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Excerpt: An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism

Neyaz Farooquee’s memoir examines what it’s like to be a Muslim in India, to live in a ghetto, and to be stereotyped by the media, the administration and the police.

books Updated: Feb 17, 2018 10:23 IST
Hindustan Times
Batla House Encounter,Babri Masjid,Allama Muhammad Iqbal
L-18 Batla House on 25 July, 2013 after the verdict on the September 2008 Delhi police encounter.(Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times)

Prologue: A Person Like You

How do you react when something like a police encounter happens in your locality, and a few doors down, two men are killed – two of your neighbours, who have been labelled terrorists. Imagine, for a moment, that this happened not in Imphal or Srinagar, where such occurrences are not unheard of, but in your safe, cosy neighbourhood.

Let’s get to the facts.

It was September 2008 in south Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, in the vicinity of a central university called Jamia. Few here believed that the encounter was genuine, but an inspector of the Delhi Police was killed. This gave an unfortunate twist to the story and added credibility to the police version. Students were found to be anti-nationals. But the locals, including myself, found the story hard to believe.

I was twenty-two when it happened, living alone, about 200 metres from where the two young men died. When I read the reports in newspapers, I remember thinking that they sounded rather like me. It was so close that it scared me. It was as if they were me – only the names were different. They were living alone, away from their families, just as I had since childhood. One of them wanted to be an IAS officer, another a pilot. One of those killed was studying at Jamia Millia Islamia, like I was; the younger, about seventeen, and just a few months old in Delhi, was preparing for the Jamia entrance exam. Alongside that, he was attending English coaching classes, like I had once wanted to.

Going by media reports of the time, the rooms of the Terrorists were messy, as mine was. The lights in my house were usually on till late at night, or perhaps I should say, early in the morning. Neighbours would say, Neyaz is a very hardworking boy, he studies all night. My friends and I knew just how hardworking I was. They didn’t open the door when the police knocked. I wouldn’t have either – even God would have been hard put to wake me up if I didn’t have an important class. Anyway, according to the newspapers, the lights were on late in the nights in their home too.

Based on the stories of their activities, narrated mostly by anonymous sources, the papers confidently announced that these boys were indeed Terrorists. They may as well have been: it was too early to call, but the news reports betrayed no doubts about their culpability.

The encounter followed within a week of the serial blasts in Delhi that had killed thirty. For a week after the blasts, the police had been raiding suspected Terrorists and their Hideouts, including in Jamia Nagar, and it was in the news all over. The men killed in the encounter had, as it turned out, submitted their original IDs and addresses to the caretaker of the building (who claimed that he had in turn submitted these to the local police station). Following the encounter, locals asked: why didn’t the Terrorists run away from Jamia Nagar? The police, for their part, claimed that the Terrorists had been over-confident because they were disguised as Normal Human Beings. In a single statement, they rendered everyone a suspected Terrorist.

The police decoded all these Facts in a flash, like experts in Bollywood movies. And the media conveyed these to you and me, since, you know, that’s their job. A nation’s conscience was satisfied.

But mine was not. Not at all. Maybe I was not part of the nation, I thought for a moment. Or perhaps I didn’t matter. I was scared. I had my doubts. So did every young man in our locality. The speed with which the authorities, and the news reports, reached their conclusions made us suspect there was something fishy; that there was more to it than what you and I knew or were told.

I had come to Delhi to study when I was barely old enough to wash my bottom. Having lived alone for eleven years, away from my parents, my thoughts were defined by friends and acquaintances in Jamia Nagar, and by the remnants of my past. The rest I learnt mostly from The Hindu, the newspaper I subscribed to. I didn’t have TV; it spoils kids.

I grew up in a religious family, where half the worries of my parents and grandparents revolved around achieving piousness and seeking God’s approval of their deeds. Not that I was raised as a religious bigot or anything like that. Far from it. My grandfather, Dada, taught me Sare Jahan Se Achha by the poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who also wrote, in case you don’t know, a poem called Ram, in which he called Ram ‘Imam-e-Hind’, Leader of India. Iqbal is also famous for his Shikwah, a complaint to God, for having let down Muslims. It earned him the wrath of the clerics, who issued a fatwa declaring him an infidel. Kufr ka fatwa. But the man responded with Jawab-e-Shikwah, Answer to the Complaint, and shut everyone up.

Ki Muhammad se wafa to hum tere hain

Ye jahan cheez hai kya, luh’o qalam tere hain.

If you love Muhammad, I am all yours,

This world is nothing, the pen of destiny is all yours.

