In the foothills of the Aravallis 60 kilometres south-west of Gurgaon, sleepy town of Mewat has the knack for hogging the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Its claim to fame, apart from the Islamic preachers (Tablighi Jamaat), is the notorious Mewati gangs — criminals who have been giving police from neighbouring areas, including the national capital region (NCR), sleepless nights.
Before the arrest of suspected al Qaeda operative Abdul Sami from Mewat in January this year, in July 2014 Delhi Police claimed to have arrested a suspected top Lashkar-e-Taiba operative and Mewat resident Abdul Subhan for alleged involvement in influencing youths.
A few months ago, Mohammad Shahid and Qari Rashid, both local Imams and residents of Mewat, were also arrested for alleged terror links. Though none of these three have been convicted so far, concern over Mewat’s ‘terror’ connection was raised.
Notorious Mewati Gangs
Mewat’s crime rate is the lowest in Haryana but nearly 100 gangs are active in the areas bordering the district. Thirty are big gangs whose livelihood depends just on criminal activities.
“Earlier they used to be simple cattle catchers or bike thieves. Now, they have become more organised and indulge not only in robbing trucks on the highways, but also demand ransom from the families after kidnapping the drivers,” said Rajinder Singh, assistant commissioner of police (ACP), operations, (South District) who dealt with Mewati gangs for years.
In some cases, the gang members negotiate with victims after stealing vehicles that they offer to return on half the original cost, he said.
Delhi Police have a list of 150 criminals hailing from this town which they shared with the police in Mewat. The police of Alwar in Rajasthan have also provided names of 95 active Mewati dacoits. Police have arrested more than 600 proclaimed offenders in the last two months.
Clad in jeans and T-shirts, perhaps to hide their rural identity, and armed with stones and firearms, the confident criminals – aged mostly between 16-21 years - can break any police intercept in their way.
At district jail in Bhondsi near Gurgaon, 500 out of 2100 inmates are from Mewat. The number is almost the same in the district jail in neighbouring Faridabad.
“If some police party stops them, they would attack it with stones and firearms,” said Virender Jain, station house officer, Vasant Kunj (South) who was instrumental in arresting an accused in the 2010 Dhaula Kuan gangrape case from Mewat.
Given the violent means the gangs use, cops are extra careful. Some cops fear intercepting them and those who do, face repercussions.
“They become very violent if a police party intercepts them. At times, cops in some remote areas had to seek cover for safe passage,” ACP, Rajinder Singh explained. Another reason for their level of impunity is they use deserted roads termed “chor raaste” by police.
Singh and Jain were investigation officers in Dhaula Kuan gang-rape case in 2010. A crackdown on gangs followed.
With help from intelligence agencies from last September to November, police blacklisted more than 50 people who came from various countries to Mewat as part of Tablighi Jamaat — the global Islamic movement that originated from Mewat’s Jamia Arabia Moin-Ul-Islam madrasa in 1927 and now has a presence in over 150 countries.
Spread over three assembly constituencies - Nuh, Firozpur Jhirka and Punhana on Delhi-Alwar road, Mewat is 75% Muslim — most of them farmers.
Today, Mewat depicts a perfect picture of government negligence, locals say.
A recent government survey revealed Mewat, with a population of 10 lakh, is the least-developed district of Haryana. In standard of living, education and health, the district lags way behind others in Haryana.
With a literacy rate of 56.1%, Mewat is the least-literate district. Of the 1,62,000 students registered in primary schools, 48,000 reached class 8 and only 12,000 passed class 10 last year.
“Part of the problem with Mewat is that there are no proper schools. No teacher wants to go to Mewat. There are not more than 3000 teachers in the district,” said Dr Ram Kishan who was instrumental in sanctioning Mewat’s first women’s college at Salaheri, Nuh.
In 2012, the first year of the college, three girls enrolled which has now increased to 192. Four years down the line, this college remains in a temporary building.
Health services are no better. A district with 44,000 deliveries per year, has no gynaecologist. The last doctor posted at the Al Afia Citizen’s hospital was Dr Poonam Lata who resigned last year.
For farmers, rain is the only source of water and hence there is only one crop per year. Worse, the ground water is saline and there are no canals. Very few farmers have tube-wells.
