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Parties plan to use divisions to their advantage at polls

Campaign rhetoric exploits Hindu and Muslim animosity as political parties tap communal divisions and make terrorism the key voting plank.

A student in the Jamaat-ur-Rashad madrasa in Azamgarh.
A student in the Jamaat-ur-Rashad madrasa in Azamgarh.

AZAMGARH // The soft, lilting sound of the Quran rings through the corridor of the Jamaat-ur-Rashad madrasa, as young students in filigreed skull caps rock on their haunches, intoning verses in the blistering afternoon heat. Classes run as usual in this old seminary, but beneath the sedate calm lingers a feeling of fear, alienation and anger.

In the past few months, more than two dozen young Muslim men from this dusty, nondescript town on the eastern fringes of Uttar Pradesh have been picked up by India's investigative agencies, accused of abetting the Indian Mujahideen, a terrorist outfit blamed for planting bombs in a number of Indian cities last year. Many of the accused languish in prison while others are out on bail, have disappeared or are on the run.

Once a cultural haven for Hindi and Urdu littérateurs, "Azamgarh is now recognised as a factory of terrorists", said Maulana Amir Rashadi Madni, a diminutive cleric with a salt-and-pepper beard who is the rector of Jamaat-ur-Rashad. "This image has created a lot of uneasiness among the local Muslim youth." This perception has had a polarising affect on Azamgarh's Hindu and Muslim residents. In this month's parliamentary elections, political parties are tapping these communal divisions, making terrorism the key voting plank.

Ramakant Yadav, a candidate from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is accused of aggressively whipping up anti-Muslim paranoia in his speeches by exhorting the majority Hindu voters to elect him if they want to "free Azamgarh from the grips of terrorism". Azamgarh's Muslims have gone on the defensive. Maulana Madni, who is also the convener of the Ulema Council, an organisation of Muslim clerics, is fielding candidates from Azamgarh and other areas of Uttar Pradesh to join ulema Council for the first time, encouraging Muslim voters to unite against the wave of arbitrary arrests, which they allege are carried out without credible investigation and evidence.

Until mid-2008, Javed Akhtar, 53, a well-known local orthopaedic surgeon, harboured no electoral ambitions. But after his son, Asadullah Akhtar, 23, was accused in the New Delhi serial bombings last year, Dr Akhtar said he could no longer afford to be politically inactive. "Earlier nefarious charges of terrorism were only levied against boys who studied in madrasas," said Dr Akhtar, the Ulema Council's Azamgarh candidate. "Now the highly educated Muslim boys, who form the backbone of our society, are being targeted."

Mr Akhtar was pursuing a degree in pharmacy at the University of Lucknow when he was charged. He is on the run, with a bounty on his head of 100,000 rupees (Dh7,400), issued by the Indian police. Dr Akhtar claims that he has no idea about his son's whereabouts. "Officials in plainclothes come and arrest boys without warrants. When relatives go scream in the police station, they feign ignorance about the arrest. This perverse behaviour must stop," Dr Javed said, explaining his motivation for contesting the elections.

Last December, Mr Madni's son, Talha Aamir, a tall, lanky 22-year-old, was pursuing a distance learning postgraduate degree from Azamgarh's well-known Shibli National college while working at the call centre of Wipro, an outsourcing giant in Hyderabad. He was arrested on a train near Nagpur while he travelled from Azamgarh. He was released on bail after being in custody for 14 days. Mr Aamir, who claims he was falsely implicated, spoke with a quiet firmness, and a lump in his throat, about how his arrest has turned his life upside down.

"People view me differently. A year ago, I was a regular boy next door. Today I'm a terrorist." Mr Aamir's future is in limbo. He has lost his job, and the terrorist label makes it difficult to find another one. His bail condition demands that he appear before the Nagpur police every fortnight. "I'm now afraid of revealing that I hail from Azamgarh," he said. "Once I say it, people assume that I am a terrorist. After so many arbitrary arrests, young Muslim boys here feel insecure, vulnerable. Earlier, our conversations would be about cricket matches. These days it's about 'who's next'?"

The debate over terrorism is animating the election campaign in Azamgarh, and political rallies feature angry, communal rhetoric. Such emotions are resonating in these elections. Political rallies in Azamgarh are full of hate speeches, coloured in a communal rhetoric. "Support me and I promise to teach them a lesson," Abu Azmi, a leader from the Samajwadi Party, the socialist party in Uttar Pradesh, said at a recent election rally, promising action against policemen involved in the Batla House encounter.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ramakant Yadav from the BJP, who is known to be anti-Muslim, implores Hindu supporters to elect him to prevent Azamgarh from becoming the "Waziristan of India", referring to Pakistan's lawless tribal area. Political analysts say many candidates stoke prejudice between different communities because an electorate divided along communal lines ensures a vote in their favour.

"More than 60 years after independence, we are still a very feudal society," said Amitabh Bhattacharya, a Varanasi-based columnist for Northern India Patrika, an English daily newspaper. "Politicians want to divide and rule us." But the families of the accused find little solace amid such hate-mongering. "If our boys will be randomly declared terrorists for political mileage," said the father of an accused, who requested anonymity, "there is a danger that they might be provoked to really become terrorists."

achopra@thenational.ae