Kishanganj: They are Indian by birth, living here for generations, have passports issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), can buy land here, educate their children without any obstacle but they cannot vote. Why so? Because they are considered Iranians. Their ancestors had come to India from Iran in the 16th century. Even the small pocket of land they live on in Motibagh Karbala in Kishanganj is called Irani Basti.
Ghulam Asghar was excited at the prospect of taking part in the electoral process when he turned 18. But to his surprise, his name was not included in the electoral roll. He was told that he was an Iranian, not an Indian.
“I was born and brought up here. My father and grandfather were also born here. I completed schooling and graduation from Kishanganj. I have driving license, PAN card, UID (Aadhaar) card and even Indian passport to travel abroad. Still, I am not an Indian,” said Asghar, a member of the miniscule minority group of around 1,000. Over 700 are beyond the minimum voting age.
However in Asghar’s case, although his father and grandfather were born here, their ancestors had come to India in early 19th century before Mughal rule ended.This splinter group entered Kishanganj around 1813. They were traders and used to sell horses at fairs, festivals and to rich landlords. Some of them stayed back in India forming small pockets in various states. Most of them bought land and are now settled here.
The community terms the denial of voting right to them a conspiracy by local politicians and administration.
“Our names were registered in the electoral rolls of ward number 5 and 7 till 2005. But it was deleted in the revision before 2009 Lok Sabha elections. We approached the district magistrate and local electoral office to rectify the problem. We provided them with necessary documents such as voters’ identity card issued by the Election Commission of India, property ownership documents and ration cards but they did not get convinced,” said 65-year-old Sher Khan, head of the Irani Basti, adding that “it’s an irony that despite being an Indian, we are deprived of our fundamental right to vote”.
Asked about the conspiracy he was talking about, another resident Janu Ali, 54, who was accompanied by Shah, said the local politicians and administration are hatching conspiracy against them. “They do not want us to be here because we speak Persian, have different culture and physical feature and belong to a certain community,” he said.
He added that attempts were made last year to implicate them in terror cases but they got clean chit after the Kishanganj police and other security agencies probed the allegations.
The district administration could not be reached for a response.
Most of the Iranis are Shiites. They are tall and well-built with prominent straight nose and fair in complexion. Irani women still wear lehengas and kurtas. There is no special clothing for the men. They speak Persian mixed with Hindi and Urdu. There has been many changes in the language according to the local influence.
Their women traditionally stay at home but men spend months away from home because of their business engagements. They prefer to marry within their community. Notably, Iranian boys can take wives from outside but the girls are married within the community. If a girl marries outside, she is ex-communicated from the community.
There is no dowry system. Boy usually gives Rs 5,001 or Rs 10,001 to the girls as mehar after nikah. A proposal goes from the boy’s family to the girl’s house and after deciding among themselves, the families approach the sardar (the head of the community) for deciding the money. After holding discussions with both the sides, the sardar settles the proposal.
The sardar enjoys high regards in the society. He takes all the decisions and settle disputes. The headship is hereditary transferred from generation to generation. The boys are given preference over the girls but girls are respected in the community. The education level is low as only percent of the boys are educated upto matric. The girls are not educated. Only 10-15 girls in the entire community have studied upto class 6-7. The girls stay indoors and do household work and some of them have undergone religious education. However, there is no purdah system and girls are allowed to go out.
The community is by and large isolated and most of the members are poor. It is difficult for most of them to make their both ends meet. Whatever they earn they spend, without bothering for the future. They have large families with on an average 7-8 members. There are no divisions within the community between rich or poor. People celebrate all the festivals and feasts together.
The ancestors of most of the families residing there had come to India from Shiraz, a city in Iran. They were either professional calligraphy pen makers or horse traders. Because of their skills, they got laurels in local courts and were allowed free movement from one place to another. They were also allowed to stay here permanently.
Most of the families in Karbala Chowk live in makeshift bamboo huts with poor amenities. “We are not well-off. We make our living by working as daily wagers. Elections give us some hope for better future. We do not have a school for our children, there is no drinking water in our area and for decades we are living in huts without. But unfortunately, the right to hope for a better tomorrow has also been snatched,” said Haidar Ali (24), who was allegedly told by a government official that ‘tumhara naam nahin chadh sakta, tum bahri ho (you name not be included in the electoral roll because you are an outsider)’.
“We are Indians. It hurts us when people call us an Irani. If we are really Iranians, we should be sent back to Iran,” said his friend Salman Ali.
The fight has now gone to the court. “When the authorities refused to listen anything, we were left with no option but to approach the court to clarify our nationality,” said Salman Ali.
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