Travels of a political pilgrim: Madrassas play key role in inducing orthodoxy among Azamgarh's Muslims
Indian Muslims, including those of Azamgarh, need to come out of denial and understand that radicalism and their social backwardness are rooted in the teachings of religious organisations and Muslim intellectuals
Editor's note: Uttar Pradesh is home to India's sixth largest Muslim population according to the 2011 Census, a figure whose magnitude is amplified when viewed in the context of the sheer expanse of the state and its Byzantine linkages of identities and communities. Such an examination is rendered all the more urgent considering the state just witnessed a tumultuous election. To understand the mind of its Muslim community — its anxieties, aspirations and animating impulses — political commentator and journalist Tufail Ahmed set off on the road, sending us dispatches from its far corners. Firstpost will chronicle his travels in a multi-part series. The following is the concluding part of this series titled 'Travels of a political pilgrim'.
Over the past decade, Azamgarh has figured prominently in news headlines for the arrests of terror suspects, especially after the 2008 Batla House encounter, in which youths from Azamgarh were found to be involved. Its image has taken a severe beating. However, insofar as Azamgarh's role in Islamic education is concerned, it stands out from the other districts of India for a century of glorious history that can be attributed to its reputed madrassas. For example, the town of Mubarakpur hosts Jamiatul Ashrafia, the topmost educational centre of Barelvi Islam; Jamia Arabia Ehyayul Uloom, a leading Deobandi madrassa established in 1899; the Madrasa Al-Arabia Darul Taleem established in 1906 by the Ahle Hadith sect; and Madrasa Babul Ilm of Shia Muslims.
There are many more influential madrassas around the district headquarters of Azamgarh. Jamiatul Falah, established in 1914 and associated with the Jamat-e-Islami Hind, is situated in the town of Bilariyaganj, about half an hour's drive from Azamgarh. Madrasa-tul-Islah is another leading Islamic seminary, and was established in the town of Saraimeer in 1906. "Students from Tibet and Myanmar used to study here till the 1950s," says Maulana Ashfaq Ahmed, the madrassa's principal. Established in 1930, Madrasa Arabia Baitul Uloom is also situated in Saraimeer, where Abu Salem was born and worked as a mechanic before moving to Mumbai, where he became an underworld don and is now in jail following his extradition from Portugal. Azamgarh also hosts Shibli National College, a leading mainstream educational institution established in 1883.
But let's map out the terror cases. In Saraimeer, I met Tarique Shafique, a founder member of Rihai Manch, an advocacy group for youths arrested over suspected terror links. As per details available with Tarique, 16 Muslim youths were arrested from Azamgarh district, nine are missing and two were killed in the Batla House encounter. These cases happened over a period during which the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (2007-2012) and the Samajwadi Party (2012-2017) were in power in the state. "All 27 youths are innocent," says Tarique, who is dismissive of any involvement of Muslims in terror cases. "The government knows that the detained youths will be freed in 10-12 years," he said, noting a political conspiracy to frame Muslim youths in terror cases, especially when the Congress was in power at the Centre.
With the media highlighting custodial deaths, many common Muslims are quick to believe that innocent youths are being framed in terror cases. However, talking to people in and around Saraimeer, it does appear that there are eyewitness accounts of four youths being picked up locally, but their detention on court records are shown to be from other places. Two of the youths killed in the Batla House encounter were from Sanjarpur, a village near Saraimeer. When pointed out that some youths escaped from the Batla House and released a jihadi video from Syria, local Muslims instead argue that they could have been picked up by intelligence agencies.
Across the world, a serious challenge for intelligence agencies is to find like evidence that could be admissible in courts. In India, many Muslim youths are routinely released for want of evidence, damaging the image of intelligence agencies in the eyes of Muslims.
