A Beggar’s Paradise?

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Come Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting, mike-fitted vans and visibly destitute women swarm Srinagar markets and peripheral towns. Most of them turn out to be frauds who befool people. Shams Irfan spent weeks chasing this tribe of professionals who have taken beggary to a new level in Kashmir

One of the collection vans outside Eidghah in Pampore on June 5, 2019.

It is 6 am, and a grey coloured van quickly enters one of the congested by-lanes in Shalteng in Srinagar outskirts. It stops outside a run-down two storey under-construction building, hidden behind an equally derelict row of shops. A few minutes later, two bearded men walk out of the building with a loud-speaker and a microphone in their hands. A third one follows them with banners depicting famous mosques of Makkah and Madina in Saudi Arabia. After carefully covering the rare side of the van with the banner, he walks to the front and places a small poster of a lady on a hospital bed on the windshield. The lady in the picture looks pale and needy. Then he steps back to admire his work.

Neither this building is ordinary nor the van is a simple vehicle usually used to ferry people. From outside, this building looks like an abandoned structure, never been inhabited. There are no windows; just empty spaces covered with torn-out bed-sheets and newspapers. Once inside, it is amazing to see that these 14 small rooms house many families.

In one of the rooms, a father-son duo quickly hides letter pads, receipt books, religious flags and small banners, to greet the unexpected and rare visitors. A few minutes of interactions with these families, which is the closest one can ever get to their mysterious lives, only offers a hint about their secret lives and the scandal they are all part of.

These people are neither ordinary nor real: They are the Tch’phans or chapa’wan-wel which loosely translates in local parlance as someone who mints money. This is the name they have chosen for their profession, as they literally print money without putting much effort. The term Tch’phans is not known to people outside their small but secretive society. It is their secret which they have guarded with life. Or they think so!

But what does Tch’phans actually do for a living?

Mere Aaka Awo

Once the grey van is equipped with loudspeakers, microphone, religious banners, receipt books, picture of a lady patient with cancer or kidney failure, it is showtime for these Tch’phans.

Within half-an-hour of the arriving outside the building, three men in bright khan-suits, wearing long beards finally board the van and drive towards Baramulla. Simultaneously, around 40 such vans get ready for their departure to different corners of the valley. They all are part of a big and sophisticated network of beggars, who swarm Srinagar outskirts during Ramazan, the Muslim month of fasting.

All day, they roam in small villages targeting unsuspecting men and women in the name of collecting money for kidney, heart or other chronic patients. While they mint money, mere aak aawo (come, oh my lord) plays repeatedly on the loudspeaker to attract people’s attention towards the ‘noble cause’!

When Kashmir Life confronted one such van in Pampore, they told the reporter that they are from a Dar-ul-Uloom (religious seminary) located in Lawaypora outskirts. “You can call and check with the patient to see if we are real deal or cheats,” said one of the bearded men who sat at the back of a blue Maruti Van. “Here are her contact details,” he hands over a bundle of hospital prescription with a phone number written on one of them. The other two occupants in the van exchanged glances while he talked. “This lady is from Bandipora and she is suffering from kidney failure. She needs lots of money for treatment. We are collecting money for her on behalf of this Dar-ul-Uloom,” the bearded man tells confidently.

One of the forty vans used for collection during Ramadan parked outside rented accommodation in Shalteng, Srinagar.

A quick call on the said Dar-ul-Uloom’s contact number gets responded by a voice that gives you an impression that you are talking to a teacher. After the necessary greeting, the person thanks to you for calling and helping the patient. He tries to sound like an important person who is doing God’s work selflessly. One cannot miss the hint of self-reverence in his voice as he talks calculatedly about the Dar-ul-Uloom. “I am just a servant. This institution belongs to Allah,” he tells you.

The call on the kidney patient’s number is answered by a soft-spoken woman, who turns out to be actually suffering from kidney failure and in reality, needs money for treatment.

