Photos by Nirala Tripathi
First Person
The Road To Azamgarh
Every road has a story to tell, waiting to be heard by the traveller. The road to Azamgarh from Varanasi, just touching Munshi Premchand's village 'Lamhi,' has a story that is crying to be heard in our tryst with terror.
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Azamgarh, branded as "aatankgarh" by imaginative television reporters, could very well have been as nondescript a town as any other that dots India's Hindi heartland. Small, congested, teeming with millions of people with inadequate access to healthcare, education and other social indicators, it is a place that could do with a bit of good governance.

Take a left turn on the Varanasi-Azamgarh highway, and a new world emerges. This is Saraimeer block, a land that has seen a massive exodus of its inhabitants since the late 1970s to the Middle East. Most people came back after successful tours of duty in the labour markets of the Gulf, rebuilding their lives back home and using the wealth to build better houses, better shops, ensuring that Western Union money transfer counters share a place next to the more humble nationalised banks.


Abu Basher's father and brothers

But, Saraimeer, since the 1980s also developed a tough reputation, much touted in the media as the home for the Mumbai underworld's "shooters", the men who would carry out the contract killings that made Dawood and Abu Salem media favourites. And that is a fact. Today, Saraimeer is still the home to many who would have family and economic ties to men who have left these shores in search for greater notoriety, and have never looked back. A cousin of Abu Salem recounts the story of how he needed a top actress to come to Azamgarh and grace a mushaira  function. "I called Bhai (Salem) up and he told me to talk to one actress, now married to the son of a major Bollywood star. She was traveling in Switzerland, so she begged us to excuse her. We asked another actress, who came to Varanasi but quickly left, as riots broke out in Azamgarh the same day".

Perhaps, crime and Mumbai's underworld became an industry that the denizens of Saraimeer took to simply because they knew someone employed there, at some point in their lives.

But to get the real story of Azamgarh, a visit to the town is imperative. People traveling further east, to Gorakhpur to its North, or Chandauli and Sonbhadra to its South, and further into Bihar, will have to cross Azamgarh at some point of their journey. The neighbouring district of Mau has already developed a tough reputation for lawlessness: When a reporter of a national daily stationed in Kanpur brandishes his revolver, you get the message. These are parts that recognise power that flows out from the barrel of a gun -- a country-made pistol or an AK-47, depending on your social standing.

Bahmol, another block in this district, has already become synonymous with the best gunsmiths in the state. It caters to large orders for guns and other hardware that an election somewhere close or far might require in the coming days. Its clientele emerging from further east, the badlands of Bihar and eastern UP. Little wonder then that Superintendents of police here rarely survive nine months. In the past 61 years since independence, 64 Superintendents drawn from the Indian Police Service have spent a hasty few months in the district before heading out to other districts. 

But Azamgarh has a far more gentle side to it that seems to be under siege from various quarters, including a militant faction of the BJP that sweeps in from Gorakhpur, spewing hate and terror in its wake. The Shibli National Academy and degree college, which has produced generations of scholars and graduates is  home to Dr Baber Ashfaque, a "second generation faculty" at the College's department of defence and strategic studies. Dr Ashfaque, like his father came back to the subject that he loved best and could hold forth on for hours.

Terrorism, is a word that has now been interpreted and re-interpreted in every nook and corner of Azamgarh. But it is an issue that Ashfaque has been struggling with for years. "Why must we brand terrorism as 'Islamic terrorism'? To what purpose? Why can't we just look at people who spread terror as terrorists and use the same yardstick to view them instead of branding them into convenient stereotypes that have been created by a certain political discourse?" he asks. His colleague Zahed in the department of computer studies makes a similar argument, pointing out that Azamgarh;s children, now being branded as members of the shadowy Indian Mujahideen, are only interested in education.

