In the heart of small town India, there is a madrasa where students can walk in wearing T-shirts and denim jeans — rather than the traditional kurta-pyjama and skull caps.
It is a sign of changing aspirations and outlook among Islamic youth over the past decade in Azamgarh, a town in eastern Uttar Pradesh now being labelled as one of the capitals of terror in India.
That is the town from where Atif Amin — named by Mumbai Police on Wednesday as one of the chief conspirators of recent terror attacks — came from.
Cricket-crazy Amin dreamt of playing professionally in Mumbai. He and his close friend Mohammed Saif, now under arrest, were learning English and computers to chase their careers in the metropolis, or in the Gulf countries where thousands from Azamgarh have already gone.
“(Saif) was a gifted player, he was our best,” said Rizwan Ahmed, his neighbour in his village. “He would hit the ball so hard it would disappear in seconds. Bowlers feared Saif and Atif.” He added: “They were implicated by the police.”
“(Saif) thought that English was a must if he wanted to learn computers, which in turn might have gotten him a job in an MNC or a job in the Gulf,” said his father Shadab Khan, who had spoken to Saif a day before the shootout at Batla House.
Police say somewhere along the way, Amin and the others joined the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), attended a training session in Vadodara, and began to build a network of angry youth.
Amin quickly became a leader: he used to point out the shortcomings of the young men during namaz, focussed on religious justifications for fighting wrongs, and showed the youth CDs depicting the Gujarat riots, American soldiers fighting in Iraq and local people opposing US actions, and speeches of Osama bin Laden. “Eye for an eye,” announced the e-mail from the Indian Mujahideen group, which police say Amin was a key member of. There is no way to independently corroborate the allegation.
But religious learning ran very deep in Azamgarh, a tradition of more than a century. Different sects of Islam flourished here. There is no college — but more than 300 madrasas across villages in the region, mostly flush with worldwide expatriate funds and not dependent on the government.
The new generation has access to English medium schools — but they go wearing skull caps and hijabs. “They were already religious minded, and working in countries like Saudi Arabia where hard-line Islam is practised made them even more religious,” said an Islamic theologian, declining to be quoted on the sensitive subject.
Religious congregations bring hundreds of thousands of people every year.
The Jamat-e-Islami group, which believes in Nizam-e-Ilahi (rule of God) and not in elected governments — has a large following in the district. A large number of its followers did not vote in any election until 1989 - when they first joined the political mainstream with a common rage after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
In a story that community watchers say resonates in other parts of India as well, the same rage seeped into the young men of Sarjanpur. Many saw a tenuous link between the theology of institutions like Madarsa Salafia of Ahle Hadis — and terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, connections disputed by Islamic theologians.
After the deaths and arrests of the terror suspects, that rage has spiralled — and residents say it will have an even deadlier impact. Angry villagers huddle together facing an onslaught of media attention, in a town seething with rage — and a threat.
“Let me tell you, the entire country will repent, they have started a very dangerous game,” said village elder Mohammed Haroon.
“If they continue to persecute us like this, then it is a time for … a show down,” he says.