Dada also taught me Is khak se uthe hain, Is khak me milenge. I have risen from this soil, and will mingle with this soil. He taught me to use adab rather than salam while greeting an unknown person, as one might not know their faith and sensitivities.

I had been taught all this before I came to Delhi in 1997 to study, to learn new things and to uphold my family’s honour. Dada was a respected figure and my parents, with their good deeds, had not let down his legacy.

I was considered bright and was despatched to a school in Delhi. (English was my forte; I knew the meaning of the word ‘traitor’, for example, and I knew the right word for the female chest.) I cleared the entrance test for class 6 in Jamia School, in which only six students were selected from more than a thousand, to join the batch of twenty odd class 5 passouts.

At this new school, everything was different. For example, where I came from, the medium of instruction was Hindi, but at Jamia School, it was Urdu. Studying in a Muslim school, with only one Hindu classmate, and living in the Muslim ghetto of Jamia Nagar, I learnt many new things – from friends, from seniors, from the locality.

I learnt about Them.

That they discriminate against Muslims in IAS entrance exams and that’s why there are hardly any Muslim IAS officers (Dada wanted me to become one). That they justify the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Of course, every educated Muslim knows what they are doing in Kashmir. And in Palestine.

I am not sure how much of all this I truly comprehended, but I did imbibe something of it.

My family didn’t want me to attend Aligarh Muslim University, where, reportedly, students were involved in regular fights on campus – although this is hardly novel in Indian universities. So they chose Jamia instead.

As the days passed, I slowly realised that making it to the IAS was a farfetched dream. Then, somehow, of all things, Medicine came to mind. I tried my best but did not clear the entrance test, and ended up studying Biosciences. This was the best I could do, given the amount of time I spent on my course books.

But those three years of undergrad were the best time of my life. I made many friends in college. It was a secular environment, or so I thought. After all, there was a Hindu as well in our group. And what’s more, his religion was never on our minds. Sure, the rest of us used to go to the university mosque to offer Friday prayers; that was natural.

By some chance, everyone in our group was a medical discard: none of us had qualified for entrance to medical college, and we had all landed up in BSc Bioscience, the poorest cousin of MBBS, behind even Biotechnology.

We were always having discussions (we called it bakchodi in our Delhi lingo) on a range of issues – from Islam and Muslims to India’s nuclear deal with the US, to porn, or the size of the girl who had just passed by. It was always lively, definitely livelier than coursework.

By the final year of undergrad, I began to worry about my future. MSc Bioscience or MBA? Only these two options seemed viable. I decided to pursue an MBA because I didn’t want to spend my life in labs examining rats and cockroaches and fungi. But the events of that September morning in 2008 changed the course of my life, literally as well as figuratively.

In the encounter between the officers of Delhi Police and those they called terrorists, two men from the Terrorist side were killed and a police inspector was shot (and eventually died that evening).

With every passing day, between police flip-flops and the media’s hysterical reportage, it seemed to the residents as if the aim of the EncounterTale was to defame Jamia Nagar’s Muslims, our colony, our university. No one appeared to have a doubt about it. But the encounter was not the end of the matter. The police continued picking up students for their alleged links to the Terrorists. Like they did from the Lajawab tea stall in Batla House colony. Apparently, a student was telling his friend that one of the Terrorists happened to be a classmate of his friend’s, and before he could finish, he was in a For You, With You, Always van. Nobody knew where this news came from, but it stuck. And it scared us.

All my friends were scared. We stopped going outside after sunset. No Lajawab, no Bismillah tea stall, and rarely beyond Azmat’s kebab shop, which was just at the mouth of my lane. Who knew who was listening to your conversation and how he would interpret it. Each of us thought he could be next. I have nothing to hide, but … but what if they arrest me?

Like me, none of my friends had parents in Delhi. Nobody would be there to defend us if we were arrested. We weighed our options; the future seemed dark. I thought a lot about going back home. Then I would remember the news that a few of the Terrorists had escaped from that building – one that had only a single entrance – about 200 metres from mine. God only knew how they managed that feat; nevertheless, it was all over the news that they did. I thought, if I left, they would say one more has run away. I scrapped the thought of going home. If that sounds paranoid to you, you can thank your stars you were not born into a Muslim family. Or you too might know what we went through all those days in that ghetto of – what many call – Pakistanis.

Mushirul Hasan, vice chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia University addressing a press conference on campus on 24 September 2008. (Sanjeev Verma/HT)

I had sleepless nights. The only source of succour was a man I had loathed since I joined Jamia Millia Islamia.

