Prologue: A Person Like You
How do you react when something like a police encounter happens in your locality, and a few doors down, two men are killed – two of your neighbours, who have been labelled terrorists. Imagine, for a moment, that this happened not in Imphal or Srinagar, where such occurrences are not unheard of, but in your safe, cosy neighbourhood.
Let’s get to the facts.
It was September 2008 in south Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, in the vicinity of a central university called Jamia. Few here believed that the encounter was genuine, but an inspector of the Delhi Police was killed. This gave an unfortunate twist to the story and added credibility to the police version. Students were found to be anti-nationals. But the locals, including myself, found the story hard to believe.
I was twenty-two when it happened, living alone, about 200 metres from where the two young men died. When I read the reports in newspapers, I remember thinking that they sounded rather like me. It was so close that it scared me. It was as if they were me – only the names were different. They were living alone, away from their families, just as I had since childhood. One of them wanted to be an IAS officer, another a pilot. One of those killed was studying at Jamia Millia Islamia, like I was; the younger, about seventeen, and just a few months old in Delhi, was preparing for the Jamia entrance exam. Alongside that, he was attending English coaching classes, like I had once wanted to.
Going by media reports of the time, the rooms of the Terrorists were messy, as mine was. The lights in my house were usually on till late at night, or perhaps I should say, early in the morning. Neighbours would say, Neyaz is a very hardworking boy, he studies all night. My friends and I knew just how hardworking I was. They didn’t open the door when the police knocked. I wouldn’t have either – even God would have been hard put to wake me up if I didn’t have an important class. Anyway, according to the newspapers, the lights were on late in the nights in their home too.
Based on the stories of their activities, narrated mostly by anonymous sources, the papers confidently announced that these boys were indeed Terrorists. They may as well have been: it was too early to call, but the news reports betrayed no doubts about their culpability.
The encounter followed within a week of the serial blasts in Delhi that had killed thirty. For a week after the blasts, the police had been raiding suspected Terrorists and their Hideouts, including in Jamia Nagar, and it was in the news all over. The men killed in the encounter had, as it turned out, submitted their original IDs and addresses to the caretaker of the building (who claimed that he had in turn submitted these to the local police station). Following the encounter, locals asked: why didn’t the Terrorists run away from Jamia Nagar? The police, for their part, claimed that the Terrorists had been over-confident because they were disguised as Normal Human Beings. In a single statement, they rendered everyone a suspected Terrorist.
The police decoded all these Facts in a flash, like experts in Bollywood movies. And the media conveyed these to you and me, since, you know, that’s their job. A nation’s conscience was satisfied.
But mine was not. Not at all. Maybe I was not part of the nation, I thought for a moment. Or perhaps I didn’t matter. I was scared. I had my doubts. So did every young man in our locality. The speed with which the authorities, and the news reports, reached their conclusions made us suspect there was something fishy; that there was more to it than what you and I knew or were told.
I had come to Delhi to study when I was barely old enough to wash my bottom. Having lived alone for eleven years, away from my parents, my thoughts were defined by friends and acquaintances in Jamia Nagar, and by the remnants of my past. The rest I learnt mostly from The Hindu, the newspaper I subscribed to. I didn’t have TV; it spoils kids.
I grew up in a religious family, where half the worries of my parents and grandparents revolved around achieving piousness and seeking God’s approval of their deeds. Not that I was raised as a religious bigot or anything like that. Far from it. My grandfather, Dada, taught me Sare Jahan Se Achha by the poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who also wrote, in case you don’t know, a poem called Ram, in which he called Ram ‘Imam-e-Hind’, Leader of India. Iqbal is also famous for his Shikwah, a complaint to God, for having let down Muslims. It earned him the wrath of the clerics, who issued a fatwa declaring him an infidel. Kufr ka fatwa. But the man responded with Jawab-e-Shikwah, Answer to the Complaint, and shut everyone up.
Ki Muhammad se wafa to hum tere hain
Ye jahan cheez hai kya, luh’o qalam tere hain.
If you love Muhammad, I am all yours,
This world is nothing, the pen of destiny is all yours.
Dada also taught me Is khak se uthe hain, Is khak me milenge. I have risen from this soil, and will mingle with this soil. He taught me to use adab rather than salam while greeting an unknown person, as one might not know their faith and sensitivities.
