The Battle of Azamgarh: By Amaresh Misra


Right now, a new kind of a battle is going on in India. For the first time since Independence, Muslims of a whole region right in India’s heartland—the district of Azamgarh in Poorvanchal (East Uttar Pradesh)—have launched an Independent mass movement. Till date, from its own resources, the Ulema Council, an umbrella organization of leading Muslim clerics of the district, has succeeded in bringing hundreds and thousands of ordinary Muslims to Delhi, and then Lucknow in protest rallies. Several of the young boys and men from middle, lower and working classes arrived in trains booked in advance by the Ulema Council.
For the first time in the history of mass movements in India, railways were used as a means and a mode of protest. The issues the protestors raised included a judicial enquiry into the Batala House encounter, an end to Police atrocities and terror, picking of boys without warrants by the UP-ATS from villages of the district, the maligning of boys from a whole district as terrorists, and the refusal of `civilized’ citizens in Mumbai and Delhi to give houses on rent to students and residents of Azamgarh.
It is difficult to conceive that any other district of India would have risen en masse on these issues—in Azamgarh, till October 2008, just a month after the Batala House encounter, and two months after Abu Bashar, the main accused in the July 26thAhmedabad Blasts was picked up from the Sarai Meer village, the situation was so bad that any ATS man in plainclothes could enter a village and harass and torture Muslims at will. Azamgarhis were practically lynched in Delhi by blood thirsty fascist crowds on at least two occasions.
Formed in September 2008, the Ulema Council fought back and in a very short time, by December 2008, the tide began to turn. The aggressive stance taken by the Ulema Council leaders forced the local Police and the ATS to put a stop to the open beating and harassment of Muslim youth. At several places, where the ATS arrived to take boys into custody, villagers came out in hordes—the ATS had to retreat. The issue against police atrocities became one of self-respect and human dignity.
Poorvanchal is the area where the BJP-VHP-RSS saffron brigade has also unleashed a reign of anti-Muslim terror. Presenting a deadly mixture of Hindutva politics and mafia activities under police protection, Adityanath and his son Yoginath, the BJP MP from Gorakhpur, are virtually a law unto their own. Recently, they even had the gumption to kill a Muslim Police Inspector in broad daylight.
After the Batala House encounter, BJP leaders of Azamgarh were talking openly about turning Azamgarh into another Gorakhpur or even Gujarat. In fact, the BJP and VHP leaders gave a slogan—Azamgarh shuruaat karega, UP Gujarat banega. To counter this, the Ulema Council gave the slogan:Azamgarh shuruaat karega, poora Bharat swarg banega.
This basic spirit of Muslim led Indian secular nationalism, in which instead of a Hindu-Muslim or even a police Vs Muslim fight the Azamgarh battle has become part of the larger war for secularism in India, has surprised armchair liberals—unlike other such initiatives undertaken by other social forces, the Azamgarh phenomenon has some very specific features. For one, it is in tune with the post 26/11 mood of national secular unity and decline of communal feeling. It has nothing to do with Muslim League type exclusive Muslim assertion. It includes a vast majority of Pasis, Chamars, Rajbhars, Musahars and Nonias, other Most Backward Hindu Castes and poorer sections from amongst the upper castes, who too have borne the brunt of police and mafia-Hindutva atrocities.
Secondly, this movement has deep roots in Azamgarh’s history. In 1857, this was the district which provided the British with one of the fiercest resistance in Eastern India. Most of the sepoys of the East India Company Bengal Army came from Avadh and Poorvanchal (east UP). An entire infantry regiment, the 17th BNI, which remained in the frontline during the battles in Avadh and Lucknow, was made up of Muslims, Rajputs and Yadavs of Azamgarh. The Pulwar Rajputs of Azamgarh and Muslims of the Belariagunj, Sarai Meer and Beni Para (the upsurge areas of the current movement) are mentioned in British records as one of the toughest anti-colonial resistance fighters.
During the 1942 Quit India movement, one of the first attacks on Police stations and Kotwalis were reported from Azamgarh. One by one, all districts of Poorvanchal followed Azamgarh’s lead—soon the entire region from Jaunpur to Ballia was out of British hands, the police fleeing almost to a man.
In the post-Independence era, one of the first anti-Congress opposition party MLA was elected from Azamgarh. In the 1960s, when the notion of independent Muslim assertion was unheard of, Azamgarh was home to Muslim Majlis, a secular movement of Dalit-backward-Muslim elements started by Dr. Faridi of Lucknow.
In the 1970s and 1980s, upwardly mobile and politically and socially conscious Azamgarhis began to move out—in Mumbai, Dubai, and the US, wherever they went, they built small businesses and prospered to a certain extent. Then they came back to their villages—in the 1990s, Azamgarhis decided to send their boys and girls to for higher education, especially to centers like Delhi.
It was because of a desire for education that boys from Azamgarh rented houses and began staying in Okhla and the Jamia Nagar-Batala House area. At the same time the Delhi Police began to be fed with reports that a lot of Muslim boys from Azamgarh were settling down in the city. BJP UP circles viewed the social mobility of Muslims with envy and suspicion; during Advani’s tenure as the Home Minister, Azamgarh boys were screened regularly by the Delhi Police.
After the 12th September 2008 Delhi blasts, there was immense pressure on the Delhi Police to do something. The department already had a ready data on Delhi based Azamgarh boys. Sajid and Atif, the victims of the Batala house episode, seemed to have been made the scapegoat, and Azamgarh the ready villain, by the Delhi Police.
Only Ulemas could have countered this kind of a state terror. Indian Ulemas played a glorious role during the Indian freedom struggle. Hundreds and thousands died during 1857 wars. Then in the 20thcentury, Indian Ulemas opposed Jinnah’s two nation theory. After 1947, they went back to theirmadrasas and khanqahas (hospices). Now, 17 years after the Babari Masjid demolition, and 7 years after the Gujarat riots, they have again emerged for direct political action. In fact the Ulema Council has fielded 5 candidates from UP in the coming Parliamentary elections—in the days to come they will field more. Besides the BJP, the Ulema Council has rejected SP, BSP and the Congress for pursuing a negative brand of secular politics. Elsewhere in India too Muslims are forming secular parties under their leadership—Badruddin Ajmal’s Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) is expanding to Maharashtra and Bengal. Kerala is witnessing the rise of the Popular Front. Even Jamaat-e-Islami is contemplating a secular political party.
Muslims say that for 44 years they tried first, the upper caste Hindu secular leadership—and then after 1991 the Backward and Dalit Hindu secular forces. All three took them for a ride. Now the current mood is to take leadership in their own hands and forge alliances with different social forces and Hindu castes. The Indian (chiefly Hindu) political class should take note as to why this is happening—isn’t it true that the story of current Muslim assertion includes the recent history of betrayal by the Indian state of its own promises given to Muslims, written as law in the Indian constitution?

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