Community under siege

Published: March 31, 2009 - 18:09 Updated: July 1, 2015 - 12:37

Rakhi Chakrabarty Azamgarh / Delhi

Three-year-old Musab was playing barefooted in the dusty lanes of Sanjarpur, a non-descript village of Azamgarh in eastern UP. As soon as he heard the name of his elder brother, Saif, he stopped and gaped at the stranger in his mohalla, wide-eyed. He looked around as if expecting someone. A moment later, he ran to his father, Shadab Ahmed, and cried, "Take me to Saif bhai."

Once, his father did take Musab to Varanasi to meet his Saif bhai. That was the first time the 3-year-old saw that even people lived in 'cages'. Saif bhai was in a cage, that is, a lock-up for prisoners. Little Musab is too young to know, Saif bhai is a "dreaded terrorist" to the world. He was arrested after the Batla House encounter on September 19 last year. Saif is an accused in a series of blasts including those in Delhi and Ahmedabad.

A mention of his village, Sanjarpur, or neighbouring Sarai Meer or even district Azamgarh evokes only negative reactions - ranging from fear to suspicion to animosity. These places shot to infamy after it was alleged that youths from here were involved in blasts in Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad.

At Sarai Meer, as soon as Razia Ameen heard that the visitor to her house is a reporter from a magazine in Delhi, she broke down. Not again. Ever since her son, Atif, was killed in the Batla House encounter, the family has been in the media spotlight. Razia has not been able to mourn the horrifying death of her 24-year-old son in solitude.

"Once you have labelled a boy terrorist, his mother can't shed tears even if her child has been killed. Nobody will come out to offer her consolation," said Dr Shahid Badar Falahi, former national president of SIMI (Students' Islamic Movement of India). The organisation was banned in 2001. In the media, SIMI is almost synonymous to an outfit peddling terror.

And, Shahid Badar, who was released after spending about two-and-a-half years in jail, "has been through the travails of being a Muslim". He had been charged with treason, spreading communal hatred and disaffection. Currently, there is one case against him. He runs Unani medicine clinics at Azamgarh and Mubarakpur in UP. According to security agencies, Badar is a moderate activist of the proscribed organisation which allegedly has links with Lashkar-e-Taiba.

An entire community is under siege. With elections looming in the horizon, it's time to retrospect and give vent to pent-up anger. And, the Muslim community is seething with rage.

As Arshad Alam, who teaches society and culture at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, put it, "The community is gripped by a sense of siege. More than anger, there is frustration at the way Islam is being equated with terror or the way Muslims are being portrayed as a group of people who are violent. It's a global phenomenon, but it's happening in India, too."

Across the country, the Muslims are angry with politicians of all colours for using the community as fodder for vote-bank politics. They feel politicians have done precious little for their employment, education, healthcare or housing.Stereotyping of Muslims, suspicion of the involvement of members of the community in terror activities or even sympathising with terrorists, have added grave insult to injury. More so, in Azamgarh.

Azamgarh, which was dubbed a 'nursery of terrorism' in the wake of the Batla House encounter, has paid a heavy price for the terrorist attacks. The place mirrors the pan-Indian angst of the Muslims.

"Azamgarh boasts of the likes of Rahul Sankrityayan, Maulana Shibley Nomani, Kaifi Azmi, Maulana Jalil Ahsan Nadvi and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a religious scholar and an exponent of non-violence. The Shibley College in Azamgarh was an important centre of the nationalist movement. Now, the media has dubbed it Atankgarh," said Tarique Shafique, a human rights activist from now-infamous Sanjarpur.

Violent incidents and terror strikes in the past few years in India have hit the community in more ways than one. After the Batla House encounter, widely believed to be fake, in September 2008, the community found justification for the sense of frustration and persecution which assailed it
for long.

"As a teacher, the Batla House incident jolted us. It is a design to target Muslim youths who are going out of Azamgarh for better education. It is part of a global phenomenon. Here, Muslims are being targeted to polarise votes and maximise benefits in electoral politics," rued Salman Sultan, who teaches chemistry at Shibley College in Azamgarh.

