IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
— Charles Dickens in Tale of Two Cities
These lines best describe the state of affairs in Uttar Pradesh's Azamgarh district. For Azamgarh, being projected as the epicentre of terrorism, things had just started looking up. In tune with the changing milieu of post-liberalisation India, the youth from the district were no longer jumping to grab a job in the Gulf. Instead of earning their livelihood doing petty jobs in these countries, they were in search of avenues in the lucrative service sector in the country.
The latest trend was to do an English-speaking course, get computer literate and do short-duration job-oriented management or other professional courses being offered in the private sector in the metropolitan cities. The final destination was to land a job in an MNC or BPO.
"Our young men were easily finding jobs paying a salary of around Rs 20,000 in the cities. This had almost reversed the trend to go to the Gulf in search of jobs," said Dr Iftekhar Ahmad, Principal of Shibli National College.
Consequently, what was emerging was a visibly confident young generation. This generation next youth was ably competing in the job markets of Mumbai, Noida, Gurgaon and Delhi. The BPOs and MNCs were giving employment to these youth purely on merit and regardless of their regional or religious background.
A possible reversal of this heartening trend is worrying those who are suspicious of a political conspiracy behind the recent turn of events branding the entire Azamgarh district as the nursery of terrorism — a term first used to describe Azamgarh by Gorakhpur firebrand Hindutva leader and BJP Member of Parliament Yogi Adityanath.
Would the global MNC employers also succumb to this negative branding? Would youth from the district still be whole-heartedly accepted by employers, universities and professional colleges? With the police in hot pursuit, even parents are having second thoughts in sending their children to study outside the district.
As Maulana Juwaad, a wizened old man from Sanjarpur, says, "The whole government machinery seems to be working towards Raj Thackeray's game plan of sending people from Azamgarh back to their villages".
Azamgarh emerging as India's terror capital started on September 19 with the Delhi police staging the Batla House encounter. During the encounter, it killed two alleged terrorists — Atif and Sajid. Both of them belonged to Sanjarpur village, around 30 km from the district headquarters.
Atif Amin had been staying in New Delhi for the last three years. After getting a B Sc (IT) degree from Manipal University, he had secured admission in the post-graduation course in Human Rights Development in Jamia Millia Islamia.
Similarly, 17-year old Sajid had stepped out of Sanjarpur barely two months ago to do an English-speaking course in Delhi. His identity card from Shri Param Sant Jamunadas Inter College in Azamgarh shows his date of birth as September 2, 1991. He had passed his Class Tenth examination in 2008 and was enrolled for Class XI.
The Delhi police also arrested Saif from the flat in Batla House. He also belongs to the same village. According to his father Shadab Ahmad, Vice-President of the Azamgarh unit of the Samajwadi Party, he wanted to do a good computer course from Delhi as he thought it would open doors for a good job. Incidentally, the Samajwadi Party was quick to disown Ahmad. No senior party functionary has cared to visit him. "No I am not angry, just hurt," says Ahmad commenting on his party's response.
Two more boys picked up by the Delhi police in connection with the Delhi blasts belong to Azamgarh. Both Mohammad Shakil and Zia-ur-Rahman are students of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi.
On September 23, a heavily armed team of Delhi's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) descended on Sanjarpur in the wee hours and raided the house of four young boys — Sajid, Arif, Salman and Khalid — who, they claim, were the absconding associates of Atif and Sajid. This Squad believes them to be associates or sleeping modules.
Of these, two were studying in Lucknow. Arif was taking medical coaching in Lucknow and preparing for the CPMT examination. Like most boys of their age, Atif, Saif and Arif were also passionate about cricket. In fact, Saif and Arif had even played up to the district level. "Isn't it normal for boys from the same village to live together? It took care of homesickness that a first-timer feels in a big city like Delhi. Anyone going to Delhi for taking an examination or job interview invariably stayed with them and is now on the police radar", explained Tariq Shafiq, a social activist from Sanjarpur.
Even before the news of the encounter, arrests and raids could sink in Mumbai police made another round of disclosures. On September 24, the Mumbai police arrested five young men all belonging to Azamgarh.
Claiming to have delivered a body blow to the Indian Mujahidden, Mumbai's Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) Rakesh Maria asserted that the five persons were part of the Indian Mujahidden's think-tank and assisted or participated in all incidents where blasts happened or unexploded bombs were found in the country since 2005.
