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
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
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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