A single door painted in white with a message scribbled on it in Urdu opened to a small room where five women clad in burkha sat closely forming a circle. With copies of Quran in the hands, their lips moved constantly in prayer.
They were praying for the salamati (well-being) of Mohammad Asif, who was arrested in Delhi on charges of being the chief of the al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
Asif’s wife, who recently had a miscarriage, lay in a corner. “We did not even have the money for the delivery of our last child. All the neighbours pitched in. If my husband is the India chief of such a big terror outfit, we would at least own a decent house of our own. This is a rented house,” she asked.
She confirmed Asif was out of the country for 18 months, but contested the police argument that he went to Afghanistan for training. “Yes he went to work in Saudi Arabia for almost 18 months and earned just enough to buy a small piece of land where now we will construct our house. He was thinking of starting a new business as we were unable to pay the school fees of our children. How can he be a terrorist?” she said.
Spread over a kilometre, Deepa Sarai, one of the 52 sarais in Sambhal district of Western UP, has 99% Muslim population.
It is one of the most well to do and most educated of all the sarais in the district. Name plates of ‘advocates’, ‘PHDs’ and ‘doctors’ hang outside households. The sarai even boasted of having produced two IIT-ians, Railway Police Force personnel and an IPS officer.
Travelling to Saudi Arabia for work has been an old tradition for the Turak community here. With the business of transportation being the main occupation in the area, many men have travelled to Saudi Arabia and worked there as drivers and labourers.
A major chunk earlier engaged in extraction and sale of mentha oil shifted to transportation after the business took a hit.
A few metres from Asif’s house, a narrow yet clean lane leads to the house of Zafar Masood, who was arrested from Moradabad while he was on his way back home from a wedding for allegedly providing funds to Mohammad Amir.
“Some men in plain clothes came and took my husband away in a car. I had my two kids with me as we were returning from a wedding. I shouted for help but no one heard me. My husband is a family man who was just earning enough to feed his family. My husband never went abroad, nor does he have a passport,” she said.
The residents of Deepa Sarai give their children a mix of both English medium education along with deeni taleem (religious education). The small area has over 20 mosques and 10 madarsas, where children go for daily lessons.
Enraged over media reports labelling the mohalla as a new terrorist hub, Javed, a local said, “We heard news channels shouting that Deepa Sarai has now become the hub of terrorists. How could they make such a statement without even visiting us? We have the most number of lawyers, doctors, MBAs and PHDs here. If some people did something wrong, the entire area cannot be blamed.”
The local police differ. They had no idea when the special cell of Delhi Police came and arrested the youth. The police did not even know their names, not even their addresses. “We hardly go inside the mohalla. It is a close-knit community and when we need any help from them, they never help. They would never say anything against any of their friends or neighbours,” a police officer said.
Hussain, a Class 10 student, has just one concern. “They have spoilt it all for us. Since we are associated with Deepa Sarai, we will never get to go to Saudi or America to work now. What is the use of studying anymore,” he asked.