The 3-km uphill stretch from the parking lot to the Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri is teeming with tourists, including foreign. By a vigorous shake of the head or a wave of the hand, all are trying to evade a crowd that is building around them — urging them to buy trinkets for Rs 50, or to purchase chaadar for the tomb of Salim Chishti, or offering a shayari recital for Rs 10.The “lapkas” are undeterred.
That is the name given here to this army of hawkers and touts, including some as young as 5 — literally meaning those who pounce.
On October 22, Marie Droz and Quentin Jeremy Clerc, a young couple from Switzerland, were allegedly assaulted by one such group. They were reportedly beaten up for declining requests for a selfie with Marie. The police have arrested two men and apprehended three minor boys for the attack. The couple are recovering at a Delhi hospital.
Following the incident, the Switzerland embassy said it was “deeply concerned” about the health of its two citizens and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sought a report from the Uttar Pradesh government. On the ground, security has been tightened.
The 16th-century capital of the Mughal Empire, Fatehpur Sikri is located less than 40 km from India’s foremost tourist destination Taj Mahal. Yet, points out Mohammad Alim Qureshi, 62, the vice-president of the Fatehpur Sikri Approved Guides Association, “Only about 30 per cent of international tourists from Agra visit Fatehpur Sikri now. The feedback registers are full of complaints of harassment. While the attack on the Swiss couple made headlines, such incidents are not new.”
In 2008, he and 177 others were certified as ‘official guides’ by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), following an examination and a week-long training programme. “The touts, their numbers going up to 500, hamper our business and bring the city a bad name.” The certified guides can be hired from a ‘Booking Window’, for anything between Rs 450 and Rs 800, depending on the number of people in a group. Since the attack on the Swiss couple, their demand has seen a rise.
Nishu Upadhyay, the in-charge of the parking lot, from where the tourists either walk to the monument or hop on to CNG buses run by the UP Tourism Department, for Rs 10 per person, says he has 12 people manning the premises to keep the touts out. “Mostly young boys, they stop the taxis on the highway itself with sticks and barricades. Sometimes, it is the taxi driver who ties up with them in advance. It’s a big nexus,” says the 27-year-old.
One of his men, Bhola, has heard of the attack on the Swiss couple, but blames them. “The incident occurred about 4 km from here. Who told them to go there? Humne suna hai uss angrez ladki ne itni chhoti si nikkar pehni hui thi (We have heard the girl was wearing tiny shorts),” he says, pointing to his thighs to show the size of Droz’s shorts.
The ASI security in-charge, who does not wish to be identified, says, “We have a team of 67 people spread across 45 posts on the complex. We also have eight gunmen. The team is on duty 24X7, but the touts have their own channels. When they are caught, they simply say they are from the dargah.”
One of them is Raju Qureshi, 15. Dressed in a red shirt, his oiled hair combed down neatly, he is hanging out on the other approach route to the monument, near the bus stand. Spotting a family of four, he rushes to them. “Chauvan metre ke darwaza ke baare mein batayenge, chadar dilwa denge, sirf pachaas rupaye mein (I will tell you the history of the 54-metre-high Buland Darwaza, will also help you get a sheet for the tomb, all for Rs 50),” he rattles off. They pay barely any attention.
Qureshi too has heard of the October 22 attack, and bristles at the tag of “lapkas”. “We are not lapkas but volunteers of the dargah. There are no lapkas in Fatehpur Sikri. The touts are at Taj Mahal,” he insists. His father works as a daily wager, and Qureshi claims his family “relies on payments by the dargah” to make ends meet. To reinforce his claims, Qureshi calls out to other youths. Although they are not certified ASI guides, the group of about 20 says, they “don’t hassle visitors”. Another question, and the group disperses.
Bacchu Singh, 58, who looks after the bus stand, complains of “fighting the touts for years”. “From shops to restaurants to security, they all get a commission from the touts. Most of them are employed by the parking contractors,” he says.
However, points out Inspector Pradeep Kumar of Fatehpur Sikri Police Station, “The attack on the Swiss couple was the first foreigner-related case that was filed in the area. While there have been issues, no one has registered a case with us. We need to understand that the boys referred to as touts are just youth trying to make a living.”
Bachchu’s colleague Shiv Singh, 60, is sympathetic too. “It’s a crumbling city, the roads are in a poor state and there are barely any hotels or restaurants for visitors. The residents are mostly uneducated, with no jobs. They have no option but to become lapkas to earn a living. They have no exposure and think it is easy to fleece foreign visitors,” he says.
The 2011 Census puts the population of Fatehpur Sikri at 28,757, and its average literacy rate at 46 per cent, much lower than the state (67.68 per cent) and national (74.04 per cent) average. Surrounded by nearly 12 villages, the town relies heavily on tourism for jobs. Although the monuments at Fatehpur Sikri are considered one of the best preserved in the country, the town itself is in a shambles.
Zahid Qureshi, 43, works in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri as an ASI guide, and says earns Rs 30,000 a month. A graduate, he speaks in an American accent. “There are no English-medium schools here, and I picked up the language talking to tourists. Now I am in-charge of the American tourist groups. I try and warn them about the touts. I even tell the young boys here to study and get a certification from the ASI. But they don’t understand,” he says.
Watching Raju and the others accost tourists, selling chaadar for Rs 100 to domestic tourists and Rs 1,000 to foreign, and almost forcing some to hand in their shoes to a particular shop for a price, Zahid sighs. “You don’t have to deposit your shoes, you can carry them in your hand.”
A few kilometers from the monument complex, near Tervi Darwaza, is where the Swiss couple were attacked. A rural area, it is mostly occupied by the ‘Nat’ community — they weave and sell daris (carpets).
At 3 pm on a Wednesday, eight days after the incident, the area is deserted. Most of the villagers claim to know nothing about the attack. “No foreigners come to these parts. On some days we see them cycling around, but they stick to the market areas. We were not aware of the incident, until the police came to question us,” says a tea-shop owner, who does not want to be named.
At Rajendra Nat’s home, the atmosphere is grim. The 13-year-old named in the attack is his nephew. “We make less than Rs 1,000 a month selling daris. I haven’t gone to work in the past week. My nephew didn’t hit the foreigners, he had simply gone to see what was happening,” says Nat.
His wife cuts in, “Who asked those foreigners to come here? They have killed our business and got our boys a bad name.”
Over at the monument complex, Rajesh John and partner Nora, who have been travelling across India for a month, are negotiating around the touts. “The attack on the Swiss couple was horrifying, but the touts here are no different from the ones we have encountered in other parts of the country. It has been difficult, especially for Nora,” says John, who resides in Canada but whose ancestors hail from Jalandhar. Nora, who says she is thankful Rajesh speaks the language, isn’t surprised at what happened to the Swiss couple. She has been warding off selfie requests constantly, she says.