His thoughts find echo in Shabnam Hashmi, social activist who runs ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy). "It is a concerted effort by Rightwing Hindu outfits like the RSS to malign symbols of Muslim culture and places like Azamgarh, Aligarh and Jamia Millia Islamia where it flourished. Targeting Azamgarh is part of that design," she said.

Why just Azamgarh? "When it comes to terror, no Muslim is above suspicion. Even renowned professionals like KM Sherief of Bangalore, who contributed to the development of the software industry in the country, have not been spared. Aspersions were cast on him, too," said a software consultant in Mumbai. Being a Muslim, he insisted on anonymity. "I don't want to be seen talking in support of my community. Immediately, people will brand me as communal," he said.

After every terror attack in the country, as members of the Muslim community were hounded, the concept of global jehad came home, largely through the media. Islamic fundamentalism, jehad and terrorism, which gained credence after 9/11, also found resonance in India.

The accused in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, mostly Muslims, fuelled stereotyping of the community. After every terror attack, Muslims were picked up from the surrounding mohallas. As in the case of Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad, many have been released after months or even years in prison (several of them allegedly severely tortured) due to lack of any evidence. Then there are cases where Muslims have been arrested for being ISI agents.

Besides, there is deep bitterness. The community feels that while the Bombay serial blasts accused have been convicted, not one recommendation of the Srikrishna Commission has been implemented by either the BJP-Shiv Sena or Congress-NCP governments. Not one accused of the Bombay pogrom against Muslims in 1992-93, including Shiv Sena leaders and policemen, have been punished.

Are all allegations of terrorism against Muslims false? "Of course not," said a senior Intelligence Bureau officer. "There is enough evidence against some of the arrested SIMI activists to prove that they provided logistical support to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives," he said.

Even the Muslim intelligentsia refused to believe these claims by the police. "Other than the Bombay serial blast of 1993, Muslims were not involved in any terrorist attack in the country. None of the cases against Muslims has been proved in court. If the boys killed in Batla House were really terrorists, then why is the government so reluctant to conduct a judicial enquiry?" said an agitated Dr Iftekhar Ahmad, principal of Shibley National College.

For some, the denial is not so strong. "There can be one or two who might have strayed into the wrong path. We know one rotten fish spoils the entire pond. But, show us the proof. Pick the real culprit instead of harassing the entire community. Why should all Muslims suffer for the folly of a few?" said Ali Imam, nazim of Madrasa Babul Ilm, a Shia madrasa
at Mubarakpur.

Mufti Abdullah Phulpuri, nazim of Madrasa Islamia Baitul Uloom at Sarai Meer demanded, "Let there be demographic representation of each community in the police and security agencies. Then, perhaps, we will not have victims from only one community."

Speaking to Muslims across the spectrum, Hardnews heard the same refrain: "Show us the evidence which proves beyond doubt that Muslims as a community are involved in terror attacks."

In this election, terrorism is an important issue for the Muslim community. Equally important are issues of development and perceived neglect by successive governments.

A sense of disenchantment with all political parties pervades large sections of the community. Even in West Bengal, ruled by a 'secular' Left Front government for 30 years, the Muslims are disillusioned with the Left, especially after the Nandigram killings. A retired Muslim bureaucrat of West Bengal said, "The Sachar report has shown that there are only 2.1 per cent Muslims in government jobs in West Bengal. This, in a state, where the community comprises 25.25 per cent of the population. Out of 43 ministers in West Bengal, only five are Muslims and, that too, holding insignificant portfolios. Since 1947, no Muslim has ever been appointed chief secretary, home secretary, director-general of state police or police commissioner of Kolkata, forget becoming the chief minister. Even in Narendra Modi's Gujarat, a Muslim has been made the director-general of
state police."

And, then came the caustic remark. "Of course, the one place you find Muslims in large numbers is the prison."Ironically, most Muslim-majority pockets across India cut a sorry picture. Azamgarh, which has top recall value when it comes to terror, falls far short of expectations in terms of development.

