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UP,via Azamgarh

Last week,Azamgarh had some important visitors: senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh,followed by the Imam Bukhari. And now,Rahul Gandhi is set to come soon. As the battle for the Muslim votes starts,The Sunday Express travels to the town that’s in the spotlight again

On a raised platform outside a mosque in Fariya near Azamgarh town,Maulana Aamir Rashadi holds forth to a crowd of about 300,half of which spills over to the main road and the other half onto the yellow mustard fields. Rashadi’s speech is peppered liberally with references to the 2008 Batla House encounter,which is logical considering the Ulema Council,of which Rashadi is president,was formed as a direct consequence of it. The main accused in the Batla encounter may have all belonged to Azamgarh but Rashadi and the Rashtriya Ulema Council,as it’s called now,are keen to take the issue across the country.

“When we observe the barsi (anniversary) of Batla House next year,we want not just Azamgarh,but all of Hindustan to observe it together,” he thunders to rousing applause. The crowd is made up of old men with flags,young men with cellphones recording the speech and children,some still in school uniforms,listening in rapt attention.

In the last Lok Sabha elections,the Ulema Council fielded seven candidates from UP and though none of them won,they did enough to cut the votes of other parties,notably the Samajwadi Party. In UP’s 2012 Assembly elections,it intends to field more candidates and is not averse to an alliance with parties like the BSP,for instance. “We were formed after the Batla House encounter but we want to go beyond that. We want to fight for the rights of not just Muslims but all have-nots,” says the Ulema Council’s general secretary,Tahir Madni.

And to spread its message and mobilise support,the party is holding a rally in Lucknow on February 20. “The Congress has fooled us for very long. If we look at the Batla House encounter,we see the reasons behind such incidents are that we are backward and not politically empowered. So we formed the Ulema on October 4,2008,and thus began our tehrik (movement) against zulm and zyati (torture and excesses),” says Madni. “The aim of the Congress and Digvijay is to weaken the Ulema. The Congress realises that to be strong in UP,they have to win over the Muslims. They have their eye on the 2012 assembly elections,” he says.

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Back on the makeshift stage,the Maulana is making an impassioned attack on those who say he does not originally belong to Azamgarh. His grandfather came here and lived here,as did his father and now it was his turn to serve Azamgarh. Then as a final claim of loyalty to Azamgarh,he says with a flourish,“I am not one of those who went to Sonia Gandhi,to Digvijay Singh.”

***

LAST week,Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh too had taken the road to Azamgarh,and some would say to UP,via Batla House. Singh visited Sanjarpur village,home of two alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives Atif and Chhota Sajid,who were killed in the Batla House encounter,and also of a few other terror suspects. His visit evoked a mixed response but his meeting with families of the accused gave them a slight reason to be upbeat. “He promised that he will ask for the cases to be tried in one state and for a fast-track trial. But what he says and what his party does are two different things,” says Naseem Ahmed,whose son Atif was arrested from Lucknow for his alleged role in the Gujarat blasts and the UP court blasts. “He was preparing for his medical exams. It was his second attempt and we were hopeful he would clear it this time,” he says. Naseem,who works as a driver in Saudi Arabia,says he met his son in prison in Gujarat last fortnight.

Sanjarpur is also where five of the 10 missing boys from Azamgarh belong to. Abusad Ahmed’s brother Abu Rashid is one of them. “My brother worked in an optical shop in Mumbai and was down here for a few days when our other brother started calling us from Mumbai saying that the police was asking for Rashid. So,Rashid left for Mumbai on September 23 and that was the last we heard from him. We have no idea what happened to him,” says Ahmed.

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In the intervening year-and-a-half,much has changed but what has remained constant is Azamgarh’s refusal to accept the Batla House encounter as authentic. Both Digvijay’s visit and his persuading them not to insist on a judicial inquiry have only strengthened their belief.

“What’s wrong with an inquiry,” asks Niaz Ahmed,the 84-year-old grandfather of Shahzad Ahmed,who was arrested from Khalispur village on February 1 for being an alleged IM operative involved in the Delhi blasts. Niaz says his grandson had been living in their family house for the last seven to eight months before his arrest. After his arrest and after Digvijay’s visit to Azamgarh,on Tuesday,Imam Bukhari too paid Azamgarh and Niaz Ahmed a visit during which,among many things,he accused the Congress of duplicity.

