Six years have gone by since the controversial Batla House encounter between the police and suspected Indian Mujahideen (IM) terrorists exploded in Delhi. Yet, till today, Azamagarh's Sanjarpur village in eastern Uttar Pradesh bears the imprint of its harrowing aftermath. Back in 2008, virtually overnight, Sanjarpur — and subsequently the entire Azamgarh district — was slammed as a "terror hub". Seeing "anti-national plots" everywhere, the security agencies went on to tar the region as a cradle nurturing professional terrorists.
But that was not the end of it.
Since the Batla House encounter, a string of other terror related incidents — blasts in Delhi, the Ahmedabad serial explosions and more recently the arrest of Asadullah Akhtar (dubbed a key IM operative by the police) — have further deepened suspicions about Muslims in general and Muslims in Azamgarh, in particular. The district now firmly sits on the "terrorist" map drawn up by security agencies.
Perceptions, even if thinly backed by empiricism as they often tend to be, are mostly known to endure. Azamgarh is a case in point. A trip to this district on the eve of the 16th Lok Sabha election reveals that the narrative of humiliation implicating Muslims that began five years ago, is still alive, and in circulation. Picked up as terror suspects from time to time, Muslim youths, are thrown into jail and kept there for years while the court proceedings drag on.
Acquittals, if and when they happen, hardly wash the stains away. As a matter of rule, former suspects, after their release from prolonged imprisonment, return to a life of bleakness dogged by unemployability and social stigma with little to look forward to. A delayed verdict of innocence delivered by the judiciary, lacking in any kind of redemptive power, is unable to restore the dignity they lost.
A sense of helplessness and simmering resentment engulfing the community is apparent while talking to Mohammad Shadab, the father of the two terror suspects implicated in the Batla House encounter. On the face of it, Shadab doesn't betray vulnerability either in look or speech. But his personal story as well as the experiences of many of his friends and acquaintances show how under the relentless glare of suspicion, the minority community has been pushed to the wall.
It's important to note that unlike many others, Shadab is no 'ordinary' Muslim. He has access to power and privilege. "I have always been with Mulayam Singh Yadav even before he became famous," he says. Sitting in the expansive courtyard of his home, Shadab extends his generous hospitality. One of his sons, Saif, an accused in the Batla House case, has been serving a sentence at the Sabarmati prison for the last five years. His other son, Dr Shah Nawaz, is absconding. Before being forced underground, Dr Nawaz used to be an employee of Lucknow's famous Mayo hospital. He is not the only one in the village whose life is disrupted beyond reconstruction. Picking up the threads of his former life — personal and professional — looks like an impossibility.
Like Dr Nawaz, 15 other youths were forced to flee Azamgarh following the Batla House incident. "What options did they have? Everyone knows that the taint of terrorism sticks to you for life. Even if proven innocent later you can't hope to get back your normal life," says Shadab.
Suspicion has come to define the now infamous district of Azamgarh. As you move in the region, people tell you about Saudi money fueling a special kind of affluence in this area. In search of a wage, many youths have moved to West Asia. That's not peculiar only to Azamgarh. Large parts of Kerala too have witnessed such migrations. But while the West Asia-job narrative holds good for Kerala, it tends to turn murky with Azamgarh as its backdrop. "We don't know where all this money is coming from. It could be hawala money," is what one hears from many in this part of UP. They say that Abu Salem, the dreaded underworld don, came from Azamgarh's Sarai Mir village, apparently to lend greater gravity to their suspicions.
You meet desperate Muslims all across Azamgarh and beyond, people lost in their search for a trustworthy, honest political alternative, which will not play the fool with them. In their list of failed parties are the Congress and the Samajwadi Party — those that position themselves as the secular face of the Indian political class. Like Mohammad Shadab, many others too believe that the so-called secular parties have thrown the Muslim community out in the cold. When they haven't created an atmosphere of suspicion about them, their tacit endorsement of communal actions has surely hurt the community beyond measure. In the eyes of people here, almost every political party stands guilty of directly or indirectly fomenting communal tension.
From Assam to the Muzaffarnagar riots, our recent past and contemporary 'now' are replete with such tales of the cynical manipulation of communal passions, especially when elections are at hand.
Even 'secular' parties don't fight shy of playing upon the fears and anxieties of majority/minority communities. The switch depends on which side the parties electorally want to align themselves with and which of the tactics will notch up the numbers.
"An entire community has been painted with the terror brush. Hindus or Muslims, anyone committing such anti-national acts should be punished. There are no two opinions about that. But the biased functioning of the prosecution agencies have robbed us of our faith in these agencies," says Shadab.
As the countdown to the 16th Lok Sabha election begins, a fidgeting Azamgarh waits and watches. Communal disturbances are known to herald the polls in this area; a pattern seemingly unbroken continues. On 26th February, a violent clash between Hindus and Muslims in Azamagarh's Mohammadpur Bazaar claimed one life and injured half a dozen others.
Will such tensions worsen under Narendra Modi?
"Riots will stop if Narendra Modi comes to power. But he will destroy the Muslim identity. His government will pass laws that will attack the Shariat and the Muslim way of life," says Khaliq Ahmad Khan, general secretary of All India MIlli Council.