To make a case for his argument, Zahed takes you to the house of Zeeshan, one of the many arrested in Delhi after the Jamianagar encounter. Zeeshan, a boy pursuing an MBA from IIPM Delhi, had an excellent academic track record and was known for a good attendance record. His father, sitting in a low-lit living room, shares details of the enormous loans he has taken to put his son through management school. His dreams are the dreams of any middle class father, trying his best to ensure a future for his child that is better than his own past. The loans, taken from a variety of nationalized banks have neatly worked out EMIs that would take a lion's share of the father's salary. "Would such a boy, good at academics, do something to endanger all that we have built? Look at his attendance record at college and tell me if he ever had the time to travel to all the places that the police now claim he has been to," he wails.

Naturally, most conversations turn to the growing presence of the BJP MP from the neighbouring parts, Yogi Adityanath, who promises to make UP into another "Gujarat." For the motorcycle-borne youth who pilot the Yogi's frequent cavalcade, the Gujarat being referred to is Gujarat of 2002 when the state's law and order machinery clearly failed to prevent the massacre of hundreds of innocents. "Gujarat yahan banainge, Azamagarh se shuruaaat karenge," they shout with glee, making no bones of their intent. Where is the law? most people ask, when Yogi's cavalcade decides to march right through the town, instead of using the by-pass, which has traditionally been the route taken by political parties.

For the youth of Azamgarh, facing chronic poverty and malnutrition, this is a life that has been scripted post Babri Masjid demolition. The money that has come in from the Gulf has not gone towards building of more schools but more madrassas, many of which are not registered or recognised. What is taught there is anybody's guess.  It just becomes another element in a cocktail that could only breed violence. 

So does the violence, therefore, turn into the Indian Mujahideen? The professors of Shibli National Degree College counter it by asking about Kanpur, where truckloads of improvised explosive devices was found in the house of a known Bajrang Dal activist when the roof of the house blew up. "Is that not terror? Is that not the same as the Indian Mujahideen?" asks a professor who has been closely tracking the issue for years.

Dr Shahid Badr Falahi, a hakim of some repute, with a gentle demeanor and radical ideas, has spent his life battling the law. He was the last president of the Student Islamic Movement of India, just before a central government ban kicked into place. "I was jailed and tortured for months and all those people who were not arrested but named in the same chargesheet are today being depicted as the Indian Mujahideen," says Falahi. His makeshift clinic is the only access to medical care that his village can boast of. Falahi took the legal route, now fighting the ban on SIMI in the Supreme Court. Ask him about SIMI's stand on Islam and its constitution which aims to build a "Islamic system" in India and he is silent. "These are issues that need to be discussed at length," insists Falahi. His answers to questions are selectively straight but make no mistake. His is an active mind that is constantly seeking answers as he spends time administering traditional medicine in small white paper pouches.


Dr Shahid Badr Falahi

Falahi's one-time colleague, Safdar Nagori was arrested earlier this year by the police and is considered as a "violent" faction of the erstwhile SIMI. "But Nagori was never a hard core member. He doesn't even know Urdu to understand the finer aspects of Islam, and in fact, had a love marriage," counters Falahi. How could such a man take to violence in such a short span of time? Falahi asks. The other "dreaded mastermind" of the Indian Mujahideen, Tauqeer Subhan Qureshi from Mumbai was the editor of the SIMI's English mouthpiece. "I appointed him as the editor of our English magazine and he was very good." Ask Falahi about the features in the magazine praising the Taliban's Mullah Omar and the Al Qaeda's Osama Bin Laden and he resumes a silence that is impenetrable. "This is not the time to talk about such issues," he offers.

That is Azamgarh. Caught between many versions of terror, silences, protests, crippling poverty -- and its many academic contradictions. Where governance has retreated to a few sarkari bungalows and the people have been left to fend for themselves. From the middle of the town, several roads head off in different directions, carrying tales for its travellers, taking them to a different destiny. Which one will the next generation of Azamgarh take? That is a story that needs to be explored if the Indian Mujahideen and the Bajrang Dal have to be understood.

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