In Sanjarpur, Mohammad Shakir, the elder brother of Muhammed Sajid aka Bada Sajid who is on the run, said, "I spoke with Sajid in the night of 18-19 (September 2008, the night before the Batla House encounter). He told me that he was in Lucknow. We believe that he could be in the (undeclared) custody of intelligence agencies, which will use him when needed."
In Sanjarpur, Masihuddin Sanjari, who wrote a booklet Begunah Dahshatgard, said, "Media reported the killing of Bada Sajid three times. How many times can one person die?"
While such thinking goes through the minds of Muslim families in Azamgarh, it is equally true that terrorists do not reveal information even to their closest family members, not even to their girlfriends. And there are numerous times when the media reported about killings of jihadi militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, but it turned out to be untrue due to difficulties in newsgathering. For common Muslims, such situations lend to conspiracy theories.
The Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) — a radical group now outlawed by the government — was established at the Aligarh Muslim University on 25 April, 1977. Shahid Badr, a graduate from the Jamiatul Falah madrassa based at Bilariyaganj, arrived at AMU to study for BUMS, the Bachelor of Unani Medicine and Surgery. In 1991, he became SIMI secretary, serving until 1994 when he became the president of SIMI's AMU unit for a three-year period. He went on to lead SIMI further — as president of SIMI's Uttar Pradesh unit from 1998 and then from 2000 onwards as its all-India president. In 2001, when SIMI was banned, Badr was arrested and later freed by courts, though he is currently fighting one case against himself as well as another case against the ban on SIMI.
The government is struggling to prove in court that SIMI is a terror outfit, and therefore it bans and re-bans it after the expiry of each ban, which was for two-year periods earlier and is now for five years as per an amendment in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
However, SIMI indeed was a radicalising group. At his Unani medicine shop in Azamgarh, I asked Badr to explain how SIMI was not a radicalising, if not a terror, group. He responded: "If anyone has an argument that SIMI had a sakhtgeer mauqif (extremist stance), then we would like to hear it."
However, one thing is clear: The detained suspects didn't carry out terror activities locally, a pattern also seen in the case of Islamic militants in Kerala. Since the attacks are not local, it is hard for local Muslims who have seen the youths to believe that they could be found in terror modules elsewhere.
A relevant aspect in the life of Shahid Badr is that he graduated with a Fazeelat degree (equivalent to BA) from the Jamiatul Falah, a madrassa associated with Jamaat-e-Islami. However, it has four organisationally-unconnected branches: Jamaat-e- Islami Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu and Kashmir — the three having ideological but no direct affiliation with Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which operates across India but outside Kashmir. The three branches — other than Jamat-e-Islami Hind — are known for having birthed, nurtured and sheltered terror groups.
In fact, Syed Munawar Hasan, the chief of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, described the Pakistani Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud as a martyr in 2013 and refused to call Pakistani soldiers dying in counter-terrorism as martyrs.
When the arrests began to get reported, many Muslims in Azamgarh district stopped sending their children to study outside the district. It created a siege mentality and a world of conspiracy theories. Average Indians, Muslims or Hindus, cannot be expected to be experts on terrorism.
But there is a pattern: Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) birthed jihad in Kashmir in the late-1980s, and after the 2002 Gujarat riots tried to take it across India through groups like the Indian Mujahideen and the Deccan Mujahideen. Even Al-Qaeda is a branch of ISI. In fact, a simple Google search of ISI's activities across India indicates that more Hindus than Muslims have been arrested over the past decade on charges of working for ISI.
Jihadi terrorism is rooted in Islamic literature, religious ideas propagated by madrassas and Islamic clerics, and grievance-mongering by editors of the Urdu press. The argument is not that every madrassa student will become radicalised; the essential argument is this: Every radicalised youth is inspired by clerics, madrassas and Urdu editors. Many a time, Islamic clerics radicalise Muslims without even being aware of it. Muslims must come out of denial and face the facts so that religious institutions are forced to become open and modernise their teaching by removing exclusivist references from Islamic textbooks. For an example, all pejorative references to kafirs (infidels) and munafiqeen (hypocrites) need to be removed from teaching material.
