An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism: An Excerpt 

The police had issued four sketches of suspects after the Delhi blasts. Four sketches for three men. One of them wore a skullcap, the others had trimmed beards. None of these sketches matched the portraits that the newspapers published of those killed in the encounter. In the coming days and weeks, sceptics pointed out that the dead men had all presented authentic documents for SIM-card verification. The police responded that they had been overconfident, implying that the Terrorists had disguised themselves as Normal Human Beings – as students, as working men. Normal Human Beings.

Of all the many claims that the police made, this was the scariest. In one stroke, it brought every youth in Jamia Nagar under the scanner of suspicion. How was a truly normal person expected to behave? And what distinguished him or her from someone who is merely normal-looking? How was one supposed to identify someone who was disguised as a Normal Human Being? Am I normal? Are you?

This ostensibly harmless statement made us all – brave, cowards, closet cowards, everyone – paranoid, if you will. I thought about fleeing Delhi. But then I remembered the police claim that two of the Terrorists had fled. What if they said I was one of them? Already a major news channel was broadcasting a programme warning people about the absconding men: ‘Shut your doors and windows, they could be hiding anywhere.’ I abandoned that plan. But staying in Delhi presented its own challenges. On the day of the encounter, the police had picked up five or six school kids who lived in the Encounter Building.

They were released late in the evening that day after some senior lawyers intervened, but it was scary. If schoolkids were being picked up, college students were not safe at all. A school boy from another colony was dragged out by plainclothesmen from his home. I heard they had asked for his elder brother and were told that he wasn’t home; so they dragged away the younger boy.

I heard that a young man was picked up from Lajawab tea stall near Batla House chowk and taken away in a For-You-With-You-Always van. We stopped going out after sunset. No Bismillah tea stall, no Lajawab, no nightlife of Jamia Nagar. We were scared of the police. I recalled the old village wisdom Dada often quoted: Never grow a ber ka ped at your door, never befriend a policeman. Ammi told me to be careful and avoid stepping out unless it was really important. She had good reason to fear. The most educated person in her maternal family, her cousin, had been killed by the police in the Mumbai riots following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, and our joyous visits to Ammi’s maternal home always held the undertone of a missing uncle, a widowed aunt and orphaned cousins.

My uncle was a maulana who taught at a madrasa-cum-masjid in Mumbai. At around 10.30 a.m., while he was doing his ablutions before reading the Quran, a troupe of policemen entered his madrasa from the rooftop of a bakery next door. They asked for the head maulana – Maulana Qasim, my uncle.

His son, barely in his teens, and scared and confused, directed them towards his Abbu. But his Abbu knew what the police action meant in that communally charged city. He shouted to his students: ‘Monsters have come; start reading darood.’ Darood, a common dua that is read in daily life in praise of Prophet Muhammad, and that many consider good to read for a dying soul.

My cousin witnessed it all. They shot his Abbu, but his eyes were still open. They dragged him down the stairs from the upper floors. Then they kicked his Abbu towards the railing. Still alive, he clung to the railing, while his polio-stricken leg dangled in the air. Then they shot more bullets and his Abbu finally fell to the street below.

His Abbu asked them for water. But they put their shoes in his mouth. His Abbu lay there while they killed others. The boy saw blood flowing from his Abbu’s mouth. His front tooth was broken – the tooth that had been replaced a few years ago. He had asked his Abbu where he got a new tooth from, and Abbu had joked that ‘I stole your tooth when you were asleep and that’s why your front tooth is missing.’

That day, the thirteen-year-old watched as his Abbu slowly died, a man gagging him to prevent him from crying out.

The street was red with his Abbu’s blood.

The boy saw blood flowing from his Abbu’s mouth. His front tooth was broken – the tooth that had been replaced a few years ago. He had asked his Abbu where he got a new tooth from, and Abbu had joked that ‘I stole your tooth when you were asleep and that’s why your front tooth is missing.’

That day, the thirteen-year-old watched as his Abbu slowly died, a man gagging him to prevent him from crying out.

The street was red with his Abbu’s blood.

Some policemen ordered the kids in the madrasa to form a queue. But another policeman pleaded, ‘What have the kids done? Leave them.’ Good people are everywhere, you know. It was 9 January 1993.

When the curfew was lifted, my cousin went to the mortuary with a relative to retrieve his Abbu’s body. The face was swollen beyond recognition but his handicapped foot was unmistakable – the disability that had, as a child, made him less suited for worldly affairs, and had caused his parents to send him into God’s service.

He washed his Abbu’s body as per the rituals, wrapped it in a shroud and placed it in a coffin. Then he offered funeral prayers and buried his Abbu. By now, curfew had been imposed again and they had to complete the rituals quietly.

Besides those in the graves (new and old), there were only three people in the graveyard. The relative who had accompanied my cousin.

My cousin. And his Abbu. Dead Abbu.