I had been taught all this before I came to Delhi in 1997 to study, to learn new things and to uphold my family’s honour. Dada was a respected figure and my parents, with their good deeds, had not let down his legacy.
I was considered bright and was despatched to a school in Delhi. (English was my forte; I knew the meaning of the word ‘traitor’, for example, and I knew the right word for the female chest.) I cleared the entrance test for class 6 in Jamia School, in which only six students were selected from more than a thousand, to join the batch of twenty-odd class 5 passouts.
At this new school, everything was different. For example, where I came from, the medium of instruction was Hindi, but at Jamia School, it was Urdu. Studying in a Muslim school, with only one Hindu classmate, and living in the Muslim ghetto of Jamia Nagar, I learnt many new things – from friends, from seniors, from the locality.
I learnt about Them.
That they discriminate against Muslims in IAS entrance exams and that’s why there are hardly any Muslim IAS officers (Dada wanted me to become one). That they justify the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Of course, every educated Muslim knows what they are doing in Kashmir. And in Palestine.
I am not sure how much of all this I truly comprehended, but I did imbibe something of it.
My family didn’t want me to attend Aligarh Muslim University, where, reportedly, students were involved in regular fights on campus – although this is hardly novel in Indian universities. So they chose Jamia instead.
As the days passed, I slowly realised that making it to the IAS was a farfetched dream. Then, somehow, of all things, Medicine came to mind. I tried my best but did not clear the entrance test, and ended up studying Biosciences. This was the best I could do, given the amount of time I spent on my course books.
But those three years of undergrad were the best time of my life. I made many friends in college. It was a secular environment, or so I thought. After all, there was a Hindu as well in our group. And what’s more, his religion was never on our minds. Sure, the rest of us used to go to the university mosque to offer Friday prayers; that was natural.
By some chance, everyone in our group was a medical discard: none of us had qualified for entrance to medical college, and we had all landed up in BSc Bioscience, the poorest cousin of MBBS, behind even Biotechnology.
We were always having discussions (we called it bakchodi in our Delhi lingo) on a range of issues – from Islam and Muslims to India’s nuclear deal with the US, to porn, or the Size of the girl who had just passed by. It was always lively, definitely livelier than coursework.
By the final year of undergrad, I began to worry about my future. MSc Bioscience or MBA? Only these two options seemed viable. I decided to pursue an MBA because I didn’t want to spend my life in labs examining rats and cockroaches and fungi. But the events of that September morning in 2008 changed the course of my life, literally as well as figuratively.
In the encounter between the officers of Delhi Police and those they called terrorists, two men from the Terrorist side were killed and a police inspector was shot (and eventually died that evening).
With every passing day, between police flip-flops and the media’s hysterical reportage, it seemed to the residents as if the aim of the Encounter Tale was to defame Jamia Nagar’s Muslims, our colony, our university. No one appeared to have a doubt about it. But the encounter was not the end of the matter. The police continued picking up students for their alleged links to the Terrorists. Like they did from the Lajawab tea stall in Batla House colony. Apparently, a student was telling his friend that one of the Terrorists happened to be a classmate of his friend’s, and before he could finish, he was in a For You, With You, Always van. Nobody knew where this news came from, but it stuck. And it scared us.
All my friends were scared. We stopped going outside after sunset. No Lajawab, no Bismillah tea stall, and rarely beyond Azmat’s kebab shop, which was just at the mouth of my lane. Who knew who was listening to your conversation and how he would interpret it. Each of us thought he could be next. I have nothing to hide, but …but what if they arrest me?
Like me, none of my friends had parents in Delhi. Nobody would be there to defend us if we were arrested. We weighed our options; the future seemed dark. I thought a lot about going back home. Then I would remember the news that a few of the Terrorists had escaped from that building – one that had only a single entrance – about 200 meters from mine. God only knew how they managed that feat; nevertheless, it was all over the news that they did. I thought, if I left, they would say one more has run away. I scrapped the thought of going home. If that sounds paranoid to you, you can thank your stars you were not born into a Muslim family. Or you too might know what we went through all those days in that ghetto of – what many call – Pakistanis.
I had sleepless nights. The only source of succour was a man I had loathed since I joined Jamia Millia Islamia.
Bastard had defended Salman Rushdie.