The still sharp rays of an October sun fall upon a gloomy banner that reads: Jab tak humme nyay nahin milega, hum koi khushi nahin manayenge (Until we don't get justice, we will not celebrate any happiness). That sign flutters at the entrance to Sanjarpur, a village some 30 kilometres from Azamgarh, in a district that suddenly finds itself stripped under a bright, uncomfortable media glare and given a number of uncharitable labels ranging from 'Atankgarh' to 'Waziristan of India', a reference to Pakistan's lawless frontier.
Azamgarh is about 300 kilometres from the state capital Lucknow, and has always had a reputation - both good and bad - to contend with. Poet Kaifi Azmi hailed from here, as did gangster Abu Salem. Don Dawood Ibrahim's brother found a bride from Azamgarh, while scholars and writers sought Islamic and Oriental learning at the Darul Musannefin Shibli.
But all that anyone thinks about now is of the hail of bullets that rained on L18 Batla House on 19 September, felling two 'terrorists' Atif Amin (24) and Mohammed Sajid (16), who the Delhi police would later accuse of engineering the bomb blasts in Ahmedabad, Delhi, Jaipur and Varanasi. Both were from Azamgarh (Sajid's family is in Sanjarpur while Amin's family now lives in the neighbouring Sarai Meer). Since then more than 20 arrests have been made and the numbers continue to rise. Boys and men from Azamgarh are charged with being the arms and brains of the Indian Mujahedeen (IM), the outfit behind the spate of terror attacks since 2005.
Here in their homes and neighbourhoods, no one quite understands how this could have happened. Hence, perhaps, the Sanjarpur banner with a tag line calling for justice. "Even this has been misunderstood", despairs Masihuddin, a 45-year-old alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University who coaches local boys in Mathematics and English. Sajid learned from him, as did Mohammed Saif (23) who was arrested from Batla House. "Both were ordinary boys", says their former teacher. All he can remember them by is a painful shyness and a shared love for cricket. That, and as Mashiddun puts it, an ambition to 'improve their families'.
"The media is saying we are not celebrating Eid in protest. But there is no such provision in Islam. The only thing missing will be the festivities", he explains, emphasising that young children have decided on their own to not ask for sweets and wear black bands in protest.
The disappointment with the media runs deep. There was an earlier banner which said "Sampradayikta aur Afvaah failane wale patrakaron se anurodh hai aap yahan na aaye" (Journalists spreading communalism and rumours are requested not to come here). A scuffle was also part of the script causing the police to intervene.
"Miss, you too will call me atankavadi ki ma", (mother of a terrorist) hollers Razia Amin in her three room home at Sarai Meer. Atif (who was killed in the encounter) was her son, scheduling a trip back home, wondering what gifts to buy for Eid amidst pursuing a post graduate course at Jamia Milia University and, if the police is to be believed, planning and executing bomb blasts. "If my son was a terrorist he should have been hanged in front of my eyes. But why was he killed?" she asks, her voice a strange drone of whispers and roars. Since the media began to beat that narrow road to her home, Amin has been in auto mode, responding to questions even before they have been asked.
But every once in a while comes a report that further fuels her sense of anger and alienation. "To be a Muslim is a crime in this country", she says. She's looking at a front page news item (from a newspaper borrowed from the neighbours) spilling details of the crores that have found their way to Amin's accounts to fund the terror plots. (The actual balance revealed a few days later is closer to Rs.1500, but by then the damage is done).
No one has the answers to Amin's cries. Ram Prakash Shukla Nirmohi, poet, writer and former college teacher offers himself as an example of the secular culture that nurtured Azamgarh. "I was breast fed by a Muslim and at my wedding she had the same rights as my mother", he says.
His friend Satish Chandra Pandey's printing press in Farashi Tola is sited at the head of a narrow lane that leads into a Muslim settlement. Has that ever unnerved him? He speaks without hesitation. "We have never had any problems. The middle class like us has more everyday issues to contend with. A decade ago, fundamentalism and terrorism were not part of our lexicon. Now it's every day, but we still don't understand."
It is from a shared past that Dev Prakash Rai, secretary of the district's Indian Medical Association, draws his defence of fellow doctor Javed Akhtar, an orthopaedic surgeon popularly called gareebon ka doctor (doctor to the poor). Akhtar's son Asadullah, a pharmacy student at Lucknow, who was home on a break, disappeared a day after the encounter. Akhtar reasoned that the son was probably scared away by the fact that a month ago he had stayed at the same Batla House flat when in Delhi to take a management entrance exam.
