Beggary and Muslims

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The data released from the 2011 Census shows that Muslims constitute 25% of India’s 3.7 lakh beggars. That means every fourth beggar in India is a Muslim. Out of the 3.7 lakh people categorized as beggars, 92,760 belong to the Muslim community. Contrast this with the community’s population of 14.23% and it becomes apparent that the number of beggars is disproportionately high. Among Muslims, the percentage of female beggars (56.38%) is more than male beggars (43.61%). This is a sad commentary on the status of the community which gets placed at the bottom of most socio-economic indices. This data also highlights the economic disparities among Indians.

Beggary During Ramzan
The data also throws up another question. How could the Muslim community have such a huge number of beggars when Muslims are enjoined to spend 2.5% of their total wealth accumulated over the year as zakat? It is also considered a good deed for Muslims to spend liberally towards ‘sadaqa’ (optional charity). Quite often we hear the claims that if Muslims start using zakat amount honestly and judiciously, there will be no poor Muslim. Charity done during Ramzan is believed to fetch higher rewards. Therefore, Muslims are more generous during the month of Ramzan. Consequently, there will be swarming of beggars in Muslim areas during Ramzan. These ‘seasonal’ beggars aim at cornering easy money. Beggars migrate to the affluent cities in India such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. They are concentrated more in places where Muslims congregate like the mosques. I am told that there are also cases of international migration to oil rich countries for begging during Ramzan.

Beggary As a Profession
Extreme poverty, unemployment and sickness forces many persons to stretch out their hands for alms. Beggars belong to many categories like the old, the disabled and the destitute. But unfortunately, many beggars fake disabilities depriving the genuine ones of the generosity. They make up stories about hospitalization, need to undergo operation, treatment of a child, marriage of daughter and such other stories. Beggars station themselves at vantage points. The most favourite one is at the gates of a mosque, especially after Friday prayers. We also see them near function halls, shopping centres, bus stops, traffic signals, hospitals, Eidgahs, burial grounds etc. Many of the beggars do not suffer from physical disabilities, but they can turn themselves into a blind man, a paralytic, an epileptic and those with appalling wounds or swollen limbs. All this is done to arouse a feeling of pity and sympathy so that the kindhearted will liberally give some money. A disabled beggar will be often accompanied by an assistant and women beggars often carry an infant in their lap to generate sympathy. Beggars also obtain a letter from a mosque and the same is used to obtain similar letters from other mosques and madrasas testifying to their need and poverty followed by a recommendation to give them charity.

Begging Mafia?
Begging is more of an excuse for the idle and lazy individuals who seek handsome earnings with little effort. Many cases of beggars in possession of sizeable amounts have been reported when they were rounded up by government agencies. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Field Action Project on Homelessness and Destitution, states that only a small number of beggars are part of organized rackets. The involvement of criminal syndicates or organized begging mafia as shown in Hindi films has not been established with proof of evidence. However, the manner in which beggars from other distant places are stationed at different vantage points in a city which is new and strange to them leads to suspicion that it is an organized racket. Huge groups of beggars who are noticed travelling to Bengaluru city in trains before Ramzan cannot be just a coincidence.

Beggars are Citizens Too
Activists for beggar’s rights argue that beggars are a victim of an unbalanced socioeconomic system. They are the poorest of the poor and the most disadvantageous and underprivileged section of the society who are not able to fulfil the basic needs of food, shelter, health and protection for their survival. These really poor beggars deserve our attention. Unfortunately, they have become indistinguishable from the professional beggars who have chosen this as an occupation since it does not involve much physical and mental effort.

Beggars face many health issues because of their unhygienic living conditions and bad habits. A majority of them eat and drink without washing their hands. Most of them suffer from asthma, respiratory diseases, and skin diseases. Studies have shown that beggars are not at all aware of the various poverty alleviation programmes of the government. How many Muslim NGOs are working for the upliftment of the beggars? Caring for the beggars is not just giving a ten rupee note to them. Rehabilitation of beggars with planned, systematic measures is necessary and not just doling out charity.

Anti-Begging Laws
There is no uniform anti-begging law in India. Twenty-two states and union territories in India have anti-begging laws. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 serves as a model for most of these states’ laws. These laws empower local authorities to detain and rehabilitate persons who are found begging in public places. These laws are intended to help and support beggars and not to punish them since they need assistance. Beggars need to be given food, shelter, medical care apart from equipping them with some skills to enable them to eke out a livelihood. The beggary laws in India are generally considered punitive and not curative. The laws have provisions to punish and discourage begging by following a process of arrest, detention, and rehabilitation. It is difficult to assess as to what extent these laws have been successful in reducing the number of beggars. These laws can become effective only if they tackle the underlying factors of poverty, lack of shelter, health problems, abandoned women and children and so on.

Beggary and Islam
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said: “the upper hand is better than the lower hand (i.e., he who gives in charity is better than him who takes it)”. Islam encourages its followers to work for a living and discourages begging. The institution of zakat, if properly channelized, can remove poverty. There have been times in Islamic history when there were no poor people to receive zakat. Zakat should equip a person to eke out his livelihood without seeking help from others. The objective should be to give a fishing net to a hungry man, instead of giving him a fish. A part of the zakat should be institutionalized, and it should be pooled by Baitul Maals. Every mosque should have a Baitul Maal to cater to the needs of the poor and needy persons of the area. Baitul Maals should give priority for financing the education of poor and orphan students who will later become the breadwinners of a family.