“Walaiy bobai’y traavi niyaazah,” pleaded Anisur Rahman, in flawless Kashmiri, as he sat on the steps leading to the shrine of Hazrat Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom in Srinagar’s Old City. “Come, mother, show some generosity.”
Nearly every morning, Rahman, 50, leaves his rented room in the Old City and makes his way to the shrine. He gets by on alms from devotees who throng the shrine every day. “I have been sitting here each day for 10 years now,” he said. “No one who visits the shrine returns empty handed. People in Kashmir are generous.”
Rahman, who is from West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, was once a lantern maker. In 1983, he lost one of his legs in a train accident. While the accident made it hard for him to move, he continued his work making lanterns until Chinese lanterns started flooding the Indian market.
“I first came to Kashmir in 2008 and began collecting human hair to sell,” he said. “But a non-local dealer duped me of Rs 20,000 and that is how I took up begging.” India has a lucrative trade processing and selling human hair to world markets.
Shahnaz Begum, originally from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, also sits at the shrine. Unlike Rahman, who only takes alms in cash, Begum accepts rice and other items distributed by the devotees as well.
The last four years in Kashmir have ensured a steady income for Begum’s family. But the last two weeks have been full of anxiety. “I keep an eye out for police,” she said. “I heard they have been arresting beggars the last eight or 10 days.”
On April 24, the Srinagar district administration, invoking the Jammu and Kashmir Prevention of Beggary Act of 1960, directed the immediate “arrest of persons found soliciting alms at public places”.
The 1960 law criminalises begging. It empowers the police, or any person authorised by the district magistrate, to make arrests without a warrant. Those liable to arrest include anyone displaying “injury, deformity or disease” in order to get alms as well as those “having no visible means of subsistence and wandering about or remaining in any public place”.
The government order comes at a time when the law has been challenged in the state’s High Court.
A police sweep
Since April 24, the authorities have “lifted” beggars from over a dozen locations in Srinagar district. “We have sent non-local beggars back to their native places,” said Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, deputy commissioner Srinagar. “About the local beggars, we have directed officials to compile data on those who need any assistance or rehabilitation. The administration will take care of them.”
A senior police officer in Srinagar said since the state has few beggars’ homes, local beggars taken away by the police are mostly dropped near the district’s borders and asked not to return.
‘Emphasis on charity’
A large number of those seeking alms at shrines, hospitals and traffic junctions are from outside the Kashmir Valley.
“A majority of the beggars in Kashmir are non-locals,” explained Rubina Iqbal, who teaches at Kashmir University’s law department and examined the socio-legal dimensions of beggary in Kashmir for her PhD. “And there are two basic reasons behind this. First, the economic condition of people in Kashmir is better than that of their native places. Second, Kashmiri people are very religious-minded. Islam lays special emphasis on charity. People believe by giving alms, their sins will be forgiven and it will help them in the afterlife.”
According to Iqbal, social networks have helped increase the number of beggars from outside the Valley. “If a beggar came to Kashmir one year, the next year he brought three more along with him as it is easier to make money in Kashmir,” she said.
That is how Begum found herself in Kashmir. “We don’t own any land and we were living in a slum on government land in Uttar Pradesh,” she said. “In 2015, some of our people who had been here told us to come with them as there is good money here.”
Nisar Ali, an economist who served on the board of the state finance commission, believes that non-local beggars reach Kashmir through “organised networks” with “contractors” who have a “sound knowledge of the local geography”.
‘No one knows what we do’
For many non-local beggars, the Valley’s distance from their hometowns offers a welcome anonymity and freedom from social stigma, especially when they go home for the winter. Many in their families are trying to find other means of livelihood, though the alms are a vital lifeline.
In Begum’s family, only she and her paralysed husband beg for alms. Her three sons are training to become car mechanics. Her daughter is enrolled in a government school. “We have rented a room in Sheikh Mohalla in Nowhatta,” she said. “Every day, my husband and I make around Rs 300-Rs 400. That takes care of our needs.”
The family also saves enough to live on when they move back to their home state. “In winter, we return to Uttar Pradesh as we cannot bear the cold,” Begum said. “There is no work for us there. So we spend what we have saved here.”
She worries the crackdown could mean word of their occupation will reach their homes. “I am not worried about landing in jail but what if our photo goes viral on the net and our relatives come to know what we are doing here? It will be a problem then,” Begum said.