Residents of Azamgarh proudly point to their heritage and history. The place was a stronghold of communists and socialists. "Even after the Babri Masjid demolition when the rest of the country was seared by communal riots, Azamgarh preserved its tradition of communal harmony," said Dr Furqan Ahmed, vice-president of the UP chapter of the Indian Medical Association.

But the present has little to offer. Roads in Azamgarh city, about 750 km from Delhi, look like a lunar landscape. No industry has come up. There was one sugar mill which closed down years ago. A large section of the Muslim population in Sarai Meer, Mubarakpur and adjoining villages earned their living as weavers. Their looms produced exquisitely embroidered benarasi sarees prized the world over.

But, the weavers are in a bad shape. Take for instance, Munir Ahmed of Mubarakpur. He, along with his three sons and four daughters, work at the two looms the family owns. "It takes three to five days to make a benarasi saree for which we get Rs 300. In a month, we struggle to earn around Rs 3,000," said Ahmed.

No wonder then, many have tucked away their looms and headed abroad, especially to the Gulf countries. "They may be doing menial, back-breaking work in Saudi Arabia, Dubai or the Middle East. Yet, they manage to earn around Rs 30,000," said a senior bureaucrat in Azamgarh.

Azamgarh receives the highest inflow of foreign currency in eastern UP. According to sources in police, they receive around 1,000 to 1,500 passport verification enquiries each month. Around 90 per cent of these are for Gulf countries.

There is hardly any scope for higher education. "That is why we send our children to other places for higher studies or for earning professional and vocational degrees," said Dr Javed Akhter, a renowned orthopaedic surgeon of Azamgarh. According to police records, his son, Asadullah, who was studying B Pharm in Lucknow, is absconding and is wanted by the police in connection with terror blast cases.

"If you see the profile of the Azamgarh boys targeted for terrorism, you will find that they were all pursuing higher studies or enrolled in various technical and professional courses. Now, parents are scared to send their children out. Even the children themselves are afraid of going to other cities for study or work," said Dr Ameer Alam, a surgeon.

Shahid Badar, former SIMI president, narrated an incident. "Ashad, a boy from Azamgarh, is studying engineering in Noida, next to Delhi. Recently, he was going on a bike with a friend riding pillion. Both were without helmets and were stopped by the police. When the policeman heard that Ashad's friend, a Hindu, was from Jhansi, he let him go. But Ashad was detained illegally for 36 hours because he was from Azamgarh. Ashad's friend, of course, stayed with him throughout until he was allowed to walk out free."

Like Shahid Badar, most believe that targeting Muslims is part of a design. "Now, terrorism is being wielded as a weapon by those who earlier instigated communal riots. The aim is to break the backbone of the Muslim community," he said.

A sense of persecution has spawned conspiracy theories. Maulana Mehboob Alam of Madrasa Islamia Baitul Uloom at Sarai Meer argues: "Israel is provoking India to harass Muslims when the terror strikes across the country are actually masterminded by them. It is a global conspiracy hatched by Israel and their spook agency Mossad."

His theory finds numerous takers among Muslims in all strata, pan-India. Some go to the extent of saying that terror attacks in India started after Israel set up its embassy here. They also firmly believe that ATS chief, Hemant Karkare, was not killed by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai. Rather, he was eliminated by Rightwing Hindutva outfits because he exposed them during the Malegaon blast probe.

"Crisis is deepening due to frustration which is more after the Sachar Committee report was released. It contributed to the realisation that Muslims are being deliberately kept out and discriminated against. This may not be an empirical reality, but more in the realm of perception," said Arshad Alam.

The perception is strong enough to become a rallying point for the community. Azamgarh reflects the disillusionment of Muslims with political parties. "All parties have betrayed us. We have been vote-banks for all parties including the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the BSP. But no one did anything for the Muslims. There is no difference between the BJP and the others. For 60 years, they used the bogey of the BJP to scare us. But, the so-called secular parties are worse than the BJP," said Dr Iftekhar Ahmad of Shibley College.

