, while taking a dig at Modi.

Arafat Hussain, who also has a teaching degree was unable to secure a job in a government school. Private schools pay teachers as little as Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 per month. He gave up looking for a job a few years ago, bought a wood-cutting machine, and set up a shop.

Latif Pradhan, 28, from a Nuh village, is a computer literate graduate, but he remained unemployed until he set up a stone slab dealership.

Some industries have entered Nuh. A soft drink production plant came up in 2016 and a canning factory in 2018. The village of Rojka Meo has an industrial area with some factories. But villagers in Punhana and Nuh complained that these factories do not employ locals, preferring workers from other districts or even states.

But Mewat has one market cornered – that of truck drivers.

“Youths with no education could at least do this – get a license and drive trucks,” said Nasib. Many of them have obtained licenses from other states.

But this came to a stop in 2016, when the state government announced that drivers who had licenses from other states would have to get new ones from Haryana and they must have passed Class 10 to qualify.

This rule put several drivers in a spot, with many being unable to get new ones or renew old ones because they do not have the required documents.

In between tea-seller Usman Khan (Left) and Arafat Hussain (Right), is electrician Tahir Hussain. He had fixed the motor of a fan in Bisru but had to go to Punhana town about 4 km away to test it because the village receives electricity only for a few hours every day. (Credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

Representing Mewat

The new licence rules have become the single issue on which Ramesh Chand, retired office superintendent of the Haryana police is contesting.

Chand, from Nuh’s Valmiki Mohalla, has been given a ticket from the Bahujan Mukti Party. He was the party’s back-up candidate. The party had originally picked his daughter, Rachna, but her nomination was cancelled forcing Chand, 67, to step up.

The party, representing backward communities, was established in December 2012. Contesting for the first time to highlight the problems of an estimated 40,000 drivers, Chand is one of just three candidates from Mewat in the fray for the Gurugram seat. The remaining contestants are from other districts or other states.

The two other Mewatis are Shiv Sena’s Pawan Kumar from Hassanpur in Taoru, and Mehmood Khan from Nai Nagla village of Ferozpur Jhirka, contesting for the Aam Aadmi Party-Jannayak Janata Party combine.

Till 2018, the state party Indian National Lok Dal, was a major force. Led by the Chautala family from the powerful and prosperous farming community of Jats, it either ruled the state or was the main Opposition. A feud within the Chautala clan led to a split and the formation of the breakaway group – Jannayak Janata Party – in December.

In 2014, the Lok Dal had fielded Zakir Hussain, belonging to a family of significant political standing among Meos, for the Gurugram parliamentary seat. In Hussain, the Meos had a candidate they identified with. Despite mopping up the bulk of the Mewati vote, Hussain lost. He now represents Nuh in the state Assembly.

This time, the waters are muddier. For one, there is no Mewati contestant of Hussain’s political pedigree in the fray – a situation that has pleased the local branch of the BJP. It has won over some village leaders and influential Muslims but, as BJP worker from the party’s Nuh office, Manoj Yadav, said: “There is no one from here this time, that is the main point.”

This lack of representation for Nuh bothers its voters. “No Meo can become MP,” said Aslam. “The community’s vote has been divided between Gurugram and Faridabad. And the MP only focuses on Gurugram or his own place [in Singh’s case, Rewari]. So we vote for whoever looks all right but don’t expect anything.”

Fauj Khan, 52, from Ferozpur Namak village in Nuh agreed. “The sansad [or MP] has always stayed away,” he said. “Our people don’t go to Gurugram either. Everyone has the impression that there is no point.”

The Aam Aadmi Party-Jannayak Janata Party candidate, Mehmood Khan, 64, is from Nuh. He grew up in Nai Nangla and still votes there. But he also studied at the premier Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and held a top position in a multinational corporation. With a sustainable farm in Haryana’s Beriabas village in Ferozpur Jhirka tehsil, and homes in England and Mongolia, he straddles the Gurugram-Mewat divide with greater ease than any other candidate, and his campaign is based on bridging that gap.

“I am taking an inclusive approach in which Gurugram is a growth engine, and Rewari and Mewat serve as feeders of talent, food and other resources,” he said. “Both must prosper together.”

But Khan is barely known in Punhana or Nuh or Taoru.

Mohammad Aslam holds out the receipt Mohammad Talha received when he deposited his mustard crop at the government purchase centre. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

‘Only Congress, BJP left’

Rather than seeing new options emerge, Mewatis see the erasure of old ones. “Nothing is left of INLD [Indian National Lok Dal] so now it is between Congress and BJP,” said Nasib, a remark echoed by voters across villages in the district.

Many Mewatis do not see much difference between Congress and BJP. “No one has any vision for Mewat,” said Bilal. Yet, the vast majority of them lean towards the Congress and its candidate, Ajay Singh Yadav who, like Rao Inderjit Singh, is from Rewari.

The district has seen some change over the years. New roads and expressways planned under the previous Congress government are finally operational. A medical college opened in Nuh in 2013.

Although villagers allege patchy implementation of Union government schemes, such schemes have replaced earthen stoves with gas ones in some households, brought toilets to some, given some farmers the Rs 2,000 of Rs 6,000 from the new scheme. Roads in Taoru now have lights.

The state government has made the government recruitment system more transparent so villagers from Nuh and Punhana have landed jobs in various departments. For this reason, Fauj Khan said, at least some Muslims of his village support the BJP.

But all the goodwill thus garnered has been squandered by the BJP’s Hindutva politics and tacit support for gau rakshaks, self-appointed cow protectors who have harassed and attacked farmers moving cattle within the region.

The most prominent of these attacks was the 2017 murder of Pehlu Khan, a Nuh dairy farmer, at the hands of a Hindu gau rakshak mob in Alwar, 100 km away.

“Don’t even ask about gaurakshaks,” said Zakir Hussain from Ranyala Khurd, a village in the Mewat region that is part of Haryana’s Palwal district, and comes under Faridabad Lok Sabha constituency. “We heard people were stopped on the way and made to say ‘Jai Sri Ram’.”

Zakir Hussain has stopped keeping cows altogether. “They [BJP] want us to remain slaves,” he added. Hussain was also outraged that the BJP had given Pragya Thakur – who is facing terror charges – a ticket to contest the elections.

Just 2% to 3% of Ranyala Khurd’s residents are Hindu. One of them, Ram Prasad, 60, said “they will vote with the village”, that is, for the Congress.

Villagers from Ranyala Khurd in Haryana's Palwal district watch Congress president Rahul Gandhi speak at Samastipur, Bihar, at yet another tea stall. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Most Hindus this correspondent met in Mewat district also supported the BJP unequivocally.

Bisru resident Sanjay Sharma was one of them. He did not get a job after training at an Industrial Training Institute but believes the BJP has helped society. “The government gave money for building our dharamshala [a rest-house, in this case for Hindus],” he said.

Dayachand, 55, had to close his snacks shop for a while in 2016 when demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes reduced his income so much that running it was no longer feasible. But he said he will vote for BJP because “Modi is a good man”.

More than the BJP, Manoj Ahuja from Taoru said, people are voting for Modi. “The king should be good, that’s all,” he said.