His tone was unnervingly soft. Muzammil Ali was trying to draw as little attention as possible, while sitting in a room full of people.
“That’s what it is all about now. Keeping a low profile,” said the 21-year-old student of Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university more than 80 years old. “No good can come of getting noticed. Not when you're from Azamgarh.”
Life for Ali — and several other students from Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh living in Jamia Nagar — is yet to return to normal.
It all changed a year ago on September 19, with the killing and arrest of some alleged Delhi blast suspects hailing from the same district as Ali’s.
Communal tension, subsequent harassment by landlords and the fear of false implication drove several like him home.
Many are now back (some against their parents’ wishes), but to a different Jamia Nagar, the one that associates them with trouble.
“It is not like people here are baying for our blood, but they don’t want us in their homes. We’re looked upon as trouble makers,” said Sameer Khan, who returned to complete his Arabic course at Jamia Millia only after spending close to eight months at home in Sanjarpur, a small village in Azamgarh.
Khan tried finding accommodation in three areas (Abul Fazal, Shaheen Bagh and Johri Farm, all colonies in Jamia Nagar of South-east Delhi), before getting a place in Gaffar Manzil.
Though it has been months since their return, most still fight fear on the inside.
“There is still an undercurrent of fear that we will be picked up by the police on false charges of being the ‘mastermind’ of the blasts and never see our family again,” said Karim Ahmed, who is pursuing an M Phil in History from Jamia Millia. “The district we hail from is enough to arouse suspicion.”
A part of their day-to-day existence now is to play down their Azamgarh identity.
“I can’t allow you to take a picture,” Ali said.
(Names changed on request)