Reimagining Azamgarh

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Ahead of the UP elections, Azamgarh gets a makeover but social change is a far cry

IT IS 2 PM on a summer afternoon at Sathiaon Chowk, 15 km from the town of Azamgarh on the road to Mau. Despite the heat, the place is abuzz with activity. Young men throng the sparkling bike showrooms and students cycle to coaching centres. Vegetable and fruit vendors are starting to put up their canopies. As evening falls, the chowk begins to resemble a village fair, all bright lights and sociable atmosphere. This is new for Sathiaon, which had languished until a year ago, with no streetlights or shops, and only a battered old road linking it with nearby towns in Uttar Pradesh.

At the heart of this magical turnaround is a new sugar mill about 5 km from the chowk. The fully automated mill was inaugurated in March this year, replacing the old co-operative sugar mill at Sathiaon that had been shut down in 2007. For a decade, Sathiaon had lapsed into oblivion. It finally caught Azamgarh MP Mulayam Singh Yadav’s attention on his first visit to the constituency after his win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In 2015, he announced a Rs 350-crore package for the new mill. Completed in a record nine months, the plant can crush 3,500 to 5,000 tonnes of sugarcane in a day and generate 15 MW of electricity. In its trial season, the plant was only operational for 10 days, producing about 90 tonnes of sugar, but in the coming years, it could become vital for the agricultural prosperity of the region, says Navin Kumar Shukla, in charge of the plant. In anticipation, Man Singh, a 42-year-old farmer from Lohra village near Sathiaon, has already started growing sugarcane in his seven bighas of land. “If everything goes as planned, I will make at least Rs 4 lakh the next season,” he says. “No other crop can give me such profit.”

Once the plant becomes fully operational, it will create employment opportunities for more than a thousand people. A distillery, too, is coming up next to the mill. A sports stadium is planned in the vicinity. The Uttar Pradesh government is slathering development bounty on Azamgarh in an attempt to help it overcome the ‘terror factory’ tag. Being the constituency of the tallest leader of the ruling Samajwadi Party is finally starting to pay, and the town, infamous for producing dreaded terrorists who spread death and violence across the country in the late-2000s, is undergoing a modern makeover. Mulayam Singh has been criticised in the past for ignoring Azamgarh—he visited the region just twice in the past two years—but with a tough Assembly election ahead for his party, he has woven his own constituency into his poll math. He is clearly eyeing minority and Yadav votes, which together constitute about 60 per cent of Azamgarh’s total. Pampering this demographic could win him brownie points state-wide. A developed Azamgarh could also encourage minorities across UP to choose the Samajwadi Party. “How can I forget Azamgarh? This place is very close to my heart. All the development projects in this area have been launched during our regime. Whenever anyone raises a finger at Azamgarh, I am the first to answer them,” he proclaimed at a public rally in March this year.

Azamgarh is, after all, the Samajwadi Party’s city of joy. This is where it won nine out of ten seats in the 2012 Assembly elections. Despite neglecting the region for two years, when SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav chose to contest from the Azamgarh constituency in 2014, he won by over 60,000 votes. It was a vote of hope. “People thought that voting for the Chief Minister’s father would mean they will get attention, at least till 2017,” says Gyas Asad Khan, principal of Shibli National College and a political scientist. They were not wrong. The state government has bestowed Azamgarh with projects worth about Rs 1,490 crore.

The river Tamsa, a tributary of the Ganga, flows through Azamgarh and has six bridges on it, three within the city and three in the outlying rural areas. However, the serpentine flow of the river demands more bridges and this became an election issue in 2014. ‘No bridge, no vote’ was the slogan of the season and Mulayam Singh promised to construct more bridges if he won. Now, two of the bridges on either side of the city are almost complete. The Chief Development Officer says there are plans to construct 17 new bridges—an unprecedented number on a single river within one district—for the convenience of residents.

Near Mubarakpur, we spy a bus stand under construction at a cost of Rs 17 crore. It is nearly complete, and has a three-storey structure with a dormitory and private rooms for travellers who want to rest or stay. A short distance from here, a modern handloom trade centre is coming up in Mubarakpur village at a cost of Rs 122 crore. The area is famed for its weaves and a trade centre here will be of direct utility to over 200,000 weavers.

The new collectorate building in Azamgarh town, once completed, will be the first such building in UP. Spread over 100 sq m, the four-storey building will house all the district department offices under one roof. A special bay is being constructed so that vehicles can drive up to the top floor. The budget of the project is around Rs 37 crore. Apart from these, there are multi-specialty hospitals, colleges, an agricultural university, a dairy plant, and an art centre coming up, with much of the work already done. All these projects began about a year ago. “In most cases, work has been completed in nine months flat,” says Arun Kumar Singh a government employee in the statistics department and resident of Atrauli in Azamgarh. “Workers put in long hours, day and night, to complete the projects on time.” Ramdarshan, the SP candidate from Mubarakpur for the 2017 Assembly polls, expects his party to win all ten MLA seats in the district. “The development projects have touched all segments of the society—farmers, weavers, milkmen, students and women,” he says. “No one can complain that they have been ignored.”

Azamgarh's rural and urban economies have got a big boost in the past nine months, but communal tension remains.