The net result of the police operations has been that hundreds of young boys and girls from Azamgarh studying in various colleges in Delhi, Aligarh, Lucknow and elsewhere have switched off their mobile phones. Their parents have no news of them. Some of them had booked their tickets to celebrate Eid with their families at home. Now no one knows if they would come at all. The uncertainty hanging in the air is mind numbing.
Since the Batla House encounter, newspapers and channels are competing with one another to run stories toeing the "Azamgarh nursery of terrorism" line, a description that makes people from the district cringe.
Too hard hit to challenge these allegations, an average Azamgarhi or Azmi as they call themselves, is extremely angry with the media for believing every word the police is saying. "Nowadays, it's common for the media to be skeptical of police encounters and custodial deaths. But in the case of terrorism in general and Azamgarh in particular, the media is more than willing to swallow hook line and sinker whatever fabrication is being churned out by the police", said Umair Siddiq Nadwi, Editor of Marif, an academic publication brought out by the prestigious Darul Musannefin Shibli Academy in Azamgarh.
The legacy of Allama Shibli Nomani holds no significance in the changed environment. This writer, poet, historian, teacher and nationalist had set up the Shibli Academy, a leading centre of Islamic learning. Similarly, many can still recall a poem learnt in school about Rana Pratap's horse Chetak. Few know that its writer Shyam Narain Pandey also hailed from Azamgarh.
In these dark times, the media is in no mood to remember the contribution of Rahul Sanshkrityayan, Ayodhya Prasad Hari Oudh, Kaifi Azmi, Shamsur Rahman Farooqui or Shabana Azmi.
It is only interested in playing up the fact that Dawood Ibrahim's relatives live in Azamgarh. That Abu Salem belongs to Sarai Mir. That Abu Bashar, the so-called mastermind of the Ahmedabad blasts, belongs to Binapara, a village not far from Sarai Mir.
What probably means little to the media is that the district has produced many celebrities. Incidentally Uttar Pradesh Principal Secretary (Home) Kunwar Fateh Bahadur and the Additional Director-General of Police (Law and Order) Brijlal, the two top law enforcement officials, are also from Azamgarh. Even the high profile Samajwadi party leader Amar Singh originally belongs to the district.
What has never hit the headlines is the fact that the district has the highest sex ratio of 1026 females in Uttar Pradesh. And this is not due to men going out in search of livelihoods as even the under six sex ratio is an impressive 949!
Despite having one of the highest literacy rates in the state (overall 57 per cent, male 71 per cent and female 42 per cent), Azamgarh having a population of about 40 lakh does not have a single university, engineering college or medical college. Students have no option but to go elsewhere to pursue a higher degree and professional course.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, the madarsas have made an important contribution to the relatively strong literacy standard of the district. Most of them now impart modern education along with religious guidance. For example, in Uttar Pradesh villages where it is difficult to come across a girl who has passed Class XII, it was surprising to learn that Sanjarpur, painted as the den of terrorists by the media, has no less than 50 women post-graduates!
Something that the world perhaps needs to know is that the district being projected as the centre of religious orthodoxy was founded in 1665 by Azam, son of Vikramajit, a descendant of Gautam Rajputs of Mehnagar in pargana Nizamabad.
According to the official website, Vikramajit like some of his predecessors embraced Islam, married a Muslim woman who bore him two sons, Azam and Azmat. While Azam gave his name to the town of Azamgarh, his brother Azmat constructed a fort and settled the bazaar of Azmatgarh in pargana Sagri.
In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election next year, the Intelligence Bureau-police-media combine is causing a polarisation not only in Azamgarh but across the nation that suits the Hindutva brigade. In the name of internal security and combating terrorism, an alarming minority bashing and stereotyping is taking place.
However, things are slowly changing for the better and that is providing a flicker of hope. Jamia Millia Islamia Vice-Chancellor Mushirul Hasan's decision to provide legal aid to two university students picked up by the Delhi police was, perhaps, the first step. Dr Hasan also took the initiative to hold a counseling session for the traumatised students from the districts living in New Delhi's Jamia Nagar.
Samajwadi Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav urging the media not to brand the entire district as terrorist has worked like balm for the wounded souls of the people of the district. "Some may have strayed but why malign every single person from the district?", said Yadav.
And now the National Human Rights Commission's notice to Delhi police raising questions regarding the Batla House encounter has provided some solace to the people. They hope that in the coming days Azamgarh would substantially reclaim its lost reputation. (The Tribune, October 5, 2008)
Shahira Naim is a senior journalist serving as Special Correspondent of The Tribune in Uttar Pradesh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org