“We’ve been an old Congress family. Indira Gandhi came to our house once for five minutes. Mohsina Kidwai came here,” says Niaz Ahmed,who has been both a gram pradhan and block pramukh previously.

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In fact,villagers remember Kidwai’s win in a bypoll from Azamgarh in 1978—the first Congress win after Emergency. And though the electoral battle may be a tough fight this time round too,the Congress has begun to make its presence felt,wooing the Muslim voter by lending a concerned ear.

***

DR JAVED Akhtar,a well known orthopedic in Azamgarh who contested the Lok Sabha elections last year on an Ulema Council ticket,is among those in Azamgarh willing to give the Congress a chance.

“It’s tough here for the Congress,tough for a national party. But it’s better both for the Congress and for Azamgarh to keep a door open. It’s in the interest of both not to shut all doors. Instead,they should look for an amicable solution,” says Akhtar,who was expelled from the Ulema Council after he welcomed Digvijay to Azamgarh. “After the Batla House encounter,the Samajwadi Party did not intervene,so they lost the chance,” he says.

Akhtar does not rule out joining a political party in the future but says he is in no hurry. “I would rather continue my social work,” says Akhtar,who starts his day at 10 in the morning and ends it at 10 at night,seeing about 200 to 300 patients every day. After he has examined a child with a broken arm and given instructions to his anxious mother,he says the Batla House encounter raised more questions than gave answers and so must be probed. “It’s not just for my child but also for the whole country,” says Akhtar. His son Asadullah too has been missing since September 19,2008. After completing his B.Pharma from Integral College in Lucknow,Asadullah was back in Azamgarh after his exams but went missing soon after. “My son must have known some of the accused boys back from their days in Azamgarh and he probably thought he would also be targeted. But he never discussed it with me and I have no news of him ever since he went away,” says Akhtar.

Now,he says,he is ready to give Digvijay and Rahul Gandhi a chance if they were willing to look for a solution.

***

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THE SHIBLI National College was set up in Azamgarh in 1883 by educationist and liberal scholar Mohammad Shibli Nomani,a close associate of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan,the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University. After his death,his pupils started the Darul Musannefin Shibli Academy in 1914,an institution that went on to play an important role in the freedom struggle. It is to this college that Rahul Gandhi is expected to pay a visit next month and interact with students.

After his overtures to Dalits in Uttar Pradesh,Rahul’s Azamgarh visit is being seen as the next round of the Congress’s reaching-out gesture,this time towards Muslims. “It is nothing more than making a symbolic gesture,” says Rajeev Yadav,organisational secretary of the PUCL in Uttar Pradesh.

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But Shibli is ready to receive Rahul. “Most of the students will be happy to interact with Rahul. He has energy and ek nayi soch hai. He can rise above jaat,biradari. Interacting with him will be good,not just on terror but for a bigger perspective too,” says Dr Ifteqar Ahmed,principal of Shibli College.

It could perhaps also instill confidence in students,many of whom,says Ahmed,are scared to venture out of Azamgarh after the town’s terror branding. “For many years,there was this mayoosi (despair) among Muslim students. They felt that they would not get government jobs or that they would be eliminated in the interview rounds. But the emergence of MNCs changed that. Companies look for only talent and so Muslim students could no longer take the excuse of discrimination to lag behind,” he says. So,students from Azamgarh started opting for computers and vocational courses to get private jobs. “But the Batla House encounter and the subsequent arrests from Azamgarh have made the students from here as well as in other parts of India scared. Parents too are scared now to let their children go to other cities to study. So,that silsila has been broken,” says Ahmad.

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Meanwhile,the students too say they are willing to interact with Rahul Gandhi. “What’s the harm in listening to him? But yes,if we find that he has not listened to us,we will not give him another chance,” says Farooq Ahmed,a first-year BA student.

First published on: 14-02-2010 at 01:33:13 am
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