Shabina is from Uttar Pradesh, Khatoon Sheikh comes from Maharashtra, Naghma Nadaf has roots in Karnataka, Safia Akhtar hails from Madhya Pradesh and Rashida Bano belongs to Gujarat. Coming from different parts of India, these women are all members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). What binds them together, besides their religion and the BMMA, is a passion to empower their community and bring it into the mainstream. And, of late, they have acquired yet another common bond - they have all learnt how to effectively use the Right to Information (RTI) Act to procure data on the progress of minority welfare schemes.
The BMMA, which was initiated three years ago, is not a registered body but a mass movement of Muslim women, with 20,000 members and units spread across 15 states. It's chief objective is to build a women-led people's movement that looks into the social, economic, political, civil, legal and religious rights of all Muslim women, besides issues of safety and security. The organisation also works with other secular groups. While 70 per cent of its members are Muslim women, the rest comprise men and non-Muslims who support their cause. On an average, the BMMA members come from the lower strata of society. Women like Lucknow-based Shehnaz, 48, whose husband is a rickshaw-puller and a drug addict, form the backbone of the movement. Thanks to the BMMA's empowerment efforts, a mother-of-three, Shehnaz has managed to send her two daughters to school, while her son, Shameem, a Class Eight student, works with a children's group in the slum where they stay.
While initially most BMMA members faced a lot of resentment from their husbands, now slowly things are changing. For instance, Shehnaz's husband is proud of the fact that his wife is a respected figure in the area.
From time to time, the BMMA women are offered training sessions for capacity building. One of these was in using the RTI Act and it has yielded extremely positive results. "Our members had been telling us about the great difficulties they faced when they had to go to the field to collect basic data and information on education, health and bank schemes. Everywhere they encountered indifference, disinterest and, on many occasions, hostility, when they asked for exclusive data on Muslims. So we decided to train them on how to use the RTI to gather data whenever they came across a roadblock. The results are very heartening," informs Lucknow-based Naish Hasan, who is in her thirties and spearheads the BMMA initiative along with Naaz Raza.
All the state convenors of the BMMA agree. It came as a surprise to them that while there was a total lack of information among the minority community about government welfare schemes meant for them, many officials were also equally ignorant. Among those who knew about these schemes, the majority appeared to be unwilling to share the information or place it in the public domain. It suited them to keep these initiatives under wraps because it meant less work. Millions of rupees were going back unspent because there were no applications for such welfare schemes.
"We tried to uncover this through a simple RTI application. It worked where every persuasion had failed," reveals Safiya Akhtar, who is in her fifties. According to her, in Madhya Pradesh - a state ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - any attempt to address the welfare of minorities is met with hostility. Safiya, who is from Bhopal, has now been using RTI frequently in the state and quite successfully at that.
Rashida Bano of Gujarat, who is also in her fifties, agrees with Safia. She believes RTI is essential and the only option to activate an indifferent government machinery and goad it into protecting the interests of the minority community. Describing the trauma and anger instilled in the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims after the Godhra riots, Rashida says that so strong is the public alienation and fear that the desire for education has almost disappeared. Under such conditions if people meet with further government apathy, including lack of information on loans and educational scholarships, minority youth will fall even further behind in terms of their own development, she feels.
"Our wounds after 2002 Gujarat riots are still raw. We are Indians, our ancestors have given their blood and sweat for the country and we cannot be treated like second class citizens," says an impassioned Rashida, adding that the RTI has proved to be the most effective tool in handling a biased bureaucracy and politicians.
She, along with her team of 100-odd Ahmedabad-based women - from teenagers to senior citizens - is working towards getting back the identity of Muslims in Gujarat. She reveals that many poor minority members still do not have their Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. Lack of any formal identification - many lost ID cards during the riots - is the common excuse given for excluding people from government initiatives. Rashida says that her BMMA members are now working towards getting ID cards made on the basis of FIRs filed by families who had lost all their belongings in 2002.
Another major complaint that these women had was the denial of bank loans and educational scholarships. "Bank people come to us when they want to us to open accounts, but when it comes to giving us loans they make all kind of lame excuses," says Nishat Hussain, the Rajasthan BMMA state convenor, who is in her forties. "Though there is nothing in writing, there are verbal instructions to bank officials not to give loans to anyone from minority dominated areas. Muslims are projected as 'defaulters' simply because they live in slums and ghettoes and have no voice. Muslim areas are referred to as 'red' or 'negative' zones," adds Hasan.
According to her information sought on the number of loan applications received from minority account holders and the actual number of people to whom loans were sanctioned, gave them an authentic picture.
The Rajinder Sachar Committee report (2006) that had studied the condition of Indian Muslims presented some eye-opening facts. It pointed out that the condition of Muslims is even worse than that of Dalits; and observed that it is shameful that in a secular country like India over 150 million people have been excluded from welfare benefits.
Till now the BMMA has filed at least a dozen RTI petitions with fair results. Naaz Raza, convenor of the BMMA's Uttar Pradesh unit, is of the view that focused and concentrated effort must be made to pull the Muslim community out of the morass in which it finds itself today. She emphasises that this is necessary, not just for the community, but for the country. As she put it, "If India must progress so must its Muslims."