A tale of two cities: In Ajmer, literacy plays critical role in vaccine acceptance

A tale of two cities: In Ajmer, literacy plays critical role in vaccine acceptance

A tale of two cities: In Ajmer, literacy plays critical role in vaccine acceptance

Even as residents with better awareness throng vaccination centres, rumours are scaring away people in conservative areas from taking the ‘death jab'.

Ajmer: That poor or lack of education makes people gullible to rumours is evident from the difference in approach between the people in two neighbouring Muslim-dominated areas in Ajmer, Rajasthan towards the vaccination drives launched by the government to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The Taragarh area, the location of the ruins of an 8th Century fort, is a tourist hub and home to around 2,500 people. However, only 49 persons (about 2%) turned up to take the vaccination against coronavirus despite much persuasion by the local administration and religious leaders. The reason: A note in Urdu going around that said that whoever took the vaccine shots would die within two years.

In sharp contrast is the scenario in the Dargah area, which is situated at the foothills of Taragarh, and is home to a population of around 55,000 people. Here, 12,785 people (around 23% of the population) took the vaccine during the first drive, and more people are thronging the vaccination centres at Anderkot and JLN Hospital every day.

Failed campaign

After several cases of people showing symptoms such as fever and cough were reported from Taragarh in April and May, the local administration launched a campaign in the locality to spread awareness about the spread of COVID-19 and persuade people to take vaccination against the virus. Municipal Corporator Shahjahan Bibi coordinated the vaccination camp held in Taragarh on May 31 with the help of the dargah committee of Meera Saheb.

“After around 400 persons registered their names for the vaccination by the third week of May, we had requested the Block Level Officer (BLO) to conduct a camp on May 31. But, only 49 people turned up for vaccination,” said Haji Mohammad Yunus, a member of the dargah committee. “The people were scared off by the rumour and refused to take the vaccine,” said Wahid Khan, another member of the committee.

“The main reason for this aversion to vaccination is the lack of education and awareness which is making the people vulnerable to rumours and superstitions,” said Sayed Rab Nawaz, a retired forest officer living in Taragarh.

(Inset) The densely populated Taragarh area, situated by the historic 8th Century hilltop fort (Picture courtesy: Kshitiz Gaur)

After the vaccination drive failed, Shahjahan Bibi has started a fresh campaign to spread awareness about the benefits of vaccination. “We are going door to door, asking people not to pay heed to rumours. We are urging them to take the vaccine,” Bibi said.

Meanwhile, in Dargah 

On the contrary, the people of the Dargah area showed more awareness about the pandemic. “We have banned all public gatherings and even closed the dargah of Khwaja Garib Nawaz Chisty. We are now urging all people to take the vaccine,” said Sayed Nadeem Ghani Chisty, a Khadim (priest) in Ajmer Dargah.

At the Anderkot vaccination centre, 12,785 people took vaccination on May 31 alone. The residents who could not receive the vaccine from here are now thronging other centres in the city. “People in Amderkot, Dargah Bazaar and Nallah Bazaar areas are better educated and understand the importance of vaccination,” said Daniyal Chisty, another khadim of Ajmer Dargah.

The Ajmer Dargah, the shrine of Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty, is known for educating people about communal harmony, brotherhood and social ethics. During the first wave of coronavirus last year, several COVID-19 deaths were reported in the densely populated Dargah Bazaar area, and a few prominent khadims were among the casualties. However this year, thanks to stricter compliance to the guidelines, the situation is better.

The dewan of the Ajmer Dargah is making regular appeals to people to strictly follow the guidelines of social distancing and offer prayers at home. “We understand the importance of social distancing. Even during Eid, the people here chose to stay at home to avoid gathering in a crowd,” said Mohammad Ali, a resident of Patti Katla. 

The dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty remained closed after lockdown was imposed mid-April (Picture courtesy: Kshitiz Gaur)

Contrast in education levels

At the time of the 2011 Census, Taragarh, which is situated on the hilltop at a height of 800 feet, had only one senior higher secondary school. The literacy rate in the area was 65%.  Despite rapid growth in population and the government upgrading the school in 2015, the enrolment numbers are low. The livelihood of the people of Taragarh, the majority of whom belong to the Shia community, is mainly dependent on the visitors to the dargah of Meera Saheb. Many of the elders serve as priests in the dargah. Most of the youth in this area drop out of school at an early stage. Some of them practise priesthood while most others either operate taxis or run shops in the foothills. A resident, Amanna Bano (52), said many youths of Taragarh earn money by ferrying devotees from the dargah of Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti to the dargah of Meera Saheb in their taxis.

Sayeed Usman (45), another resident of Taragarh, said people of the locality were quite conservative and followed traditions and scriptures strictly. They lived in a close group and start working at an early age. Rumours, such as the one that triggered fear about vaccinations, were usually circulated first in religious groups and hence, the people believe them blindly, he said.

Unlike Taragarh, the Dargah area is home to Sunni Muslims and the area is located closer to the main city. Here, most of the families encourage their youths to pursue higher education and become advocates, doctors or school teachers. A large number of residents are also engaged in restaurant or handicraft businesses. The literacy rate in this area, which was 69% at the time of the 2011 Census, is now much higher.

Bilal Chisti of Khadim Mohalla said his mother was a teacher at a missionary school and his sister had completed post-graduation. Even though many people in the area practised priesthood, they gave importance to educating the youth as it was a key criterion in deciding marriage alliances. Because of the higher levels of education and awareness, people of Dargah area did not fall for rumours and strictly followed the guidelines issued by the government regarding vaccination, he said.

Doctor Ramlal Choudhary, the district in-charge of vaccinations, also said that the women in the Dargah area came out in good number for vaccination drives such as pulse polio, and such campaigns usually had 100% results in this area.

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