Hence, various political formations of Muslims are gearing up to fight Lok Sabha elections in various parts of the country: the Ulema Council, the National Loktantrik Party, the Parcham Party, the Peace Party and the Muslim Majlis in UP, Assam United Democratic Front in Assam and the Popular Front in Kerala, to name some.

Of them, the Azamgarh-based Ulema Council shot to limelight because they claimed their prime objective was to fight for the victims and all those targeted following the Batla House encounter. Talha Amir, son of Ulema Council convenor Amir Rashadi Madani, was arrested by the Maharashtra ATS last December. Later, however, he was released.

As the election bugles were sounded, the Ulema Council jumped into the poll fray. They fielded five candidates, three of whom are Hindus. Dr Javed Akhter is their candidate from Azamgarh.

Why did he join electoral politics? "Why not? After all, he is a victim of terror politics. He was questioned and his son is wanted by the police in terror cases," said a Delhi businessman.

So, won't the parties for Muslims foment communal politics like their Hindu counterparts? "Ulema Council is a congregation of like-minded people. Don't go by Ulema Council's name, watch its activity," assured Dr Akhter.

The principal of Shibley College was more vocal. "When Muslims were not communal, they suffered. Now, we have decided to form our own party. If we come on our own, then any government will need our help to come to power. That will give Muslims voice and political clout, which they now lack," said Dr Iftekhar Ahmad.

Not everyone buys the logic though. Political analysts feel too many Muslim parties will only divide the votes of the community and erode its efficacy.All Ulemas, too, are not cool with the idea of parties like the Ulema Council espousing the Muslim cause. "The Ulema Council comprises only Deobandis. The effort should be to try to bring all Muslim sects together instead of fighting each other. Unless this happens, Muslims will remain fractured and their votes won't count," said Maulana Ali Imam of Madrasa Babul Ilm of the Shia sect.

From the Barelvi sect madrasa at Mubarakpur, a message has gone out for secular politics. "We have asked Muslims across the country to vote unitedly for secular candidates. There are more than two dozen Muslim parties. Each of them wants to unite Muslims and talks about the problems of the community. That doesn't help," said Maulana Mubarak Hossain Misbahi of Madrasa Jamiatul Ashrafiya.

However, all this din about Muslim parties feeding on resentment among Muslims underscores a worrying trend: segregation on communal lines. The fault lines between communities are deepening.

"Muslims now seek to establish their identity," said Dr Iftekhar Ahmad. Arshad Alam of Jamia Millia Islamia admitted, "Influence of clerics and their acceptance in the community are increasing. One important reason for this is the feeling that the Indian State has failed them."

When Hindu right-wingers become strong, radicalisation of Muslims is bound to happen, felt a CPM leader from West Bengal. A senior intelligence officer admitted, "The government and the police have mishandled the fight against terrorism by focusing on one particular community. The government's attitude has encouraged a section of corrupt policemen to make easy money by harassing a community in the name of terror. That has caused an internal haemorrhage. An entire community is gradually getting alienated."

"When a community feels threatened, then it seeks to establish its religious identity. In daily life, community members adopt core religious markers to assert itself. Insecurity forces a community to move inward," said Manisha Sethi of the Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Group in Delhi which spearheaded the protests against the Batla House encounter, pointing out gaping holes in the
police version.

Binding together on the basis of religious identity is a solitarist approach whose outcome has rarely found to be good. Amartya Sen, in his book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, wrote: "A solitarist approach is a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world." He goes on to write: "A person's religion need not be his or her all-encompassing and exclusive identity. In particular, Islam, as a religion, does not obliterate responsible choice for Muslims in many spheres of life. Indeed, it is possible for one Muslim to take a confrontational view and another to be thoroughly tolerant of heterodoxy without either of them ceasing to be a Muslim for that reason alone". 


The government and the police have mishandled the fight
Rakhi Chakrabarty Azamgarh/ Delhi

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