Why I decided to become a journalist after the 2008 Batla House encounter

[Book extract] The coverage of the encounter in the media had affected us all.

 |  11-minute read |   10-04-2018
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It was the fifth day after the encounter. Jamia had called students for a meeting with the vice-chancellor, Mushirul Hasan. At first, I was not sure whether I should even turn up at a meeting where terror and terrorists might be discussed. What purpose would such a meeting serve?

But then I thought, who else has even tried to talk to us? Here is someone willing to have a conversation, however belated.

It was entirely possible that those killed or arrested had been involved in the bomb blasts. But it was a serious allegation and not proven beyond doubt. There were many unanswered questions; all the rumours floating around did not help either. We all felt like potential suspects, but not a single person who could be called a “leader” had had the courage to come to our locality and say, “I will stand by you.” No one. No chief minister, no prime minister, no home minister, not even a “thekedar” of Muslims and Islam.

The only people who showed up were rabble-rousers and opportunists. Like the sectarian Mullah Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid. He wanted to visit Jamia Nagar after the encounter but the police didn’t allow him to enter. He shouted his usual threats; threw his hands around in the air and went back to where he had come from — the rifle-guarded imamat bestowed on his ancestors by long-lost royalty.

And the likes of freelance leader Asif Mohammad Khan. He was the younger brother of former BJP leader Arif Mohammad Khan, who had studied in Jamia school and gone on to become president of the AMU students’ union and, later, deputy information and broadcasting minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government, and later joined the BJP. He had resigned over the Shah Bano case and, as a result of his stand against triple talaq, had once been thrashed by Jamia students. Asif Mohammad had a reputation for hopping from one controversial issue to the other, and for fighting it out through rabble-rousing posters in Jamia Nagar. Khan used symbolism masterfully. He had all the makings of a great leader, except that his support group was small compared to other great leaders of our time.

radical_040918051411.jpgAn Ordinary Man's Guide to Radicalism: Growing up Muslim in India by Neyaz Farooquee; Westland Publications; Price: Rs 325

When no one credible spoke up, the community listened to those who made themselves available. But now, the rabble-rousers’ rabble-rousing and religious leaders’ religious leading were shown to have fallen short. They had become too predictable to be taken seriously by any sensible person. Jamia Nagar’s residents and university students waited in vain for someone from outside — whose patriotism was not in doubt — to come and testify to their innocence. Anyone, from anywhere: left, right or centre.

The Left often claimed to represent minorities, Muslims included, but there was no voice of political leaders worth recalling, at least not in the beginning, when we were scared even to speak aloud about it (though a few did pursue the case later). The Right claims to extend a well-meaning hand of friendship towards Muslims, but now there was none in sight. And the Centre — whether the ideological Centre or the central government — whose representatives had led the charge on Batla House, had nothing much to offer, of course. Those who spoke, did so in feeble voices. Nothing more than token whimpers here and there. No one visited the site to hear our side and console us.

Even to lie to us that justice would be served. A just justice, you know.

That no innocent would be wronged. That people’s doubts about the encounter would be addressed.

No one visited the locality even to pretend that they supported us. Or to say, you are as loyal as anyone else.

That you are as chauvinistic as we are.

That you are as jingoistic as we are.

That it’s all a matter of opportunity.

That we trust you and our — Our — fight is common.

So now, that job of reassuring the young people of the community had fallen to university professors.

Young men who get involved with extremism claim to have unaddressed grievances. Either there are genuine grievances, or they are misled into believing that such grievances exist. But someone needed to talk to them, offer to deconstruct it, especially in sensitive times such as after an encounter that was widely looked at with suspicion. The teachers realised they needed to talk to their students and tell them that they did indeed belong.

They called the students to the university’s auditorium.

I approached reluctantly — a bit late as usual. To my surprise, a huge crowd had gathered. This quelled my apprehensions a bit. At least I was not alone. There were many who were as scared as I was. Many of my friends were in that crowd.

I was able to slide my skinny body into the packed auditorium, negotiating the sea of arms and shoulders. Even the aisles were full. I could not see the stage at all, and so jumped onto the arm of a chair, like many others around me. Now, I could see the stage between several heads and necks. And the logo of the university pasted behind the podium: the crescent with a book in it and two trees emerging from it. The book had the university’s motto. There was a star above the crescent and Allah-o-Akbar.

Within a few minutes, a small, plump man made his entry on the stage. There was a huge roar of applause welcoming him. The man surveyed the crowd and went to the podium. He checked the mike — takk takk — and then spoke in Hindustani.

hasan_040918053346.jpgMushirul Hasan. [Photo: Screengrab/YouTube]

When he spoke, he destroyed in one stroke his future prospects. Of being reappointed as VC. Or being considered for some gubernatorial or prestigious constitutional posts that ex-VCs of universities often get.

That evening he announced: “I, as your teacher and on behalf of the other teachers of Jamia, will support you in every hour of crisis.”

The roar of spontaneous clapping from the students disturbed his flow.

“You are like my children.”

Clap clap clap clap. This, I had not expected.

“And a father can’t abandon his children in the hour of crisis.”

Clap clap clap.

He declared that he would defend his students unless they were proven guilty; that everyone is entitled to a defence and it’s the democratic right of every citizen. In the same breath, he also warned his students to not do anything that would tie his hands and make it impossible for him to help them. “Then I will abandon you,” he said.

