A bright computer engineering student with a fondness for long hair, Facebook and Urdu poetry, particularly of Allama Iqbal who inspired the movement for Pakistan. His equally shy, harmless and religious batchmate, whom a staunch Brahmin family treated as own son. That’s the verdict of families, friends, teachers, neighbours and acquaintances on 23-year-old Mohammed Maroof Nirban and Waqar Azhar (22), the two alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives arrested last week by the Delhi Police from Jaipur and accused of plotting a terror attack.
“Waqar has almost grown up in my house, celebrating Dussehra and Diwali. People would sometimes mistake him for my son and call him ‘Panditji ka beta’. He spent the last Diwali too in my house in New Delhi. Had he been such a staunch Muslim, would he have felt so at home in a Hindu’s house?” says Vidyanand Sharma, Waqar’s neighbour in hometown Pali and his father Tasleem Raza’s bosom friend since 1979.
Waqar’s father, a scrap dealer, is often in Delhi for work, where he lives with the Sharmas, sharing a common prayer room. “The Quran and my Gita lie next to each other. I thought we had set an example,” Sharma says, refusing the possibility that Waqar might have “strayed”.
It was through common acquaintances that Maroof and Waqar met in Jaipur and struck up a friendship. The two introvert and shy men found a common passion in Urdu literature, poetry and Islamic studies. Maroof’s Urdu was so chaste that he often put his erudite engineer father Mohammed Farooq to shame in translating Quran’s couplets.
Apparently a romantic at heart, Maroof often evoked classical poet Allama Iqbal on Facebook and among friends. When it came to debates, he seldom lost, recalls Saif-ul-Islam, a batchmate.
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Maroof’s growing orthodox leanings and beard did unsettle his parents but on January 26 this year, he posted on Facebook that he had cut his hair, attaching a sad emoticon. “Walidain ne pressure dala (Father forced me),” he wrote. His parents were also reassured that Maroof didn’t let other interests come in the way of academics.
A final-year computer engineering student, he was one of the four boys in his engineering college to be selected by Wipro during campus placements. He also had an interview coming up with Tata Consultancy Services, but that might never happen now.
Gaurav Bagaria, director of the college where Maroof studied, pulls out his consolidated marksheet to back his disbelief. “It is almost impossible that a bright young boy like him could have taken to such radicalism,” he says.
However, given Maroof’s shy nature, Bagaria remembers little of him apart from the collective request made by minority students of the college, including him, a few months ago to be allowed to go to a nearby mosque for Friday namaz. Bagaria suggested that the students offer prayers in a separate room within the campus to save time.
For investigating officers, Maroof was the ideologue and had put together a small team, including Waqar and some other boys based in Sikar and Jodhpur. While there has been some talk of a plan to target Narendra Modi at an election rally, the Rajasthan Police has found no clues to more than pin a possible attack on Ganga Temple in Bharatpur byt the youths. Maroof is alleged to have confessed that he had applied for a passport so that he could go to Afghanistan for training.
Officials also claim that Maroof had married a Hyderabad-based girl over Skype, with Waqar’s roommate Mehrajuddin and a few of the Sikar-based accomplices as witnesses. Maroof’s father debunks this, saying the girl’s parents had come over seeking a formal matrimonial alliance but that he had turned them down. “Maroof is merely 23, he had to make a career first. We politely refused,” says Farooq. Maroof was arrested from their house in Jhotwara, Jaipur.
While Maroof was the charmer of their group, Waqar melted into the crowd. His computer skills are being over-rated by police, says Vidyanand Sharma. “I had once asked him to download some documents and he could not even do that. I had chided him that being a B. Tech student he did not even know this much. And they say he is a computer expert!”
Saif points out that Waqar neither had a laptop nor even a basic smartphone. He would borrow Mehrajuddin’s laptop for infrequent visits to Facebook, Saif adds. The only time Waqar stood out was when he held meetings for the Tablighi Jamaat in his neighbourhood. Elders of the community were fond of him for being a visibly “good Muslim”.
Landlord Shahid Ahmed, from whose house in Pratap Nagar Waqar and Mehrajuddin were picked up early on March 23 (Mehrajuddin was released later), recounts that the two, along with batchmate Amaar, had shifted to the two-room accommodation 20 days earlier with books, clothes, utensils and a gas cylinder. Waqar’s motorcycle now gathers dust outside the house.
“The boys were five-time namazis, polite and respectful. Being a teacher, I trusted students. And today there are questions on my integrity and patriotism, people ask me how I did not check their background. But I had asked another neighbour in whose house they had lived earlier, they recommended the students,” Ahmed, a physical education trainer in a local college, says.
In the next bylane, Feroza Bano vividly remembers Waqar and Mehrajuddin, who had rented her first-floor room. Waqar stayed from December 2011 to February 2012 while Mehrajuddin rented the room till late last year. “The boys always left their rooms unlocked and once in a while I would go to clean up. Never did I find anything suspicious. They were trustworthy and never gave trouble,” she insists.
Waqar’s teacher and head of the mechanical engineering department in the college where he studied, Bhavana Mathur, notes that he had been absent from classes since January. However, Saif points out that most final year students skip classes to finish projects and assignments.
Rashid Hussain, who was implicated in a terror case in 2008 but later cleared, has decided to fight for Maroof and Waqar. With his career and reputation destroyed, Hussain had joined a political party, the Welfare Party of India, in the state ahead of the December Assembly elections. “I see it happening yet again, the random picking up of young boys. We will believe police only when they can show us some evidence,” Hussain says.
What their supporters agree upon is that Maroof and Waqar might have fallen for “wrong elements” on social networking sites and miscalculated the extent of appropriate religious discourse, but insist they couldn’t have gone so far as to plot a terror act.
In a Facebook post on December 26, Maroof wrote: “Jo buraiyon se aagah kare wo dost hai (The one who cautions you of mistakes is a true friend).” Many are now wondering if they failed him there.