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It’s hard to tell if the two pictures are of the same person. One is a passport-size photograph of a teenager sprouting the beginnings of a beard, wearing a skullcap and buttoned-up, mandarin-collared kurta pyjama. The other is of a man with neatly parted hair, short-boxed beard, wearing a brown t-shirt.

In the first, the boy is stiff, his lips tightly locked. In the second picture, the man is confident, with a lopsided smile, and is happily posing for the camera.

The first picture was taken when Mohammad Shamshad Alam was 15 and studying in a madrasa. The second one is his current profile picture on Facebook.

On 13 October this year, Alam, 25 now, received a phone call from a friend informing him that he was in the list of the 15,008 candidates who qualified the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) preliminary examination. On an average, 900,000 candidates apply for IAS preliminary exams, and out of them, almost 0.21% (2,000) are Muslims. Alam is one of less than 4% of Muslims (according to the Sachar Committee report) above the age of 20 who are graduates. Even as the literacy rate among Muslims is lower than the national average and drop-out rates higher, Alam wants to make it big.

Belonging to a financially weak family, Alam started off doing what most in his neighbourhood in north Bihar’s Bhualpur village did. He was given a choice between joining a government school, and a madrasa. He chose the latter. His family was not very religious, but listening to the children sing Na’at-Shareef (exalted poetry praising Prophet Muhammad) on microphones in mosques in the neighbourhood, tempted him. Somehow, singing on the mike seemed like something that would give him power.

“You are talking and the world is listening. You are on the top... holding a device which amplifies your voice. It seemed like a position of power to me," says Alam.

From the age of six to 15, Alam studied in madrasas—first in a madrasa 4km away from his home, then in Bihar’s Siwan district, and later in a city in a different state—almost 500km away.

It was only when he moved to Lucknow that Alam realized that it was fine to dream, despite being poor and not educated, in the conventional sense of the word. Till 2008, he had only received religious education—the alimiya (training to become an alim—the Arabic word for a learned person) programme, and couldn’t even read the English alphabet, let alone speak in the language.

It was around the same time that a cousin studying in Aligarh Muslim University visited Alam and talked about Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).

Alam had never heard about it before. As he was keenly listening to his cousin talk animatedly, a part of his mind kept thinking of opportunities out there that he never even knew existed. And that perhaps one day, he would also talk as confidently as all these youngsters his age did.

But he says he shook himself back to reality. “I realized that at the stage I was in, all I could do was dream. But I also realized that in a country like India, if you want to make it big, you need power, money, and a tag. I had none...but at least, I had and have the passion...the desire to get all these," says Alam.

A 5 ft 7 inches man, with sandpaper stubble and a dusky complexion, Alam keeps running his hands over his face sheepishly, while maintaining a constant half smile. It is clear from his gestures that it hasn’t been long since he parted from his shy,past self. His hands and arms swing, emphasizing points and projecting an appealing vigour.

“People inside madrasas think people away from religion are astray. The outside world thinks people inside the madrasas are fundamentalists...not open to change. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong. But because I have seen both the worlds now, I know there is nothing anyone needs to fear about the other. There is no other. We are all human beings...chasing things we believe in," Alam says.

Lucknow opened a world full of aspirations for Alam. Being in the city where most speak in a civilized tongue, Alam started learning Urdu, but English was still his biggest weakness.

One day, when a relative came to meet him, he asked Alam to write down his home address in English so that he could send a letter to his family. Alam still remembers the kick in the gut, the feeling of helplessness. “I was so embarrassed. You could see the shame on my face," says Alam. But he didn’t want to accept he didn’t know English. It was then that he requested a boy three years older to teach him English and basics of mathematics. He completed his two years in the madrasa, but alongside that, sneaked out to attend computer classes in a coaching centre close by.

He was trying to explore all the opportunities he could as long as it didn’t involve asking people for money. The 16-year-old Alam was sure he did not want to go to people’s houses for chanda (donations) for his survival. He wanted to find ways to make himself, and others in his community, self-sustainable.

“Madrasa life prepares you for hard work, makes you tolerant...strong, but at times, it makes you dependent on others for your survival. It’s important to have religious education, but along with it, you need worldly education. How will our voices be heard, how will we grow intellectually as a community if we don’t update our lives with the contemporary world?"says Alam.