Azamgarh’s rural and urban economies have got a big boost in the past nine months. Quality of life has improved, with regular power supply for about 22 hours a day. The electricity department is laying underground electric cables in the city in a first-of-its- kind project in the state. All projects are directly monitored by the Chief Minister’s Office. Neena Sharma, former district magistrate of Azamgarh and now director of industries, has been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring timely delivery.

It is not only the state government that has unleashed a barrage of development work. The district has made good use of schemes offered by the Central Government. Azamgarh topped the charts in work done under the Prime Minister’s ambitious Jan Dhan Yojana in UP. It is among three districts in the country where the most work has been done under the scheme.

THERE IS ANOTHER side to Azamgarh, a side untouched by Mulayam Singh’s feel-good rollercoaster. The district may be desperate to leave its image as a terror hub behind, but it finds itself afflicted by communal flare-ups. Are the state government’s projects merely cosmetic or can they help dissipate social tensions and turn it into a ‘normal’ district? “It takes ages for a place to change its basic character, even with development all around,” says Khan of Shibli National College. “Azamgarh was not always a communal place, but some incidents in the past have affected social harmony.” The people of Azamgarh blame politicians and the media for creating a rift between communities. “Our boys will not get jobs and homes in Delhi if they reveal they are from Azamgarh. This is true for both Hindus and Muslims,” says Khan.

To make matters worse, a video released by the ISIS a few weeks ago features two boys from Azamgarh as ISIS fighters. Abu Rashid and Mohammed Sajid alias Bada Sajid are from Sanjarpur village, the latter an escapee from the Batla House encounter in September 2008. We drive about 20 km from the city to reach Sanjarpur, located on the Shahganj-Lucknow road. Surrounded by mango orchards and dotted with elegant residences, it gives the impression of a prosperous locality. Sanjarpur has a population of 14,000 people, more than 60 per cent Muslim. About 15 km from here is Sarai Mir, famous as underworld don Abu Salem’s village. We ask around for Bada Sajid’s house.

There is another side to Azamgarh, a side untouched by Mulayam Singh’s feel-good rollercoaster.

There were two Sajids in the village, before Chhota Sajid was killed in the Batla House encounter. Mohammed Shakir, 42, elder brother of Bada Sajid and a father of seven, is a teacher at a private school. He offers us a peek into the mind of Azamgarh’s Muslim youth. “It is Ramadan and there is no electricity since morning. Had it been Diwali, this would not be the case,” he says. “That’s how youngsters think here. You cannot control their minds.” He is not sure if it is indeed his brother in the ISIS video, he says. “Earlier the agencies were saying that he is dead. Now they say he is in the video,” he says. “We are victims of a larger conspiracy by intelligence agencies,” adds Tariq Shafeeq, a villager who runs Sanjarpur Sangharsh Seva Samiti and Rihai Manch, organisations fighting the cases of terror-accused persons from the village. “People only remember Abu Salem and don’t like to talk about [the poet] Kaifi Azmi and other great personalities from Azamgarh.”

Mohammed Saif, 29, is in Tihar Jail for his role in a series of bomb blasts. His father, Shadab Ahmed alias Mister Bhai, is a man in his late forties. Saif is the fourth of his 14 children, 10 boys and four girls. He claims he was studying in Delhi and was planning to go to the Middle East to look for a job—just like his three brothers. Ahmed is a Samajwadi Party leader. “After my son was arrested, everyone from Amar Singh, Mulayam Singh and Digvijaya Singh paid a visit and promised to help me. But they could not do anything.” Ahmed is hopeful that one day his son will walk free.

Azamgarh is no stranger to riots, but post 2014, there has been an increase in the frequency of clashes. Six major incidents have been reported in two years, but the government seems to be in denial. “There is absolutely no communal problem in Azamgarh,” says Suhas LY, the district magistrate credited with much of the beautification of the town. “We quickly respond to such incidents [before they get out of hand],” he adds.

In April, a violent scuffle broke out at a snack stall in the Mubarakpur area after food was allegedly served on paper featuring lines of the Qur’an. A similar incident occurred a few days ago, where paper with Arabic script was found to be used by a street vendor in Azamgarh city. In both cases, the police intervened to prevent the clashes from escalating.

On 14 May, a Dalit house was burnt down by some Muslim youth in Khudadadpur village. The incident became a catalyst for clashes between the two communities and engulfed the entire region. A policeman suffered bullet injuries and several were injured in the week-long clash. The local police and Special Forces are still camped in the area and things look normal now. “Once the cops leave, another clash will start,” says Ram Dhani Ram of Daudpur village. “Elections are round the corner and I expect a rise in such incidents for political gains,” says Rajeev Yadav, spokesperson for civil rights group Rihai Manch.

On the one hand, a modern Azamgarh is emerging from the ashes of the past, wearing a new outlook based on development. But parts of the district are still steeped in hardline ideas and are unlikely to embrace change. “I think, for some time, the modern city and old timers will co-exist and this dual persona will define Azamgarh,” says Khan. “Perhaps in a few years, with all these amenities shaping the nature of life here, society will change.” Meanwhile, as elections approach, politicians will continue to take advantage of this duality.