A cross-check call to Bandipora reveals that the lady is telling the truth. But that is the beauty of Tch’phans; they have evolved over the years and found an innovative, risk-free, way of minting money, quite literally.

Partners in Crime

The first time when Tch’phans came to Lawaypora, they took the risk of pretending as noble souls who are dedicating their precious time collecting money for non-existent chronic patients and needy Dar-ul-Ulooms. It did work for the first few years but it was risky. In Shopian, Pulwama and Anantnag, their vehicles were detained by locals who called their bluff. In some cases, they were beaten by locals for befooling them. It was then they decided to change the way they operate.

To do so, they started mapping small Dar-ul-Ulooms who barely had enough funds to sustain and badly needed Ramazan donations to survive. “There are plenty of such religious seminaries in this area,” said Riyaz, a local Imam who has campaigned against Tch’phans staying in his locality.

Tch’phans then approached heads of these small seminaries with the offer that they will help them mobilize funds against a small percentage as fees for their efforts. All they wanted was a few receipt books from the seminaries and a letter of recommendations. Plus ownership of the entire exercise in case they land in any sort of trouble. In exchange, Tch’phans promised them to raise money for their seminaries from across Kashmir. “It was a win-win situation for both of them. Tch’phans needed some sort of backing to look authentic, which these seminaries gave them, and in return, these seminaries needed funds which these modern-day beggars raised for them by fooling people,” said Riyaz.

Under the formula, Tch’phans actually used receipt books of these seminaries whenever they visited an area to collect funds. “But they would often get duplicate receipt books printed as well in case things don’t work out with a seminary,” claimed Riyaz.

As a result, these Tch’phans would go out in villages and towns with confidence and sort of religious backing. “It is the most sophisticated and highly organized form of begging,” said Aziz, an elderly local from Bemina area of Srinagar, who has been following their activities for a few years now. “Irony is if we tell people how they fool them, nobody will believe us. It is too good to be real even,” said Aziz, who used to own a small hardware shop in Shalteng area till two years back.

Despite people hardly raising queries or asking them for proof before handing out money, Tch’phans kept innovating to stay safe and most importantly to double their income.

Before Ramazan, they would travel to small villages and locate a few chronic patients who suffer from known ailments like kidney and heart failure. They promise them to help giving reference to a seminary that they are tied-up with. Then they ask these patients to share their medical reports and other details with them.

“These patients are trained how to respond to queries if someone calls,” said Aziz. “They then use their pictures and medical reports and start collecting money.”

Jamia Masjd in Shalteng where announcment was made urging people not to rent rooms to Tch’phans.

Jamia Masjid in Shalteng where announcement was made urging people not to rent rooms to Tch’phans.

As people donate generously, especially during the month of Ramazan, only a fraction of it reaches the actual and deserving people, as a bulk of it gets swindled by Tch’phans.

This module is still in vogue and is considered to be safe and successful. But as competition grows among Tch’phans, new plans and ways of making money are found and executed.

It was quite a leap for forty-year-old Molvi Umar (name changed), a Tch’phan from Bandipora when he started a small Dar-ul-Uloom on the outskirts of Lawaypora. He became the first person among Tch’phans to own a seminary. This helped Umar legalize the entire process while cutting the dependence on a Dar-ul-Uloom. “He was like, why can’t we have our own Dar-ul-Uloom. What is the big deal,” said Aziz.

This gave Umar and others like him legal cover to collect money in the name of genuine patients and so-called orphans studying in religious institutions. To make it look authentic, he even “borrowed” small kids from his relatives and friends. These kids are promised food and cash against stay at the seminary, especially during Ramazan.

Pretending to do a favourable story on Dar-ul-Ulooms, when this journalist visited this seminary located on the Srinagar outskirts, Molvi Umar and his team got alerted and declined to talk.

“A few days before Ramazan, these people start to come here in small batches of fives and tens,” said Khaliq, who has rented his five rooms to Tch’phans in Shalteng area. “As they pay good rent, I have never asked many questions.”