To get enrolled in selected regular colleges, a madrasa student has to take the state madrasa board examination. Alam got through and sat for the exam in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia—this time for a BA (Hons) in Arabic - since that was basically the only language he had a hold on. He wanted to use every opportunity he was given. Apart from college, he attended lectures, met new people, spent most of the nights in the library, joined the National Service Scheme (NSS) and started doing shows for the community radio at Jamia.

It was at one of those lectures that the cursory thoughts of attempting the civil services exam which had once struck him in Lucknow, returned. “I have seen a lot of humiliation in life. Some mocked my poverty, some my appearance, called me chhota maulvi, others made fun of my religion...some said I was Osama Bin Laden. Why does our religion, our caste, define our identity? The more I read about it, the more I realize that in a country like India, IAS is the exam that proves your worth. It is the mother of all the examinations. The society’s perception of you changes immediately after you qualify the test," says Alam.

In 2012, Alam enrolled for a Master in Arts (MA) in public administration, and it was towards the end of his course in 2014 that he finally decided it was time he sat for the civil services examination.

Only 3% of those who qualify civil services final examinations are Muslims, for almost a decade now. This year, 38 Muslims, including five women, qualified, out of 1,236 successful candidates. In 2013, 1,122 candidates had qualified, of which 34 or 3.03% were Muslims. In 2012, 31 Muslims (3.10%) could make it to the final list out of total 998 successful candidates.

In a 2014 Economic and Political Weekly article, Naseem A. Zaidi writes: “The low level of participation of Muslim students in the Civil Services examinations rather than their probability of being selected, is the major cause for low representation of Muslims in these services."

However, director of Centre for Coaching and Career Planning, Jamia Millia Islamia, Mohammad Tarique, says much of the low participation rate of Muslims has to do with the economic condition of the community.

“They are economically poor, so their schooling is poor, they don’t graduate, drop-outs in schools are high. For preparing for IAS, you need to have at least 2-3 years in hand after graduation or post-graduation. The poor would run after a job because they want money. Since with most competitive exams, there is uncertainty, people who can’t afford don’t want to take the risk," says Tarique.

To bridge this gap, University Grants Commission has chosen five institutes for running coaching centres for UPSC exams all over the country for students from minority groups, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes—Maulana Azad National Urdu University at Hyderabad, Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Hamdard University in Delhi and the Ambedkar University, Lucknow.

Alam is currently getting his free coaching studying at the Jamia Millia centre. “I wish we all are given the kind of education that makes us understand the real idea of India, democracy, tolerance. India is a diverse country, and we should know what unity in diversity really means, not just parrot the concept," says Alam.

During his bachelors degree classes, Alam took tuitions for school children, and since 2014- end, he has been working in a multinational company as a research analyst. Alam’s father, who retired as a naib subedaar in the army, was the only earning member in the family, and Alam being the eldest child, knew it was his responsibility to ensure his siblings, and he himself, did not stop studies just for money.

“Money is a major distraction. If you aren’t economically sound, your dreams remain dreams," he says. Being in places like Delhi, Alam says, people take education for granted.

“Once you step out, you see the world is full of darkness. Someone needs to motivate the people who have potential but think because of their status... money, they shouldn’t dream."

The future is uncertain, but if Alam qualifies the mains exam to be held on 18 December, and passes the subsequent interview, Alam will work on the education of all deprived communities who, like him, have the aspiration to make it big, but give up thinking they are too poor to dream.

About half of the country’s population is aged under 25 years. These young adults who will join or are already part of the country’s workforce are the children of liberalization, with aspirations that the generations before them couldn’t dream of.

“More than 110 million young are on the move across the country," according to the State of the Urban Youth, India 2013, published by IRIS Knowledge Foundation, Mumbai. These young people are migrating to big cities, hoping for jobs that meet their expectations. The country is witnessing the unleashing of aspirations and expectations of the post-liberalization generation. The stories we will be telling in this five-part series are not success stories yet, but they document the changing aspirations of young Indians, the risks they are taking and the many dreams they are chasing. We profile a Muslim man who studied in a madrasa till the age of 16, and this year qualified for the IAS prelims exam; a Dalit who started off his career painting banners and walls of schools and is now running a business with an annual revenue of Rs1 crore; two teenage sisters in a village in Haryana struggling to become wrestlers; an IIT graduate in Mumbai who decided to become a Bollywood star; and a teenage girl in a slum who is the first literate person in her family. In a year’s time, we will revisit Shamshad, Sidhant, Amol, Khushi, Mansi and Anju. This will be our attempt at chasing the dreams of aspiring India. Year after year.

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