So why did the doctor not report his missing son, till the police showed up for interrogation four days later? "Is it not normal for a father to assume that a young son has wandered off in a huff and will come back later? While I have had little interaction with his family, I can vouch for Dr Akhtar", shoots Rai who led his association into demanding that the doctor, who with his two other sons and a nephew who had been picked up for questioning, be released into the association's custody.
Some clues to Azamgarh's troubles are to be found in its economy. Despite being home to 4 million people (of whom 58 per cent are Hindus), the district has no industries worth taking note of. Despite a more-than-evident desire to acquire the tools to succeed (computer training and English speaking institutes are a rage), there are no universities or engineering colleges. But there is money. In Sarai Meer, Sanjarpur, Beenapara and the neighbouring areas, big, gleaming cars jam narrow lanes, tiny shops yield the latest gadgets and acres of green fields are broken up by tall white mansions. It's not money from the country's economic boom but from the Middle East where almost every family has a member.
Most of those who make the Gulf trip, do so to find lowly jobs. Amin's father for instance worked his way up from a daily wage construction worker. "All that is changing now", says Ghiasuddin Ahmed, vice principal at the Tibiya College at Beenapara explaining that the district's young want an education so that they can earn their livelihood in more respectable ways. "But which university or college will accept our boys now?" he asks.
An amorphous trust
Thousands of children have studied under Ahmed, but today he says he's unsure of what to teach and whether those lessons will be accepted. His resentment of the media is profound. "My son surrendered in a news channel's office. But it was said he was picked up." Zeeshan was a resident of the same Batla House flat where the encounter took place and had called up his father for advice when he first heard of the encounter. So did Ahmed have no inkling of what kind of company his son kept? "I trusted him and never bothered to ask", he admits.
A similar trust, the kind does not yield itself to logic and argument, sits at the Nasim household in Sanjarpur. The family has been linked to the terror trail through their 22-year-old son Arif. He was in Lucknow, preparing for his medical entrance exams. He had been there for three years, yet the family never bothered to find out where or who he was living with. His 27-year-old sister Shamsa knows how much he scored in his third failed attempt at the pre-medical exam ("With 134 marks, he was very close", she says proudly) but has no idea of how Arif was spending his days away from home or even where he was studying in Lucknow. "What kind of character certificate will you accept? All I know is that my brother was a shy, studious boy. With his medical exams, when did he have the time to turn a bomber?" she asks.
Outside her home, concerned neighbours sit on cots, warding off any unwelcome media attention. They do so at every such home which has featured in the police's terror tales, speaking the same language of anger and despair, offering answers that have by now been rehearsed to perfection, directing the media to the same sources for quotes.
One such source who has been doing a lot of talking of late is Shahid Badr Falahi, a bearded 37-year-old who was president of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in 2001 when the organisation was banned. An Unnai doctor, he practices in Azamgarh and at a village called Kakhraita. "The Indian Mujahedeen is just a name floated by the police", he holds in his dimly lit shifaqhana where the flies outnumber the people who stand by whenever a journalist troops in. "There has been pressure to close files. Look at the absurdity. The BSP chief says there is no evidence against SIMI, yet permits the centre to arrest so-called offshoots of the organisation from the very state she leads", he says before launching into an elaborate explanation on how the spate of terror is actually a business strategy hatched by Israel and the USA. "Who benefits from the sale of equipment intended to curb terror", he wants to know.
Ask him about how he can be so sure that elements from SIMI have not branched out to form IM, and he too bases his answer on the same amorphous trust. "I don't think any of our associates were so inclined. I speak from my experience of the police track record of filing fake cases against SIMI".
In Lucknow, lawyer Qazi Sabih Ur Rahman, advocate for Walliullah Obaid Qazmi, a 31-year-old imam from Phulpur, Allahabad, who has been accused of being the mastermind behind the Varanasi blasts has another question. "Why is no one asking the police how so many masterminds have been created, given that alleged masterminds like my client were already in the police dragnet? What is my client paying for?" he reasons. It is noteworthy that the UP Police had pinned the Varanasi blasts on the Bangladesh spawned Harkut-ul-Jehad-Al-Islamiq and five alleged terrorists had been handed life imprisonments for the deed, before the appearance of the alleged IM masterminds.
"We do not say that all the boys were innocent. But can they all be guilty?" wonders Mohammed Tayyab, English teacher at the Beenapara Inter College, where three of the alleged terrorists studied. "No one talks of the fact that this is a college which shows some of the best board results in the district. Now it's just the school of terrorists. Did we teach them terrorism? These generalisations are dangerous and will have far reaching consequences", he despairs.
Back at Sanjarpur, the banner still flutters, at once defiant and despairing.