It was the last Friday of the holy month of Ramzan, seven years ago on 19 September 2008, when gun shots broke the eerie silence at the time of Juma (Friday prayers) in Batla House, a predominantly Muslim ghetto located in the banks of Yamuna in south Delhi. Even before the residents could enquire, TV channels started flashing news that an encounter was ongoing between alleged Indian Mujahideen (IM) operatives and the special cell of Delhi police.
It was soon declared that two terrorists, Atif and Sajid, were gunned down by the police. It was reported that some were arrested while others managed to flee. The common thread linking them all was that they belonged to Azamgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh. This one incident was to set a precedent. Azamgarh, once known for its literary heritage, would now be commonly known as Atankgarh(terror hub).
Seven years later, there is no physical reminiscence of the alleged encounter; the flat in the building L-18 no longer has blood stains on its wall, the area is no more cordoned off and people are no longer scared of wandering at night. However, the memories are still fresh and many consider it as cold-blooded murder. This keeps them going in their demands for a free and fair judicial enquiry into the alleged encounter despite National Human Rights Commission giving a clean chit to the Delhi Police.
This year again, on 19 September, the narrow lanes of Batla House echoed with slogans demanding judicial enquiry into the allegedly fake encounter. In the fading light of the evening, the flame of torches as well as the hope of the protestors kept these alleys bright. However, for many other residents, it is just a ritual that is being carried out for the last seven years, ever since the alleged encounter killed inspector Mohan Chand Sharma and the two ‘terrorists’.
Similar protests were also organised in Lucknow by civil right activists, who, like the residents of Batla House, doubt that encounter was fake and demand a judicial enquiry. But hundreds of kilometers away from Batla House and Lucknow, there was a stirring silence in Azamgarh. The evening was like any other and there were no torches in sight.
Azamgarh and Delhi are separated by a distance of more than 500 km. But if there could be a mechanism to measure the distance in time, it could well go into decades, if not centuries. Unlike the glittery nights of Delhi, the ones in this town are empty. It is past 8 pm and the shops have already shut down.
This correspondent met the father of one of the alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives, Mohammad Saif, who now languishes in a jail in Delhi on many terror charges that fall under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act). His house looks like a small villa by metro standards. Mohammad Shadab, Saif’s father, welcomed us with a cup of lemon tea and tales that do not fall in the mainstream narratives of the encounter. He claims that his son was as innocent as any other boy of his age and he has still not been able to comprehend the reason why things went so wrong.
In an attempt to stop himself from breaking down, he passes a smile that is barely visible in the dim light of the lantern, lights up a smoke and hums the famous Dev Anand song, har fikr ko dhuein mein uda ta chala gaya… (I blew away all my worries in smoke… ). Our conversation moved on from the specific case of Saif to others involved in the encounter and eventually to the fate of the whole city.
“People once recognised Azamgarh as a centre of culture, art and academics. People such as Shibli Nomani (Islamic scholar), Maulana Wahiduddin Khan(Islamic scholar), Kaifi Aazmi(poet), Shabana Aazmi (actress), Ram Naresh Yadav (Governor of Madhya Pradesh) and Frank F Islam (US-based entrepreneur) belonged to this place. But the media has stereotyped this place as a terror hub. They did not even wait for the courts to pronounce their judgments in the cases of our kids. Instead, they ran stories on how this place is breeding terrorists,” he says.
Shadab does break down when he narrates the story of two brothers, who had gone to meet Salman (another terror accused) in Jaipur. He says the duo, who were brothers, were also arrested and cases under IPC 109 and 151 were registered against them. “Now does that mean that we can’t even meet our kids languishing in jails?” he asks.
“We were once proud to be a resident of Azamgarh, to be associated with a place that has been a part of the ancient Kosala kingdom. It was known as the land of sage Durvasa, whose Ashram was located here. What a pity that people have started recognising it as a place that breeds people who indulge in anti–national activities. Somehow, State agencies relate every act of terror to here or Darbhanga in Bihar,” says another resident who joined us in the conversation.
“Residents of Azamgarh have for long been known for migrating to the Gulf and other countries to earn and send money back home,” Shadab says. “Initially, a lot of people shifted to Pakistan during partition and later to Bangladesh. The trend of migrating to the Gulf started in the 1980s. And this kept the city prosperous despite the lack of industries and educational opportunities,” he adds.
However, in the 1990s, Indian market was opened to the world and jobs were created along with a boom in the education industry. Students from Azamgarh started migrating to other cities for jobs and education rather than going to African and Gulf countries. However, this didn’t continue for long.