Following the ban imposed on Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and subsequent arrests of students from Azamgarh from different parts of India in early 2000s, the youth started to fear venturing out. Things got worse after the 2008 Batla House encounter, after which the entire town and surrounding villages were popularly termed as Atankgarh. “One of the first persons to use the term was controversial BJP MP Yogi Adityanath,” observes Masiuddin Sanjhri, a social activist based in Sanjarpur, a neighbouring village of the Azamgarh town.
Many other families from Sanjarpur as well as the nearby Saraimir have their sons in jails on terror charges. There are long lists of those who were arrested or declared as absconding.
According to most of the residents of the town, the worst nightmare comes when there is a bomb blast in any part of the country. The Intelligence, the UP Special Task Force and the other agencies comb the town in search for suspects.
“Whenever there is a blast, we are advised to not move out of our madrasas by aalims, since police can trap us in the case,” says a madrasa student refusing to disclose his name out of fear.
Our next destination was the house of Shahid Badar. Badar was the president of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The Delhi High Court had lifted the ban on the organisation in August 2008, only for the then UPA government to obtain a stay order from the Supreme Court.
A half an hour drive on roads full of potholes took us to the residence of Badar. He was among the first terror accused to be arrested from Azamgarh after the ban on SIMI. However, in March this year, a Delhi court acquitted him of the charges against him.
Recalling his fate Badar says, “I was arrested and tortured in police custody because I belonged to SIMI. The matter of the ban can be contested. But the graver concern is the many innocent students picked up on charges of terror who lost the chance to lead a normal life.
“The label of terror has fallen on this place precisely because of people like me on whom fake charges were slapped. I feel guilty about it without there being any fault of mine. My beloved city had to bear the tag of a terror hub and our children who wanted to pursue their beautiful dreams outside the city had to suffer unnecessarily.”
Badar recalls a couple of instances which shows the levels to which the fears about the place has escalated. “A few years ago, a doctor while passing through the Sanjarpur Village fainted in distress because he had landed in a terrorist zone,” Badar says. “But later, people from the same village helped him regain his calm. A reporter who once came from Delhi to meet me confessed that before reaching the place that he was panicking and his colleagues had asked him to be extra cautious.”
Badar explains that the unfortunate incidents in the last few years have changed the city socially and economically. The trend that had started in the 1990s to seek education and employment in India itself has reversed again. Now kids are scared to move to Indian cities and prefer to stay back in town or else move to the Gulf. But there is a major hurdle in this too.
Some of the youths from the district became members of the Rashtriya Ulema Council, which was a political outfit formed in the aftermath of Batla House encounter. The state government slapped cases against these youth for participating in the protests under the banner of the council and hence, they are denied passports.
A young member of the Ulema council says that he has been trying for a passport for a long time. “I was angry when the Batla House encounter took place and I joined an organisation to vent my anger. Cases were filed against me. Now I want to travel to the Gulf and support my family but I am helpless. I have to stay back in Azamgarh and wait for these cases to be dismissed before applying for a passport. The wait may go on until the time to earn and support my family is gone.”
The next morning as we prepared to leave the city, we could see billboards of coaching centres for IITs and medical colleges.The most prominent and visible ones were for spoken English classes. It indicated that despite the challenges, the city and its young are still trying hard to make it into the mainstream life.
The fear of the youth to migrate to other cities is not unfounded. They often face the wrath of the stereotypes that exist about the place. A top corporate executive, who refuses to be named, tells Tehelka, “There are certain biases against people from Azamgarh when we are hiring. It is not that we don’t trust them. But we have our own safety concerns and don’t want to risk them.”
This reminds this correspondent of a lawyer who had told him how he was once denied a job in 2010 after the employer got to know that he was from Azamgarh. It was when arrests from the district were frequent.
This discrimination has more far reaching effects. Students living in metros find it difficult to find houses on rent. Shahid, a university student in Delhi, says, “Every time I finalise a deal for renting a house, it gets cancelled at the last minute. It is because that is the time when the landlord discovers that I am from Azamgarh. And this happens too often in Jamia Nagar, where the alleged encounter took place in 2008.”
Back in Azamgarh, amidst the suffering of the people, what remains at the back foot is development. The town remains devoid of basic infrastructure — from good hospitals to schools, colleges and industries. Political outfits like Ulema Council which flourished riding on the sentiments in the aftermath of the Batla House encounter have ceased to have any significant existence. The dismal state of affairs is despite Mulayam Singh himself being the Member of Parliament from the Azamgarh constituency.