Pray heed this call from Shahjahani masjid

The dark blanket over Agra is withering away in the face of the oncoming dawn. As if on cue, and seemingly oblivious of the December chill, a bearded, well-built 35-year-old man dressed in a navy blue Pathani suit and skull cap settles barefoot on a mat and begins to recite the holy Quran. He is seated in the Shahjahani masjid, in the Taj Mahal complex towards the left of the monument to love, a setting that lends an almost surreal aura to the scene.

Within a couple of minutes, he glances at his wrist watch and places the Quran on a surmounted bracket. Soon he is joined by two men and the three together start offering the Fajr namaz, or the first prayer of the day. The two men take leave after the prayer but he goes on with his recitation for another hour and then starts praying with the rosary. He will be back to repeat this ritual twice in the afternoon before the sun sets. The faithful, visitors as well as workers at the country’s leading tourist attraction, are sure to join him in larger numbers for the next two prayers. After the third prayer, he will collect the skull caps left on the mats by the devotees and call it a day.

Imam Syed Sadiq Ali has followed this routine religiously since 2002, when he took over from his father, Syed Sabiq Ali who performed the duty for 26 long years before him.

Syed Sadiq Ali at Taj Mahal outside Shahjahani mosque

For his services, which take up most of his day every day, Syed Sadiq Ali gets just Rs 15 per month as salary from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which is in charge of the upkeep of the monument.

Rs 15 per month? Isn’t the amount a small fraction of even the minimum daily wage mandated for unskilled workers?

Incredible as it may seem, the ASI has not only neglected to revise the salary but has also refused to pay heed to persistent pleas in this regard.

Syed Sadiq Ali lives in Katra Phulail with his wife, three sons and two brothers in a joint family just a half kilometre from Taj Mahal’s eastern gate. His elder brother, Sajid, is a class IV employee at the monument complex and the younger, Tariq, runs a leather business. Ali himself ran a grocery shop for some time in a bid to make ends meet. However, he had to shut it down because he realised he had no aptitude to recover the dues from his customers who mostly bought things on credit. Being an imam, he could teach the Quran though and so he started offering tuitions at home.

Does he manage to make enough? “Bas kaam chalane jitna ho jaata hai (It is just enough for sustenance)?” says Ali, without offering a figure, but adds that this is supplemented by some help from his brothers.

But why is the ASI paying him just Rs 15 per month? The story goes that when the mosque was built, it was declared that salary of the imam would be equal to the worth of 10 gram of gold. This worked out to Rs 15 when Ali’s father joined the mosque in 1966. “My father told me that the salary used to be Rs 10 earlier, but it was revised to Rs 15 when he took charge,” he says.

But the salary has not been revised since. As per the original formula, Ali should be getting more than Rs 20,000 per month, given the appreciation in the price of gold.

Forget Rs 20,000. Ali is not getting even the equivalent of his 55,000 peers across the country who are paid between Rs 700 (in Orissa, for example) and Rs 5,000 (in Delhi and Haryana) per month by the Waqf Board. Ali’s is a unique case where the imam’s salary is being paid by the ASI, which gets its grants from the central ministry of culture, instead of the Waqf Board.

“This is unbelievable,” says Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, president, All India Imams’ Organisation, “It is a matter of shame. An imam’s duty begins before dawn and ends after dusk, spanning almost 15 hours. How can he sustain himself and his family?”

Gautam Sengupta, director general of the ASI simply shrugs off his responsibility, saying, “This is a very volatile and sensitive issue. I would not like to comment on this.”

Syed Sadique Ali inside Shajahani mosque

Ali says his father had approached the authorities several times asking for a raise. But he was always told that the file was on the move and that he would soon get an increment. Now the powers that be are fobbing the son off on similar pretexts. Ali says almost all ministers and dignitaries who visit the Taj come to know about this issue. Ali himself visited the ASI office in the city several times after taking over as imam. “It was like begging for my due. Lagta hai jaise baksheesh de rahe hain (it appears as if they are giving me a tip),” he says, explaining why he gave up.

Ali says the Waqf Board did not help him either. He says the board members approached him a few years ago and assured him that he would soon be on the board’s payrolls, but that hasn’t happened till date.

A R Siddiqui, former superintending archaeologist of the ASI’s Agra circle, says the issue has been discussed several times over the past three decades. He says he also raised it with the then director general K N Srivastava during his tenure between June 2009 and July 2010. “I wrote to the DG at least thrice. I said that if not more, the imam should be given at least the equivalent of a casual labourer’s salary,” says Siddiqui.

Last August, Syed Munawwar Ali, a resident of Agra filed an application with the ASI headquarters in Delhi under the Right to Information Act. The ASI, however, replied that raising the salary was not in its ambit and that it would write to the ministry concerned for the same.

Siddiqui’s successor, I D Dwivedi, too takes a nonchalant view, “This is not salary. This is just an honorarium that we give out of respect. This is just about continuing a tradition. One should not make an issue out of it.”

While Dwivedi refuses to discuss the attempts made in the past to fix the lapse, Ali admits that he would not have become the imam if he had taken his studies seriously. He says he dropped out of school after class 5 and joined Madrasa Afzal-ul-Uloom close to his house. His father chose him from among the three sons to carry forward the family tradition. “Woh kehta they ye Allah ka kaam hai aur unke baad mujhe ye karna hai (My father said this was God’s work and that I had to do it after him,” says Ali, who belongs to the fourth generation of this family of imams.

Only faith, and a desire to carry on the family tradition, can explain the fact that Ali now wants his son Burhaan, 10, who is studying in class 6 and taking Quran lessons in the evenings, to become the imam after him.

This appeared in Governance Now January 1- 15, 2011 issue

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