Bastard had defended Salman Rushdie.

But this time he was defending us, the Suspected Terrorists. To each of us in the crowd of hundreds of young Muslim students crammed into the university auditorium, Professor Mushirul Hasan said: ‘You are as patriotic as anyone else. You don’t need to prove your patriotism to ANYONE else.’ There was a deafening applause.

The next day, he organised a peace rally. All of us terrorists, suspected terrorists, radicals, extremists and fundamentalists participated. Our ‘trainers’ too, from the jihadi laboratory called Jamia.

Eid came. It was mid-session and, normally, there would have been no question of going home. But I went home to clear my head. After a week I was feeling better, and returned. On my way, when the train stopped at the Gorakhpur railway station, I went to buy a magazine and saw the cover of India Today. It took me back in a flash to the darkness of the previous days.

The article quoted one of the arrested men: he would bomb a market even if his mother was there. This was scary, but it was also difficult to believe. It appeared like a cooked-up story, part of the frenzied and indiscriminate reporting in the aftermath of the encounter. Surely such hardened criminals wouldn’t open their mouths so easily? Perhaps they were tortured into saying all this? In the coming days, in a jan sunwai, public hearing, organised by a group of Jamia teachers, the parents of the arrested men stated that they had not been allowed to meet their sons for days after their arrest. In fact, they didn’t even know where their Terrorist sons were being lodged, and only saw them when they were presented in court. The parents said that their sons had been presented in scarves even in the courtroom. It was only when their lawyer protested that the men were told to remove the scarves. Their faces were badly bruised. I was present at the meeting where the parents recounted this, and remember their faces and voices vividly to this day. And yet – and yet, the great journalist had scooped a ‘frank interview’ with them. Not one but two meetings, and within a few days of the arrest, he says in the story. I was impressed. I became determined to be a journalist; not that I would change the world, but I would be at least one less person, I thought, who would propagate half-truths – or lies – in the garb of journalism.

Jamia Millia Islamia University, Okhla, New Delhi. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

So, when I completed my graduation, passing by an insultingly small margin, I sought admission to Jamia’s AJK Mass Communication Research Centre for a Master’s in Convergent Journalism. On graduating from there, I got a job at a leading English daily in New Delhi.

It’s been over a decade since the encounter, but the questions remain. Were they really terrorists? If not, then gross injustice was done to them, their families, their friends. If yes, then there was gross injustice done to Inspector Sharma, his family, his friends, and those killed in the bomb blasts. In what circumstances was the inspector shot? Was he shot by the men inside the flat? Was he shot in friendly fire? The track record of the police team involved in the encounter, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, was hardly spotless, if one were to go by media reports. There had been several allegations of the cell’s involvement in questionable encounters.

What’s the complete truth? No one knows. Truths are as diverse as the narrators are.

Even now, every so often, plainclothes policemen appear in Jamia Nagar, driving cars with no number plates. Often at midnight. When residents oppose them, even manhandling the policemen sometimes, the police say they are there to 9 pick up a chain snatcher, or an auto thief or a Bangladeshi. Even now, almost a decade later, such highhandedness only adds to people’s doubts about the genuineness of the encounter in 2008.

~

Neyaz Farooquee (Javed Sultan/Courtesy of the author)

Over the years, I went through a transformation without realising it. This village kid from a religious family grew up into a city-dwelling young man with a sense of gnawing victimhood – real and perceived. I made friends of all hues, watched birds, enjoyed the beauty of the mountains, jungles and lakes, made sense of religion, and learnt that you can’t clap with one hand. And also unlearnt many things.

The encounter had driven me nearly berserk, like it did many youths in Jamia Nagar. I was on the brink of breaking down. In frustration, I thought about ways to deal with what I – we – were facing. It set me wondering about why the youth in disturbed areas took up arms. Why, and also how? What made them so desperate that they felt the need to do that?

Read more: I’m Not Guilty

In the bomb blasts and other terrorist attacks in Delhi and across the country, and the counterterror operations that followed these, innocent people have suffered beyond measure, and my small struggles are by no means comparable to theirs. But the many stories of small sufferings, small achievements, small men in Jamia Nagar that are lost in the noise still need to be heard. You have heard the news, but there is so much that never makes it to newspapers and television studios.

My own story is one of a kid who came to Delhi with many hopes; of a young man who lost his way; and then, if I might say so, of someone like you.

Will you read my story?

First Published: Feb 16, 2018 19:05 IST