Maulana Qasim had taught Ammi all the duas and hadees that she later taught me when I was a kid. To the outside world, the case is known as Suleman Usman Bakery firing – in which, besides the maulana, eight more were sent to heaven. The B.N. Srikrishna Commission, set up to investigate the Mumbai riot cases, said in Volume 1, Chapter 2 of its 1998 report:

Police suspected terrorists to be holed up on the terrace of Suleman Usman Bakery in Pydhonie jurisdiction. Operation launched against the alleged terrorists by the Special Operation Squad (SOS) under the direction of joint commissioner of police, R.D. Tyagi, and extensive firing by the SOS resulted in deaths of nine Muslims. The police failed to apprehend even a single so-called terrorist, nor did they seize any fire-arms, sophisticated or otherwise, from which firing was done at them, as claimed.

It was eight years after the murder of the maulana that the first FIR against the policemen was registered. But the unarmed men inside the madrasa and the nearby bakery were made riot-accused soon after the shooting. The accused policemen are yet to be punished; the main accused became the chief of Mumbai Police and eventually retired. Only in 2015 was a trial ordered against them.

Meanwhile, here in Jamia Nagar …

News of the police raids – in police clothes or plain clothes – spread like wildfire. Given the media’s incoherent scare-mongering, rumours had become the most trustworthy source of news. More so because most of them turned out to be true in the next day’s newspapers. In slightly different language, though. Plainclothesmen were termed as police, picked up and kidnapped as detained.

Along with many young men, the caretaker of the flat in which the encounter took place was arrested too. It was later, when the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association published its fact-finding report, that more details emerged. We knew then for certain that we were right to be scared. On the day of the encounter, the caretaker had gone to the local police thana, but there were no policemen there, so he went to the office of a television news channel. There, he showed the tenant verification form of the men living in the flat. His son, Zia Ur Rahman, was friends with the dead men, as they all hailed from Azamgarh, and Zia had reportedly introduced them to his father as prospective tenants for the flat. The caretaker claimed he had accompanied Atif to the local police thana for verification.

They were not terrorists, he stated.

The next day, he went back to the police station. The police claimed that the verification forms were fake and arrested him and his son. They charged Zia as one of the bombers. They termed the rent agreement as fake, even though it was the address the tenants used for their SIMcard verification, which requires physical verification by the telecom company.

There was even a rumour that the flat owner went to the local police station, paid a few lakhs and secured his patriotism. So went the rumours.

Like Zia and his father, a student named Zeeshan – who had been a flatmate of one of the dead men, Atif, and also a resident of Azamgarh – went to a TV channel to profess his own innocence publicly. He was appearing for his MBA exam when the encounter took place. As soon as he came out of the studio, he was arrested. I knew a Zeeshan too, a senior in college, who was also from Azamgarh. In the confusion, I thought, if they had Zeeshan, they could come for me too. Not wanting to take any chances, I deleted his number from my phone. It turned out the man they arrested was a different Zeeshan.

Most newspapers reported that Zeeshan had been nabbed from central Delhi’s Jhandewala locality, without mentioning that it was outside a television studio. A few papers even said that he had been arrested in a night raid in Jamia Nagar.

My classmate Mama was from Azamgarh too. He was an idiot, and I had faced off with him in my first weeks in college to be elected class representative, but I couldn’t imagine he was involved in anything more than blabbering. Still, who knows? Why take chances? I deleted his phone number and the numbers and messages of all the classmates who used to hang out with him. I also deleted the numbers of all the others in my contact list who were from Azamgarh or were close to anyone from the district. I knew many others who, like me, deleted the contacts and text messages of their acquaintances from Azamgarh.

Saquib Nisar, another friend of Atif’s, was working in a firm in Delhi and had graduated in Economics from Jamia. Like others, he too went to the same news channel to profess his and Atif’s innocence. He too was arrested the next day.

Another young man from Azamgarh, Mohammed Shakil, was arrested from Sangam Vihar, a big colony predominantly populated by migrants, labourers and daily-wagers. I had lived there, in the Jamia Hamdard University campus, while I was preparing for my MBBS entrance before starting college in Jamia. I was on a scholarship from a society of the university that provided coaching to minorities and other weaker sections of society at subsidised fees

These were coincidences, but now everything seemed ominous. I would have no explanation if, God forbid, I got arrested. In fact, what seemed like a trivial coincidence could look like eerie design … as if God had colluded with the police.

A day after these young men were arrested, having protested their innocence on television, all the major newspapers published a photo on the front page – featuring the arrested young men, surrounded by jubilant policemen. The young men’s faces were wrapped in kaffiyehs, the scarf worn by many Muslim men in the Arab world. It was not a black hood or a random piece of cloth that’s generally used to mask the face of criminals, but something that evoked a specific religious and communal identity. The use of kaffiyeh left no doubt about what the police was trying to convey. There was not even a pretence of subtlety.

Confused and disenchanted, I wanted to erase every trace of the connections and events that could remotely cause any suspicion to fall on me.

Sardonic and wise, Neyaz Farooquee scrapes out the unvarnished truth about identity and stereotypes, about life in a ghetto, and the small and big disappointments that make up an ordinary life, in his candid memoir. 

Excerpted with permission from Westland Books, from  An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism: Growing up Muslim in India by journalist and NIF Fellow Neyaz Farooquee. The book is available on Amazon.

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