Kaleem Kawaja


Azamgarh (a city and also the name of a district) in Eastern UP of India has a rich history and a substantial Muslim population. The author traces its history and accomplishments as well as the negligible role of its people in the uplift of Azamgarh as they left the district to homes in Pakistan, middle-east  and elsewhere.


THE PAST: The city of Azamgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh was founded in 1665 on the banks of river Tons during the reign of Mughal emperor Shahjahan by Azam Khan, son of Vikramjit, a Rajput Hindu landowner who converted to Islam. Being a primarily rural and agricultural town, Azamgarh district and its villages remained peaceful and were not involved in any of the wars of the era.


Azamgarh became a prominent town in the late nineteenth century when one of its illustrious sons,  Allama Shibli Nomani became a renowned scholar of Islam and history and a pioneer for spreading education in north India. Nomani was a disciple of the renowned North Indian Muslim educationist and reformer, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University.


Inspired by the example of his mentor, in 1883 Shibli Nomani established a college known now as Shibli National College and an academy of learning called “Dar-ul-Musannafeen” (House of Scholars) in Azamgarh.  Both institutions blossomed for many decades after the demise of Shibli Nomani in 1914, becoming a source of learning and a magnet for the Muslims of the entire eastern half of the prominent state of Uttar Pradesh.


The institutions and culture that Shibli Nomani planted in the rural soil of eastern Uttar Pradesh continued to inspire the citizens of the region towards higher accomplishments and towards service to the community.  Thus when India’s freedom movement became popular, people of Azamgarh, including Muslims participated in it enthusiastically.  In the annals of the Quit India movement of 1942, Muslims of the small town of Azamgarh played a nationally prominent role and hosted many gatherings of the top leaders of the freedom movement.


THE PRESENT: As India got partitioned in 1947 a significant number of Azamgarh Muslims migrated to both East and West Pakistan; a majority migrating to East Pakistan – what is Bangladesh now.  For some reason this migration of a section of Azamgarh Muslims to Pakistan put a brake on the district’s Muslim population in the areas of the growth of education, enlightenment and integration into the mainstream.


While Azamgarh Muslims have continued to produce a handful of luminaries at the national level like the Uuutar Pradesh state High Court chief justice Iqbal Ahmed, renowned Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, distinguished Urdu writer Iqbal Suhail, internationally acclaimed movie actress Shabana Azmi, Prominent  Communist Party of India leader DR. Z.A. Ahmed and prominent scientist Shamim Jairajpuri , the district did not attract any significant new industrial or educational development.  Of necessity, to be successful an Azamgarh Muslim had to emigrate away from the district.


The educational and cultural growth of Azamgarh Muslims has dimmed in the last sixtyone years, with below average educational accomplishment and with very few of them reaching prominent positions either in the government or institutions or the private sector.  The school and scholars’ academy that Shibli Nomani established a century ago have stagnated as run-of-the-mill institutions, with hardly any remarkable achievement to their credit in the last sixtyone years.  Surveying the Muslim community in Azamgarh one finds a community that withdrew into its shell, stopped integrating with others and lowered its goals to purely local levels.


Lack of opportunities in education and career in Azamgarh made a large number of Muslim youth migrate to other metropolitan cities in India, namely, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna.  A large number of Azamgarh Muslim students moved to the Muslim universities at Aligarh, Jamia Milia, Jamia Hamdard and the universities of Allahabad, Lucknow and Varanasi.  Many Muslim youth turned to Islamic theological education at Darul Uloom, Deoband; Nadvatul Uloom, Lucknow; Jamia Islahia, Baleriagunj.  Yet despite their migration to other cities and universities Azamgarh Muslims did not integrate well with others in their adopted hometowns


In West Pakistan, the Azamgarh Muslims did not integrate well with the Punjabis and Sindhis, and in East Pakistan they did not integrate well with the Bengalis.  Being proud of their Avadhi and Urdu identity, in both places they remained aloof from the ethos and culture of the lands to which they had migrated.  Thus in the 1971 mayhem in East Bengal that resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, having sided with West Pakistan they suffered greatly at the hands of the Bengalis.  Many of them lost their lives and a large number of them lost their homes, businesses and properties and had to flee from Bangladesh in a desperate condition.  That included some of my father’s cousins who sought shelter and relief with my family in Kanpur in the tumultous 1970-71 period.  Meanwhile in West Pakistan where they continued to call themselves “Mohajirs” several decades after migrating there, they suffered significant discrimination.     


During the 1992/1993 communal riots and massive bomb blasts in Bombay, many Azamgarh Muslims were implicated by government authorities as being involved in unlawful and even violent activities and became the subject of a widespread police crackdown.  Abu Salem the well known underworld don and others in his group who are alleged to have run a mafia operation in Bombay, and to have contributed to the 1993 bomb blasts in Bombay, are from Azamgarh.


As employment opportunities opened up in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries in mid 1980s, a large number of Azamgarh Muslims migrated there. These émigrés earned good money and sent it to their families back in Azamgarh district.  The families of these émigrés built good houses, shops, businesses, mosques etc with the Gulf money. 