Against a room which usually fetches Khaliq Rs 2000 from non-local Bihari labourers, he gets paid over Rs 3500 per month from Tch’phans.

Safe Haven

It was almost a decade back that the first batch of around 30 people, including women, children and elderly, came to live in Shalteng, Srinagar during the month of Ramazan. Most of them came from small villages in north Kashmir. A few years later, their relatives from south Kashmir also joined them in Shalteng. Instantly, they realised that the areas are perfect for their profession.

So, in coming years, they used every trick to keep this new location in Srinagar safe and secret for themselves and their kin. To begin with, they always kept a low profile and sought accommodation in squalid buildings, away from public gaze but close to the market.This helped them avoid direct contact with the local population and avoid any suspicion.

Second, being close to Srinagar’s industrial areas, Shalteng remains swarmed by non-local labourers, as it had a number of one-roomed accommodations available for rent. Most of these rooms are located on the first floor, on top of shops and near commercial areas, thus reducing direct contact with landlords.

For almost a decade, these landlords had no idea what these people do or why they always come in Ramazan and stay till Eid-ul-Adha and vanish thereafter. They never bothered to ask as the rent they paid would usually be double the market rate.

“They told me that some relative of theirs is hospitalized in JVC. Since they cannot do up and down daily, they want to take a room on rent,” said Abdullah, who has constructed five rooms on top of his shops in Shalteng. “This reason looked genuine to me. Besides they paid rent in advance and paid more than what non-locals would pay usually.”

For years, locals in Shalteng were struggling to keep a check on growing non-local population in the area and the changes and alleged menaces they brought with them. “A small number of these non-local people are into every kind of business from selling drugs to supplying liquor,” said a local shopkeeper who refused to give his name. “But a majority of them are genuine people who work hard to earn their livelihood by fair means.”

Interestingly, while these non-local labourer consisting painters, masons, carpenters, industrial workers would line Srinagar-Baramulla road, waiting for people to offer them work, Tch’phans had discovered an easy way out to solve their livelihood crisis. And in this endeavour, their entire families are involved including women, children and elderly members.

A rented accommodation covered with clothes to avoid attention .

A rented accommodation covered with clothes to avoid attention.

Interestingly, these women, children or elderly people work independently, without disturbing their male family heads who spend their days in vehicles collecting money in far-off and unsuspecting villages.

But as a rule, these women, children and elderly people get groomed by the male family members only before they actually hit the streets in Srinagar city or towns across Kashmir. This is done to help them pick the traits of the profession and work independently to help add to the family’s income.

Helping other halves?

Wearing almost identical printed Pherans (long cloak for winters) even in summers around 200 women, girls, and children, walk towards main bus stop of Shalteng area. Once there, they spread as per the plan and board buses in different directions. Most of them take buses for Srinagar’s business hub Lal Chowk. After a warm-up kind of shop-to-shop begging exercise, they move deep into affluent localities surrounding Srinagar’s commercial areas.

“If you have noticed all of them carry small bags with them under their Pherans,” said Asif, a shopkeeper in Shalteng locality who is keeping a watch on their activities for the last few years. “It is where they keep an extra pair of clothing which they change into once they are done with day’s work.”

A resident of nearby Lawaypora locality, Asif (name changed) runs a general store in Shalteng. His regular interaction with Tch’phans has made him sort of an expert about their otherwise secretive lives, and their even more secretive profession.

“You cannot recognize these women and girls in the evening when they are back from work. They change into their normal clothes and look like decent people,” said Asif pointing towards two young girls who wait for their turn to buy beef at a butchers shop. To kill time till their turn comes, they busy themselves with their smart-phones. “Can you believe these girls beg during the day at different locations in Srinagar?” asks Asif with a hint of excitement and surprise in his voice. “Look at them! They are wearing fashionable clothes. They don’t look like beggars at all. In fact, they look like college students.”

