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Azamgarh clerics go on a power trip

Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Muslim clerics of Azamgarh are raising new emotions and money over Batla House shootout, an emotive issue for the town’s two-lakh residents, reports Zia Haq. Big test case

india Updated: Jan 31, 2009 01:30 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times

It is an unfolding attempt to profitably convert rabble-rousing populism into politics: Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Muslim clerics of Azamgarh, an alleged nursery of terror some 800 km southeast of New Delhi, are raising new emotions and money over a 2008 shootout, an emotive issue for the town’s two-lakh residents.

The Ulama Express, a train hired for Rs 13 lakh, is proof of how well their plan has worked. Clerics from the Ulama Council pressed people for donations to get justice for three slain sons of the soil - the terror suspects gunned down in a shootout in a flat in a building called Batla House in South Delhi on September 19 last year. Big test case

Cash collected, they got 2,000 clerics to hit the streets in Delhi on Thursday, met Union home minister P. Chidambaram and demanded a judicial probe into the encounter. On Friday, on its way back to Azamgarh, the events and emotion that unfolded indicated that far from dying down, the Batla House affair is being used as a precursor to a move into politics.

The train to Azamgarh is being watched closely in Muslim settlements and political offices across Uttar Pradesh. If it does succeed in becoming an independent Muslim political movement -- none of which has ever seen significant success in independent India —- it will upset the electoral balance in UP. Muslims constitute 18.5 percent of UP, a state that elects 80 members to the Lok Sabha. The community's support has sustained Mulayam Singh Yadav's prominence for nearly two decades and both BSP and Congress are trying every trick in the book to win them over.

On its way back from Delhi, as the train pulls into the Sanjarpur station — the village of slain terror suspects Atif Ameen and Mohd Sajid — the crowds came charging in. This wasn't a scheduled stop, so a young madrassa student pulled the chain, forcing the train to grind to a halt.

Maulana Amir Rashadi, a hot-tempered cleric, alighted from his smelly S1 coach. “We have got justice for you,” he yelled.

“We forced the home minister to get all those who will be acquitted of terror charges a government job. He has agreed.” The villagers are spellbound, convinced.

Rashadi minces no words. His favourite slogan: “Hamein lalkaroge to pachtaoge (Dare not provoke us. You will regret it.)”

Among the applauding crowds is a young boy, Arshad Abdullah, who claimed he was slain terror suspect Atif Amin's sparring partner, his rival in school. He called Amin “a martyr”, as does everyone else.

The angry faces and talk make it clear: there's no fury like Azamgarh scorned.

Rashadi is the convenor of the Ulama Council, a political movement whose aim is to get justice for “innocent” Muslims branded terrorists. All along the route, he forces the train — illegally — to stop at places considered stronghold of UP Chief Minister Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party. Then, young men scream anti-Mayawati slogans on P.A. systems, as if to spite BSP workers.

At Lucknow station, the situation threatens to flare up. “Mayawati get lost. Death to ATS,” Rashadi's supporters shout, as policemen look on nervously. ATS is the acronym for UP's Anti-Terrorism Squad. Passengers at the platform, sensing trouble, run helter-skelter, as the clerics sound increasingly more menacing. Police finally rein them in.

In Sanjarpur, Muslim harassment has become the leit motif of political discourse.

“Whoever talks of this is seen as a hero because the people have realized only political power can get them justice,” said Delhi-based Mehtab Alam of the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, who led a fact-finding team to Azamgarh.

However, experts said the Ulama Council may have started with a bang, but could end up in a whimper.

“Their real test would be to select a consensual candidate for the Lok Sabha polls. Taking on Mayawati is easier said than done,” says professor Javed Ahmed of the renowned Shibli Nomani College here.

Right now, there's no stopping the rebels of Azamgarh.

First Published: Jan 31, 2009 00:45 IST