Vaniyambadi Muslims in Introspective Mood
Drastic decline in quality of life, education and employment have set the people thinking of changing their ways.
Vaniyambadi is a cultural island in Tamil Nadu. A small community of Urdu-speaking Muslims engaged in leather industry inhabit this town which is almost equidistantly placed on the railway line connecting Chennai and Bangalore. The town nestles between the Javadi and Yellagiri Hills which form part of the eastern ghats. Dry river Palar runs through it.
With a recorded history going back to almost 225 years, Vaniyambadi Muslims cherish their traditions. They are generally pious, mild of nature, almost cent per cent educated and value charity, hospitality and observe great simplicity in their lives. They woke up to the stirrings of modern education very early. The town Muslims who till a century ago spoke Tamil at homes, took a deliberate decision to switch over to Urdu as the medium of education. Today, the town stands linguistically transformed. They set up the Vaniyambadi Muslim Education Society (VMES) and the Islamiah High School in 1903, only five years after the death of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in Aligarh. Islamiah College came up in 1917. Today it is a post-graduate college and has an unparalleled reputation in imparting modern education. In olden days it used to draw Muslim students from smaller towns of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh too. Almost four generations have employed Urdu for all their communication needs. This also allowed them to build bridges with ulema in the North due to which Deobandi influences streamed in. Other sectarian movements too got a foothold.
But times have changed and Vaniyambadi Muslims are feeling the pinch of transformation that is bypassing them. Leather industry is facing crisis and rot has set in the educational system. Both sectors have suffered considerable decline. Urban decay is palpable all around the town. Scanty rains in the area have dried up the ground aquifers and water scarcity has caused a drastic decline in the quality of life. Palar river has not flown for years in a row. Open sewers emit foul smell and the town stinks. Slums have mushroomed around the town. There is a rankling sense of disenchantment among the people who would pine for changes.
Concerned at the stagnant pace of life in the town, a few leading citizens organised a seminar titled ‘To Face the Current Challenges’ on October 1, in Vaniyambadi. The speakers were unanimous that economic liberalisation and consequent changes in education have simply bypassed the town’s Muslims due to lack of foresight and timely action. Urdu medium of education is a clear barrier. Barring those who go over to Chennai for higher education, the students from the local educational institutions do not find avenues in modern institutions due to lack of conversational skills in English and Tamil. Urdu does not take them anywhere in the Tamil primary state of Tamil Nadu. Their skill in Tamil speaking does not rise above colloquial and English remains confined to a few sentences. This robs them off the confidence to face interviews in industry, banks, media and other employment avenues. Though traditions of higher education are three generations old, no student from the town has ever entered the IITs, IIMs, Regional Engineering College (RECs), or other centres of excellence. They even do not think of new courses or professions such as law, journalism, fine arts, designing, advance computing, banking, agriculture, veterinary, chartered accountancy etc. The students lack competitive skills and inbreeding makes them think of merely leather trade or tanning.
Falling educational standard in the VMES run schools has led to mushrooming of English convents which suffer from poor infrastructure and cannot ensure quality education. At the last count, the town had 45 teaching shops which pass themselves off as convents. VMES has almost surrendered the lead it once had in matters of modern education. They could have easily bagged the offer of engineering college. But they didn’t. Former AIADMK member of Parliament Jayamohan set the local Priyadarshini College of Engineering. Similarly, they dilly dallied on the question of coming up with a women’s college. Marwaris from Rajasthan took the first step and came up with a women’s college. VMES followed them with Islamiah Women’s College.
However the construction of the Rs. 4 crore tannery effluent treatment plant, Vanitech, did show a silver lining. The plant was set up when the Union Environment Ministry issued strict directive to take corrective steps to check pollution being caused by the leather tanning industry. But similar concern eludes the people in matters of civic pollution. The sewage is conveniently let out into the Palar river due to which the town stinks high up to heavens. Palar is the lifeline for the region as its bed carries fresh water. A century old bridge on the river in the heart of the town caved in five years ago. It remains in the tumbled state. No effective representation has been made to the Government to restore this key link in the town’s communication.