These two girls were caught red-handed outside Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta by one of Asif’s friends when they were seeking financial help for a young boy accompanying them. These girls claimed the boy was their brother and he suffers from cancer. But when they saw Asif’s friend, who also runs a shop in Shalteng, they ran away from the spot. “We see that boy regularly at the mutton shop. First of all, he is not their brother, and second, he is the healthiest person in entire Shalteng,” said Asif sarcastically.

While Asif tells this reporter about Tch’phans, two well-dressed ladies, who were in their early forties, walk towards a nearby readymade garment shop. “Did you get new collections of ladies suits as I had asked you,” one of them inquires.

A few minutes later, a young girl wearing an expensive-looking purple dress, and a hint of blonde colour in her hair, walks towards the ladies. She greets them with a smile and a wink. All the while, she avoids looking towards Asif’s shop, located on the other side of the road.

After a while, as they move on towards one of their rented accommodation, located half-a-mile down the road, Asif points at the young girl and said: I caught her red-handed myself at the beginning of Ramazan.

Asif was sitting at one of his relative’s house in Shamsabad (Budgam) when a young girl walked in seeking help with tears in her eyes. “She was telling people that she is an orphan who has lost her family and house in a devastating fire in Sopore,” recalls Asif with a smile on his face. “Ironically, everyone believed her story and gave her money without bothering to cross-check her claims.”

But when she saw Asif sitting inside the house, she instantly recognized him as she used to purchase groceries from his shop often. “I cannot tell you how she ran away leaving my relatives confused,” recalls Asif. “For the next one week, I didn’t see her in Shalteng area.”

Not all of them get caught or recognized by people who have seen them as normal humans. Most of them get away on a daily basis despite fooling a large number of smart people who are too busy to confront their lies. But what happens when they get confronted?

Community Backlash!

Before the beginning of Ramazan last year, a special announcement was made in Abu Bakar Masjid warning people not to rent accommodations to people who are into begging. The mosque is located not far from the area where most of the Tch’phans lived in rented rooms.

The Imam (cleric) of the mosque told natives that giving accommodation to outsiders like them will not only bring chaos in the area but can make Shalteng a hub of illegal activities. “You will not be able to control the menace once it gets organized,” he told the bemused worshipers.

The very next day, landlords kicked out around two dozen suspicious tents from their properties. But they didn’t leave the area completely. They shifted a few kilometres away to areas like Umerabad, Mujhgund, and Dangerpora. “Staying close to the city is lucrative for them. They will not leave this place,” said Asif. “The announcement in the mosque only displaced them from its immediate vicinity. They are not uprooted from here at all. After all the huge money is involved.”

To give an idea of the money they make, Asif suggested this reporter wait till 4 pm when Tch’phans come back from their days’ toil to rest in their rented rooms. A little past 4 pm, women, children, young girls, started flooding the small market place in a group of twos and threes. They mostly purchase household items like vegetables, oil, mutton, and chicken. This time they are dressed in different clothes. The ones they use while begging are neatly kept in small bags they carry along.

“Now wait for their vehicles to come back,” tells Asif.

A few minutes later, one after another vans zoom past Asif’s shop. But none of these vehicles carries any banner, loudspeaker or other posters that make them stand out. They are clean. “Watch that white Mahindra Scorpio vehicle. This belongs to the one who runs a seminary somewhere down the road,” claims Asif. His claim couldn’t be verified at the time of filing this story. Then he points towards another luxury vehicle driven by a young bearded man while two others sat inside.

“He is from Bandipora. During winters he migrates to Delhi where he seeks donations to rebuild his house he says was damaged by militants,” claims Asif. “These people go to encounter sites and click pictures in front of the damaged houses and then claim them to be their houses.”

Asif says it is hard to get rid of them completely, as they are backed by people with power and money. “You cannot fight them off as they keep people in authority in good humour.”

Note: Names in the story have been changed on request to protect the identity of the people who helped do this story.

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