THE TUNNEL VISION: For some reason Azamgarh Muslims in the Middle-East countries and Western countries and their families in Azamgarh  have chosen not to invest their earnings in building quality educational institutions in Azamgarh, that is woefully short of them e.g. a medical college, an engineering college or other professional colleges.  They seem content with the century old college built by Shibli Nomani.  In contrast for instance similar émigré Indian Muslims from Bhatkal – a small town in Karnatak – who similarly earned good money in Middle East and North America have built several good colleges, an impressive engineering college and are planning to build a medical college.


Azamgarh Muslims on the other hand appear content with investing their increased earnings to build big houses, own expensive automobiles and to spend more time in religious activities.  For instance a much larger number of Azamgarh Muslims now make many repeated Umrah pilgrimage visits to Mecca and Madina than just twenty years ago.


While they downgraded their involvement in quality education in the last few decades a large number of Azamgarh Muslims developed an intense fondness with cut-throat political activities, becoming partisans of either the Congress party or the Samajwadi party or the Bahujan Samaj party.  That has resulted in sharp divisions and rivalries among the Muslims of Azamgarh, that prevents them from united community growth programs.  All political parties exploited them but none of them rewarded them with any significant development in their home town of Azamgarh.  Today when their community’s reputation is sullied, other than lip service none of these parties are doing anything of value for them.


The Azamgarh émigré Muslims in Gulf countries have also imported a certain orthodox Arab-Islamic culture into Azamgarh district that was hitherto unknown.


Today a visitor to Azamgarh is likely to come across a significant number of Muslim men wearing jubbas and kafiyas and women wearing abayas and jilbabs. Most of the time when these folks travel to their jobs in the Gulf countries they travel by airlines of Middle eastern Muslim countries, namely Saudia Airlines, Emirate Airlines, Qatar Airways, Oman Airways, Pakistan International Airlines etc.  A far cry from the optimism and national integration that Shibli Nomani and Kaifi Azmi epitomized, today Muslims in Azamgarh have by and large turned into their shells, have become defensive, more orthodox Muslims and suspicious of others.  Their integration with the Hindus in their own district is at a very low level.


Strangely enough the significant increase in orthodox religious affiliation of Azamgarh Muslims has caused sharp divisions in them along the fault lines of the various Islamic schools of thought, e.g. Wahabi, Deobandi, Ahle Hadith, Tablighi, and Ahle Quran etal that they are followers of.  Rivalries between these groups and the tension resulting from that has spilled over to their mosques and madrasas where intense groupism is causing significant tension within the community at large.


THE DESPAIR: In the last couple of months as serial bombings in public places occurred with clockwork regularity in many Indian cities, police alleged that the Indian Mujahideen terrorist group, that has claimed responsibility for these blasts is actually a close-knit module of some Azamgarh Muslim youth who live in various cities.   Police has arrested a large number of Azamgarh Muslim youth and has conducted house-to-house search in several Muslim majority localities and villages in Azamgarh district.  Police claims that Azamgarh’s Muslim localities are a hub for those who are responsible for the recent serial bomb blasts in several cities that have put fear in the minds of the country’s population at large.  Police has established a heavy presence, check points and close surveillance in the Muslim majority areas in Azamgarh district. 


Muslims from Azamgarh who try to find rental houses and apartments in other cities in India are finding it very difficult do so.  Most owners of houses either flatly decline to rent space to them or ask them to produce police verification of their background.  Colleges and universities in other cities are similarly conducting surveillance on Azamgarh students as a pre-condition to giving them admission.  Many an Azamgarh Muslim families in India’s large metropolitan cities have returned to their family homes in Azamgarh for safety.  Many Azamgarh Muslims are now not telling others that they are from Azamgarh.


The mainstream print and electronic media is full of stories and reports casting aspersions on the the integrity of Azamgarh Muslims vis-à-vis the growing terrorist activities in the country.  As can be expected, this tense environment has cast a pall and gloom over the entire Muslim population in Azamgarh district and Azamgarh Muslims in other cities.



THE CHALLENGE: For the Azamgarh Muslims the situation was building for many years now as mentioned above.  Today they need to introspect why the perception of their countrymen about them has declined  so much from their illustrious ancestors like Shibli Nomani and Kaifi Azmi to a point where, they are being increasingly identified with mafia thugs like Abu Asem and the Indian Mujahideen terrorism suspects.  Clearly Azamgarh Muslims have to turn a new page; move away from being within their own shells, to integrating with the larger religiously and ethnically diverse population around them; invest the earnings of their émigrés in Middle east and West into building quality institutions of higher education in Azamgarh; phase out importing the overtly Arab-Muslim religious culture and lifestyle into Azamgarh district; root out those in their community who may have been misled into violent or sectarian activities.


Yet the Muslims of Azamgarh should protest against police brutality and high-handedness and should demand transparency in all police and government enquiries of allegations of wrongdoing against their people.  They should also demand fair reporting from the mainstream media and object to stereotyping and targeting of their community.  Dealing from a position of weakness they should understand that these efforts can be credible only when they have purged their community of unhealthy influences that crept into their community.


The writer is a community activist in Washington DC. He has extended family connections in Azamgarh.  He can be reached on:

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