The civic fathers have been following the narrow-minded policy of not expanding the municipal boundaries of the town to keep pace with the growing civic needs for housing. Muslim League rules the roost in the local municipality. In order to keep its reign intact over the civic body, it has so far successfully evaded the question of taking new areas into civic periphery for fear of Muslim majority turning into a minority and thereby knocking out one of the last bastions of the party. As housing colonies sprawl outside the municipal limits, the town assumes a disorganised look with new colonies lacking roads, water, street lights, sewers etc, all symptoms of slums.
The sprawl of the town towards the south should set off alarm bells for the old guards of Vaniyambadi. If the city fathers sit tight over the old municipal territory, the new-comers to the town may think of setting up New Vaniyambadi where the entire new businesses, industry and modern educational institutions would be concentrated. This will entice even the progressive elements of the old town to migrate to the new town with better civic amenities. This will spell doom for a nice town that everyone adored for its rich traditions. But similar fate has befallen several Muslim dominated towns in the North. Murshidabad was replaced by Berhampore. New Delhi and New Muradabad came up to dump the old and incorrigible old towns. Hyderabad across the Musi River stole the entire limelight after 1948, consigning the old city to poverty and ignominy.
Sewers run open even within the town. Palar banks where the sewage gets collected and awaits once-in-a-blue-moon floods to dislodge the muck, constitutes a breeding ground for pigs, mosquitoes and flies. An average family spends over Rs. 1500 on private supply of water and a similar amount on treatment of diseases that emanate from pollution and other health hazards.
‘Rise and fall of water table in the ground has spelt the rise and downfall of civilizations’, it is said. Water scarcity has not stimulated any collective thinking in Vaniyambadi on finding a long-term solution. The town together with Ambur, is ringed with beautiful hills. Afforestation and rainwater harvesting on the slopes of these hills on three sides could recharge ground aquifers in these twin towns. Perhaps they need to take a lesson or two from experiments of Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddi in Maharashtra and Rajendra Singh in Mewat region of Rajasthan. With long traditions of public service, the Vaniyambadi Muslims could think of these initiatives which will, for sure, lend them the leadership of the entire belt in Vellore district. But no such thought has been spared towards the civic woes.
Economy is still leather–centric. No alternative avenues have emerged. Even leather industry is slipping out of the Muslim tanners as big players have made forays into the sector. Unlike their Ambur counterparts, Vaniyambadi tanners have failed to modernise the industry. Only a single major shoe unit has come up in the town in recent years.
The town’s folk have fallen into the rut of holding onto traditions a bit too jealously. Nearly 500 bullock carts used to be the mode of transport in the town three decades ago. Though they provided purdah facilities for women, they were inconvenient for pregnant women, the old and the sick people. This author had advised them to be replaced by modern means of communication like auto rickshaws in a piece in Indian Express. It required an organised effort whereby the offspring of the owners of the bullock carts could have been trained for the new job and a cooperative could have organised finances, petrol bunks, service garages, auto sheds, spare shop etc. But the proposal was then ridiculed. The bullock carts have been phased out of the town as they lagged behind in the race of the technology. Autos rule the roost. But very few of them have Muslim owners and drivers. None knows where the offspring of the old bullock cart owners are languishing.
The religious leadership of Vaniyambadi is out of sync with times. It constantly stokes the embers of controversy and debates questions like muqallid and ghair-muqallid or eight or twelve rakat of taraweeh prayers. It is oblivious of the greater challenges of the time and technology. Though people follow rituals, they are less observant of the values Islam teaches. The complaint that big businessmen delay and default on payments from suppliers of hides is commonplace and has marred the prospects of young entrepreneurs.
Besides this author, Prof. Mirza Abdul Majeed, former principal of the Islamiah College, Advocate Ameeruddin, Prof. Mazhar Najeeb Khan of Jamal Mohamed College, Trichy, Prof. Jafer Mohammad, Miyan Rasheed Ahmed etc spoke at the seminar. The seminar was organised by a team consisting of Dr. Akbar Kausar, Mr. Malang Hayat Basha, Mr. M. Zubair Ahmed and M. Anwar.