"Why Azamgarh, why not other places?" I asked Badr. In response, he painted a picture of a world of conspiracy theories. What I and you consider as a conspiracy theory is sociologically real for Badr and Muslim youths. It is in this intellectual world that Islamic extremism germinates and Muslim youths are caught up. Arrests were made from many places such as Bhatkal, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Indore, Bhopal, Kerala and others, Badr said, adding that historic protests after the Batla House encounter when the Muslims of Azamgarh booked special trains to Delhi added to victimisation.
As per Badr's interpretation, Azamgarh has also been a target because the district has been a global centre of Islam for more than a century. He narrated a long list of famed interpreters of Quran and Hadiths. "The terror charge is since 2008 but the Islamic scholars of Azamgarh have been holding aloft the banner of Islam for more than a century," Badr added.
In meetings with the heads of the madrassas around Azamgarh, it appeared that Islamic clerics view the role of madrassas as a kind of defence against anti-Islam forces, and certainly not for education itself. They do not see change as acceptable. Jamiatul Ashrafia of Mubarakpur doesn't even allow loudspeakers for azaan (call to prayer), though it accepts triple talaq by WhatsApp.
Maqbool Ahmad Falahi, the deputy principal of Jamiatul Falah, told me, "Taleem hi khud uddeshya naheen hai (education alone is not the purpose of madrassas). The role of madrassas is to nurture the identity of Muslims."
I have toured the length and breadth of India, but it's only in this district that Islamic clerics clearly told me that education is only for the sake of spreading Islam. They teach some mathematics, computer sciences and English, but it's to propagate Islam not to prepare students to meet the needs of social life.
Maulana Ashfaq Ahmed, the principal of Madrasa-tul-Islah, said, "Establishment of madrassas was for the promotion of Islam. Muslims are in decline morally and socially, but you cannot call these as the failure of madrassas."
He went on to blame contemporary causes for the decline of Muslims, adding that the electronic media plays a significant role. "Hum naheen chahte ki gaana sunein (We do not want that Muslims listen to songs)," he said.
At the Madrasa Arabia Baitul Uloom, I sat down for a chat with Mufti Mohammad Abdullah Phoolpuri, the chief principal. He envisions modern education as a threat to Islam. "The enemy faces threat from our religion. The entire world is engaged that Muslims move far from religion," he said, adding, "The entire success of the world is in our Shariah."
At this madrassa, some clerics started reverse-interviewing me. "What guidance will you give to the women in your family?" they asked me. I turned to them and said: "They themselves will decide what to do about their life."
At the Shibli National College, many lecturers told me that Muslim students do not show the same thirst for knowledge which Hindu students exhibit. During this tour of UP, I heard a similar argument at the Aligarh Muslim University, where a librarian at the Maulana Azad Library said: "While Hindu students frequently approach us to seek advice and ask for new books, Muslim students do not show any sense of curiosity."
Religious institutions like madrassas and conspiracy theories propagated by Muslim intellectuals and Urdu editors still continue to shape the world in which Muslims of Azamgarh — or indeed, the rest of India — live. Their orthodoxy is nurtured by this intellectual world.
Syed Ahmed Barelvi went on to lead the first jihad in India against the Sikh rule in Punjab in the first quarter of the 19th century from Raebareilly in Uttar Pradesh. About a century after Barelvi, it was again in Uttar Pradesh that Mahmood ul-Hasan of the Darul Uloom Deoband established the first Taliban-like quasi-military organisation — Jamiat-ul-Ansar, which developed into a full-fledged terror organisation called Nazzaarat ul-Maarif – as per God's Terrorists — a book by Charles Allen.
Indian Muslims, including those of Azamgarh, need to come out of denial and understand that radicalism and their social backwardness are rooted in the teachings of religious organisations and Muslim intellectuals.
The author, a former BBC journalist, is a contributing editor at Firstpost and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif
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