Fighting poverty with Islam in ‘militant-hotbed’ Shopian
An Islam-inspired community support charity is feeding, educating and providing medicine to the needy in the militant-ridden Shopian district in India's far north
In the unruly city center in Shopian, a district swarming with militants in restive Kashmir in India’s far north, thick coats of paint camouflage the graffiti on shops and houses. Locals say young boys lay bare their longing for “freedom” in mutinous words every day. Soldiers erase them swiftly.
But despite obvious conflict, Shopian brims with life and hope. Take the case of Salim Tak, a fruit merchant in his mid-60s who runs Rehmatal-lil-alameen, an Islam-inspired community support charity that feeds, educates and provides medicine to the needy.
“In the olden days, people in Shopian used to keep a bucket outside their house and donated a fistful of rice every day. The mosques kept earthen pots outside their premises, so that passersby could donate something. This is how Shopian ensured no-one slept hungry. But times changed… most people stopped paying Zakat and Ushr,” Tak said.
Zakat is a 2.5% tax on one’s annual savings and Ushr is a tax paid on agricultural land — generally 5% of the produce. Adult practising Muslims are expected to pay both as per Islamic guidelines.
In 2006, Tak and his friends decided to revive Shopian’s “bucket-tradition” and opened the ‘Bala muhalla baitul-mal’, or a house of wealth. They put a bucket outside every house and went door-to-door, exhorting locals to wake up to their Islamic “duty”.
“If people pay zakat and ushr as per Islam’s guidelines, there would not be any deprivation in this world,” Tak said.
“At first, we did not get many donors, but some people agreed to arrange food for patients and their attendants in Shopian’s District Hospital. They brought home-cooked food to the hospital on a rotational basis,” Abdul Qayoom Mangno, a member, said.
As word spread, more people joined them and money poured in. “We had seen their work. I was confident the money would reach the poor. As a Muslim I am bound to pay zakat on my savings, so I came forward to help them,” Mukhtar Ahmed Malik, a donor, said.
Ghulam Hassan Dalal, a retired government employee, said the response from locals, in particular Shopian’s rich apple orchard owners, was tremendous. Donations spiraled from Rs 40,000 in 2006 to Rs 6.3 million in 2016-2017.
The family of Farooq Sofi, a bread-maker who died a few years ago leaving behind a mentally challenged son, two daughters and an ailing wife, said they would have perished without the society. “They give us a monthly ration, they take care of my sister’s education, and also pay for my brother’s and my mother’s medicine. I am getting married in two months. They will be organising my marriage ceremony too,” Sofi’s elder daughter said.
The year 2009 was grim for Shopian. Following the rape and murder of 22-year-old Neelofar Jan and her 17-year-old sister-in-law, people spilled on to the streets in protest. The crime was widely alleged to have been committed by soldiers. The town remained under a curfew-like situation for more than 47 days, reducing small traders and daily wage earners to penury.
“It was a tough time. Small businesses had dried up, and many people did not have anything to eat. We decided to expand our neighborhood baitul-mal across Shopian,” Salim Tak said. The group soon teamed up with a voluntary trust in Srinagar.
“The trust supplied us medicine for the poor. If ambulances were not available, our volunteers arranged private vehicles to ferry patients,” said Mohamamd Yousuf Khan, a retired forest officer who currently chairs the group.
“Two years ago, two children, who had fallen into a water tank, died in the District Hospital, as there was no oxygen supply. After this incident, we decided to buy essential equipment that may come handy in an emergency,” Tak said. The group now has 15 oxygen concentrators.
The Hospital management soon provided them a room in its premises, which the group turned into a multi-speciality clinic. “We bought wheelchairs, trolleys, equipment and oxygen cylinders. One of our boys is always available there for emergency care,” Khan said. In 2011, the group purchased an ambulance which provides a free, round-the-clock service.
Dr Zahoor Malik Ahmad, medical superintendent of District Hospital, Shopian, lauded the group’s work. “They have been instrumental in providing basic amenities to patients. They bear the medical expenses of the poor,” he said. The group provides medicine to 99 families.
Javed Ahmad Shah, 30, said the group assists him with treatment for his 24-year-old wife Shah Jameel, who has an acute renal disorder. Javed is a labourer who earns Rs 400 a day, but with the group’s support he has been able to meet the over Rs 20,000 expenses needed for his wife’s monthly dialysis.
“We will open a dialysis centre in Shopian. It’s going to cost us Rs 50-60 lakh, but we are hopeful we will be able to raise that amount,” Khan said.
Rations and education
Tak said they raise 33 quintal of rice every month from the buckets placed outside local people’s houses. The group sustains 223 families under its flagship project, Food for the Poor.
Donors said the group’s service is humanity-driven and the religion of beneficiaries is irrelevant. Salim Tak said three Hindu Rajput families are given rations every month under their food project.
The society also provides marriage assistance to girls. “In 2017 we organised marriages of 14 girls. Since our inception, we have organised 88 weddings. These are simple marriage ceremonies, though,” Syed Altaf, general secretary of the group, said.
Abdul Qayoom said the society also supports the education of 22 students.
Bisma Gulzar, currently studying at Srinagar’s Agriculture University, thanks to assistance from the group told Asia Times: “The group has been helping me since I was in standard 10. Even today, they bear my tuition fees, hostel fees, and also send me money to pay for my food. When I get a good placement, I will join their charitable work,” she said.
During the devastating floods in Kashmir in September 2014, Tak recalled that the then District Commissioner Bashir Ahmad wrote to him for help. “The government food storage was submerged in water, and the roads leading to Shopian were inundated. Luckily, we had enough stock of rice — around 100 quintals. The DC approached us for help and we were very happy to come forward.” Bashir Ahmad later sent them a written acknowledgement of their good work.
Background checks and verifications are done on anyone looking for assistance from the group. Beneficiary status is also re-evaluated every six months to see if they still need assistance. “In 2017, we stopped assistance to 378 people, after our investigations revealed their financial condition had significantly improved,” Treasurer Nazir Ahmad Bamdey said.
The Jammu and Kashmir government has twice sent them a certificate of appreciation. The group has inspired parallel models in Jam Nagar in Shopian and another one in Khadpora. The society’s 23 executive members do not take any salary.
A donor, retired government official Rafiq Ahmad Tak said: “Every religion has good solutions. Islam says that even if a non-Muslim neighbor’s son sleeps hungry, you cannot call yourself a Muslim. If all of us commit ourselves to social welfare, no one will be in need.”