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The sun is setting over the majestic Shibli National Degree College here, the east UP town sometimes termed a terror factory. The college, known as a breeding ground of Islamic radicalism, is a voting centre for the polls tomorrow.
In many ways, Azamgarh is a typical UP town. In 1857, this was the district that provided the British fierce resistance in Eastern India. Most of the sepoys of the East India Company’s Bengal Army came from Avadh and Poorvanchal (east UP). An entire infantry regiment, the 17th BNI, in the frontline during the battles in Avadh and Lucknow, comprised Muslims,
Rajputs and the Yadavs of Azamgarh. The Pulwar Rajputs of Azamgarh and the Muslims of Belariagunj, Sarai Meer and Beni Para (the upsurge areas of the current movement) are named in British records some of the toughest resistance fighters. Shibli National Degree College recounts this history with pride.
In recent times, with a Muslim population of 23 per cent and a strong and assertive Yadav population, it represents Mulayam Singh Yadav's MY project. Yadav's last stint in office (till 2007) saw a post-graduate institute of medicine, along with a good road, come up in Azamgarh. This was aided by the dogged insistence of Amar Singh, whose ancestral village is just outside Azamgarh.
However, when Mayawati came to power, she decided to punish Azamgarh for voting the Samajwadi Party to power. The institute for medicine was stripped of its equipment. The only factory in the area, a sugar mill, was sold. And, there is nothing in the town that inspires individuals who write and dream, a stark contrast to its heydays, when the town boasted of the famous poet, Kaifi Azmi.
The absence of any development, coupled with the fact that the town accounts for a sizable population of Muslim youth, has led to Azamgarh being stereotyped as a place for Muslim radicals. Shibli has 10,000 students. Though not all are Muslims, most are.
The fact that the town doesn't account for the best role models doesn't help. Abu Salem is Azamgarh's export to the Mumbai underworld. Mukhtar Ansari, the famous UP strongman, is from neighbouring Ghazipur.
The two boys, Atif and Sajid, who allegedly planned the conspiracy to bomb Delhi from Batla House and were shot dead in an encounter in 2008, also hailed from Azamgarh.
However, not a single person in Azamgarh believes the boys who were killed did any wrong. Afsar Ali, proctor of Shibli, says five boys from Azamgarh who had studied at the college, went to Delhi for higher studies and stayed together in Batla House. One of them, Zeeshan, was in Lucknow for an examination when he was informed of his room-mates being killed in an encounter.
He 'surrendered' at the studio of a television channel and is now in jail. That another of his room-mates escaped is still difficult to believe, given the streets had an overwhelming presence of police when the encounter took place.
The home minister has ruled out any further enquiry into the matter, though there are several inconsistencies in the way the encounter was conducted.
The Batla House encounter strand runs through every election narrative here. Mulayam Singh Yadav promised justice would be done. Rahul Gandhi met students who told him there was 'no past, and no future in Azamgarh until justice was done' in the case. Though he said nothing to the students, he told a delegation of teachers he could do nothing until the elections were over. After that, he said, he would take up the matter with the central government.
The government also believes Azamgarh is host to a new radical Muslim group called the Indian Mujahideen, which plotted the serial blasts in Delhi in 2008.
“The biggest industry in Azamgarh is politics. Till three or four years earlier, Azamgarh had eight members of Parliament. More than 15 members of the legislative assembly either originally belonged to Azamgarh or had been elected from here, including the speaker of the assembly, S Rajbhar. “No factory will ever come up here, there will be no development. Our representatives are content with politics,” said Shahabuddin, head of the Urdu department at Shibli.
There has been large-scale migration from Azamgarh, primarily of people aged 40-50. Many now work in Dubai, Borneo, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, where, among other jobs, they clean toilets and sweep floors. The size of average landholdings is larger than anywhere else in UP.
However, there are no absentee landlords here. People still live off the land, with the result that there is little or no productive employment. This has also given rise to an economy that is still feudal and uses landless labour, the Dalits, for domestic or agricultural work.
It is of little wonder that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) found this region fertile for recruitment. A small Dalit hamlet by the side of the road just outside Azamgarh is clean and prosperous. Young men here speak English with confidence. Ramesh Rao, 16, is confident the BSP cannot be defeated. And, he is not at all impressed with Rahul Gandhi's promises of change.
Azamgarh though, desperately waits for change. It hopes the new representatives would make sure justice is done.