Rahman also makes enough to feed his family of five and pay for his four children’s education. “I live alone here and the rest of my family is in Bengal,” he said. “People here distribute food as well so I don’t have to cook. I make Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 every month. I head back home in December and return in April.”
Only his wife knows what he does to make money, Rahman said. “My children go to school,” he said. “They will feel bad. They think I’m doing some job here.” One of his three daughters is a first year Bachelor of Arts student.
‘Have you come here to die?’
Sometimes, wives and husbands of labourers from outside Kashmir go out to ask for alms. Take Geeta and her six-year-old daughter Aarti, originally from Ajmer in Rajasthan. Every afternoon, they spend hours at a traffic signal on the Srinagar-Baramulla highway. Geeta’s husband, Narayan, sells brooms. The family of four lives in one of the many makeshift huts near the Nowgam railway station.
“Nobody gives us work back home and it is too hot there,” said Geeta, who first came to Kashmir in 2017. “Here we are able to make Rs 100-150 every day to help with our daily expenses. If I get work here I will work too but there is hardly any work.”
Their daily routine is sometimes disrupted by violence arising from the conflict in Kashmir. “Whenever there is stone pelting or curfew, we stay indoors,” said Geeta. “Sometimes, the locals ask us: yahan kya marne aaya ho, kya?” Have you come here to die?
But the weather, rather than the conflict, may eventually force them home.“This year, it is still cold and we are thinking of leaving soon,” Geeta said.
In 2018, advocate Suhail Rashid Bhat filed a public interest litigation in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, asking for the beggary law to be scrapped on the grounds that it violated the fundamental rights of a citizen. The petition was inspired by the Delhi High court’s 2018 ruling decriminalising begging.
Another petition seeking annulment of the beggary Act, the Jammu and Kashmir Prevention of Beggary Rules, 1964, as well as the clause regarding beggary in the Indian Railway Act was filed in the High Court in February by the activist Sudesh Langeh.
“Our state is a welfare state. When somebody begs, it is the failure of the state,” said Bhat, a lawyer at the High Court. “What the J&K Beggary Act does is it criminalises begging. So, essentially, the state is criminalising a person for its own failure.”
As Bhat pointed out, the existing legislation “deems beggars not to be ‘good citizens’, empowers the police to arrest an individual without a warrant, gives magistrates the power to commit them to a sick home, beggar’s home or children home for up to three years on the commission of the first ‘offence’, and up to 10 years upon the second ‘offence’”.
The Act, according to Bhat, envisions “public places as exclusionary, closed off to those who look poor. It is a sanitised vision of the public sphere, built upon keeping out the undesirables, those who ‘are not like us’”.
In March, the High Court reserved its judgement on Bhat’s petition. In Langeh’s petition, the court has sought objections from different government departments. “Every department has filed their objections except the railway department. The court has now called for railway department to appear before it in person,” said Aparajita Jamwal, Langeh’s legal counsel.
Bhat believes the state needs to change the “definition” of begging. “On the lines of Delhi High court’s ruling, the state should come up with an appropriate legislation to deal with the inflow of migrant beggars,” he said. “As far as local beggars are concerned, the state has no infrastructure to provide them with the facilities they should have. First, there needs to be a census of these people. Then, government should frame some assistance mechanism for them. They are not to be treated like criminals.”
Lack of state support
But the government has no data on the number of beggars in the state. While the existing state legislation has provisions for rehabilitating and sheltering beggars, there is very little infrastructure to do so.
According to Rukhsana Gani, director general of the social welfare department, there is only one beggars’ home in the Valley. “It has the capacity to house 25 inmates,” she said. “Currently, no one is enrolled there.”
On May 9, though, the Srinagar district administration established “composite shelter homes for the destitute and those having to beg for alms for sustenance”. “The shelter homes have been set up at Pantha Chowk and Brein Nishat,” the administration said in a press release. “Buildings have been identified and will be equipped with all basic facilities.”
The lack of data makes it harder to aid beggars, Gani said. “We do not have any statistics about the beggars so it’s hard to put them in specific categories and give them benefits under various schemes of the government,” she said.
The state also has no mechanism to track the number of migrant beggars. “We can’t keep track of every migrant entering the state,” said Choudhary. “This is a pan-Indian phenomenon where every city has beggars in large numbers from outside. We have to discourage it here. I personally feel it is a social issue. The public and government agencies have to work together.”