He asked us to abjure any form of violence and uphold the secular values of India. He reminded us that in the eighty-eight years of its history, Jamia had gone through many turbulent periods but had always overcome these. Very few institutions had as many freedom fighters associated with them as Jamia had; the advocates of the One India theory had been among the founders of Jamia. In fact, Jamia’s foundation was largely based on this ideology. Yes, the supporters of Jamia were “conspirators”, he said, but that was at the time of the freedom struggle, and we are proud of our university for having played such a role then.

He spoke. And we clapped. Clapped and clapped. After every sentence.

He taunted the media. Why are they here? When we have cultural programmes and discussions and talks, they never appear. Now, everyone is here because of one unfortunate incident.

All of us loved that jibe and we cheered our hearts out. It was our small revenge. It was unbelievable that someone was finally speaking on our behalf. Someone needed to assure us of our innocence. He did. At that moment, the entire university — whether they were machhars (mosquitoes) or khatmals (bedbugs), 24 number or TTS — loved that Rushdie-supporter.

Dislike of Professor Hasan had been the norm for me and many like me. Our prejudices wouldn’t allow real dialogue. We casually termed him a godless communist, even an outright kafir. Infidel. A drunkard. A khatmal who can’t be trusted – they always vote for the BJP. A fool who opposes Jamia’s minority status. And, of course, the bastard who defended Salman Rushdie.

Here I was, clapping for him (unforced, unasked) after every sentence that he spoke.

That was a fateful day for me; that simple speech in the auditorium, his gesture of standing up for us. It forced me to think about the kind of person I had become. What I had come to represent. And where I had lost my way.

Once Dada had taught me Kabir’s words:

    • Jati na poochho sadhu ki, poochh lijiye gyan,
    • Mol karo talwar ka, para rahen do myan.
    • (Don’t ask a learned man his caste, ask for his knowledge,
    • When you value the sword, don’t go by the scabbard.)


    • Bura jo dekhan main chala, bura na milya koi,
    • Jo mann khoja apna, to mujhse bura na koi.
    • (I searched for the crooked men but couldn’t find one,
    • When I looked inside, the most crooked was I.)

And Iqbal’s words:

    • Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle,
    • Khuda bandey se khud poochhey bata teri raza kya hai.
    • (Elevate the self to such a degree that before every decree,
    • God asks the man, tell me, what do you desire.)

I was left only its parody, which we recited when Dada wasn’t around:

    • Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle,
    • Khuda bandey se khud poochhey, abe itna upar chadhh
    • to gaya hai, ab utrega kaise?

The second line of which means, God asks you, hey man, now that you have climbed up so high, how do you plan to climb back down?

The meeting that day forced me to think, really think. And rationalise my thoughts and actions. It made me think about all the opinions that my friends had challenged, and my stubbornness that didn’t allow me to accept I could be wrong.

Would I be able to unlearn the learnt?

Prof Hasan asked us to go back to our homes and enjoy Eid — it was only a few days away. Classes would resume after the festival, he announced. He also announced that, the next day, he would hold a rally, a peace rally.

Back home in Batla House, I wrote a report on his address (and refuted any reports if I thought they had factual inaccuracy) and posted it on my newly started blog. I had created it when I learnt through the newspapers that people earned money from blogs. If my blogs got me some income, it would lessen my parents’ burden a bit, I thought — but that never happened. Two posts are not enough to earn money, it turned out.

The next day we assembled on campus for the peace rally. There was also a large media presence. During the rally, I took my first photos and added these to my blog. I didn’t have a camera but a friend had a Nokia N-73, which was then a trendy phone. I asked him to lend it to me for a second and then vanished to click pictures. He did not want to take any chances, and told me to take the photos off his cellphone as soon as possible.

The coverage of the encounter in the media had affected us all. I decided I would be a journalist.

There was a couplet I had not heard since Dada died:

    • Ye khamosh mizaji tumhe jeene nahi degi,
    • Is daur me jeena hai to kohram macha do.
    • (This reticence of yours will not let you live,
    • Create a tumult if you are to endure in this age.)

I wanted to do my own version of kohram — a peaceful kohram. (Calm down, please!)

The write-up on Hasan’s address and the next day’s peace rally was my first journalistic foray. I had no illusions about changing the world but I was sure that, at the very least, I would not be a journalist who would produce reports of the kind that had scared me — scared us.

Following the rally, while many of us hid ourselves in our homes (rented or owned), or escaped to our villages and towns (near or far), a few of our teachers came together and formed a group that would scrutinise the encounter and would give words to, and substantiate, the allegations that the residents had so incoherently made. The voluntary group had teachers from different departments, and soon they came up with a detailed report on the encounter that pointed out glaring loopholes in, and the contradictory statements of, the police and the media alike.

(Excerpted with permission of Westland Publications from An Ordinary Man's Guide to Radicalism: Growing up Muslim in India by Neyaz Farooquee.)

Also read: Beware of the rise of Hindu supremacists in America


Neyaz Farooquee Neyaz Farooquee @nafsmanzer

Neyaz Farooquee is a journalist based in Delhi. He is a fellow at the New India Foundation. He was previously a staff writer at Hindustan Times, and has contributed to the New York Times, Al Jazeera and Tehelka.

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