The maulanas had just one simple request. One child from every home.
It was 1982. In villages across Uttar Pradesh, Islamic clerics were walking door to door, urging people to send their children to the Shaheen Force, the children’s wing of the now-outlawed Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), to be taught the basic tenets of Islam.
The force inducted under-15 children from among the prosperous and poor who had chosen to sit at home or go to neighbourhood madrasas.
And in a chilling coincidence, most of the terror suspects blamed for the cascading bombings in India — including Atif Amin, Mohammad Saif and Shakeel Ahmed — were its members. It also included the children who sang praises of Osama bin Laden at SIMI events.
Coincidence or not, that tells the larger story of the how an overwhelming number of Muslims, especially in small towns and villages, have kept their children away from regular schools, with a far-reaching impact.
At least 25 per cent Muslims in the age group 6-14 years have either never attended school or have dropped out, according to the Sachar report on the community. That is exactly the same set of children targeted by the Shaheen Force.
Mufti Abul Bashar, 23, the alleged ideologue of Indian Mujahideen, was one of those children. He had the opportunity of going to a regular school when he was eight-year-old. But his father Abu Bakr decided otherwise.
Bashar joined a seminary at Sarai Meer, a neighbourhood outside Azamgarh town in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
“Nothing is bigger to me than serving Islam; I wanted Bashar to enlighten the Ummah (Islamic brotherhood) and bring it closer to the religion,” Bakr, 60, told the Hindustan Times in an interview at his one room house in Beenapar village.
"Look what is happening to Muslims world over, we need people who can guide them in face of adversity, a different style of education wouldn't do that," he said, standing next to a concrete shelf full of religious books.
But even as they learnt to be better Muslims — to respect elders, offer namaz the right way and understand their traditions better — Shaheen Force members, of an impressionable age, also soaked in the Muslim rage of their times over the Babri mosque demolition, riots and perceived oppression.
Shaheen Force became a rage across Uttar Pradesh. It had units everywhere from big towns to villages; from schools to madrasas—its acceptance was widespread.
Bashar joined it at 10.
It had the support of powerful religious centres like Azamgarh’s Jamiat-ul-Falah madrasa, from where the first call for a Muslim armed struggle went out in 1994.
"Shaheen Force laid the groundwork for character development of the students. They were made to remember duas, naat, sooras (Quranic verses), they were taught how could they read the Quran so that it sounded good to the ears," says Dr Shahid Badr Falahi, former national president of SIMI.
"We wanted them to be loyal soldiers of Islam and I never heard any parent complaining, they were satisfied with our work," he said.
But others saw its transformation into quite something else.
"The whole concept had changed. It was meant to be progressive, it was meant to expose children to a blend of occidental and oriental education," said Dr Ishrat Siddiqi, who is on board of Kanpur's biggest and oldest seminary Jaam-e-Uloom. “But the Shaheen Force became an outgrowth of madrasas.”
Religion and political rage had long intertwined for these foot soldiers of the Shaheen Force.
Years later, as officers of the Anti-Terrorist Squad in Uttar Pradesh sifted through Bashar’s belongings after his August 16 arrest this year, they found some 150 newspaper clippings on the Gujarat riots alone at his home.
"We found all kind of literature about Osama bin Laden, Taliban, jihad but he maintained a record of sorts about Gujarat riots and Muslim persecution," said an ATS officer who declined to be named as he is barred from media interviews.
During his interrogation, the officer said he asked him a direct question about the blasts: “Why?”
Bashar looked up at the officer and said with a deadpan face: "I want to avenge Gujarat. One day if not me, someone will."
But in Azamgarh town, many want the community to step back from that path. After a century dominated by religious learning, many children are now going to regular schools.
"Though very late, people have realised the importance of modern education," said Mohammed Tariq, who has lived for years in the United Arab Emirates.
"My father was a madrasa product but he gave us quality education to survive in this modern society," said Tariq. “I hope others here follow that example.”