In absence of livelihood avenues, youth often indulge in petty crimes such as auto lifting. There are incidents of looting trucks and extorting money.
“Due to poverty and lack of employment avenues, people of Mewat are inclined towards crime,” said Choudhary Zakir Hussain, the Indian National Lok Dal MLA of Nuh.
The Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd started setting up industrial units at Roz ka Meo, but that did not fetch results either.
“Here also not many industries want to come because of negative perception about Mewat,” said Dr Kishan who was posted as the principal of Mewat college for two years.
Every government that came to power in Haryana has neglected the region, is the common grudge among people. All the three elected MLA’s of Nuh, Firozpur Jhirka and Punhana, are Muslims. Moreover, two of the MLA’s come from the family that has been in power for three generations.
“Both Congress and BJP have left Mewat neglected. This region is craving for development. Or else people here will be misguided,” says 70-year-old Choudhary Shakrullah Khan
Sense of alienation
Given the disenchantment against the government over keeping the ‘Meos’ — as the locals are known-backward deliberately, coupled with a campaign by orthodox international Islamic preachers in the name of Tablighi Jamaat, the liberal Muslims of the region can be swayed by people with vested interests, many allege.
The palpable fear of being “framed” in false terror cases furthers the sense of alienation among young people who haven’t been exposed to the terrorist ideologies yet, apparently for want of internet and television access.
“They frame people in false terror cases and next day the accused becomes the convicted,” said Iqraar Ahmad, a class 10th student at Choudhary Yaseen High School, expressing hope in God who will “definitely come to the rescue of Muslims in the crisis.”
Interactions with Iqraar and some other young people like him indicate Mewatis may not be heading towards extremism, but this is a topic of concern.
“Mewat is unnecessarily being maligned by vested interests as if we produce terrorists. We have resisted Mughals, British and everyone who tried to rule us. What else should prove our love for the land?” says Sohrab Khan of Khedi Kankar village in Nuh.
Muslims of the region are as vocal about their allegiance to the country as they are critical of extremist ideologies such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
At the Nuh seminary, disenchanted cleric Mohamamd Shakir talks about how people of the area have been living in harmony for all these years and how, according to him, some “bahari taaqate” (foreign agencies) were hell bent on creating unrest in the region.
He says he is confident that Muslims and Islam are safe in India as long as Narendra Modi continues to be the Prime Minister.
“We do not know what ISIS is and who are the people affiliated to al Qaeda. But, unfortunately, we are still linked with them. We love this country. We are not anti nationals. We have nothing to do with Pakistan,” he quips.
(With Inputs from Sohil Sehran)
The bottom line is, it’s an issue of livelihood: B Satheesh Balan, SSP
B Satheesh Balan, a 2004-batch IPS officer, volunteered for a posting in Mewat. Ten months later, Balan tells HT’s Gulam Jeelani the perception about Mewat being a town of criminals is misplaced.
What’s your understanding of Mewat?
Mewat should have been in the news for backwardness and not crime. In the past 67 years, there has not been a single riot here and even during minor riots, there was no casualty. Yes there are criminals in Mewat, but they are in other districts as well. Considering the level of literacy and backwardness, we see less crime here compared to other districts of Haryana.
They may not be indulging in crimes in Mewat, but NCR police is having a tough time in keeping a tab on Mewati gangs.
I don’t believe in maligning people based on the region. To me, using the words Mewati gangs is stereotyping. People of Mewat indulge in crimes because of a lack of livelihood opportunities. And then cow slaughtering and mining —which ran their kitchen — have been banned. They are involved in crime against property, particularly vehicle thefts. Otherwise they are peaceful people.
Has the police of NCR been in touch with you over the issue?
Not as much as they should have. I just got a call from DCP, Delhi and we caught hold of a suspected al Qaeda man from Mewat last month. They
(Delhi Police) need to be more cooperative.
There is a perception Mewati criminals turn violent when intercepted?
Yes they are short-tempered. They have illicit weapons and can even attack police parties. Though it doesn’t justify the crime, we should keep in mind they are extremely backward and neglected. We need to treat them differently. If we do so, they are the best authority-fearing people.
What is the solution then?
As a state we need to look into the motive of crime or the factors that drive them into it. If we don’t do that these people are bound to be attracted towards crime. The bottom line is it is an issue of livelihood.