Monday, January 16, 2012

UP Yatra with Neelesh Misra: Story 2

“We had heard there was a lady called Mayawati”

Neelesh Misra


There is a good chance you’ll miss the man.

Under the long tin roofs at the messy Azamgarh courthouse, lost in the pitter-patter of typewriters, crowds of rural petitioners and the rows of cynical notaries, there is a small black sign on the yellow wall: “Ram Krishna Yadav, Advocate (Ex-MP)”.

Here under this sign, a 75-year-old man sits wrapped in a woollen jacket and muffler, on a tottering old wooden chair, at a shaky table. Some 650 kilometres to the southwest in Bhopal, his first cousin Ram Naresh Yadav lives in the opulent Rajya Bhavan; he is the governor of Madhya Pradesh.

Ram Krishna Yadav handles criminal cases in this eastern Uttar Pradesh rural expanse, standing in court to argue cases related to small land disputes, clashes and dowry charges. There was a time when he used to similarly stand in Parliament to argue on matters on national importance. In 1989, Yadav became one of the three first-ever MPs of the then-fledgling Bahujan Samaj Party, which made its mark even in the pro-Janata Dal wave.

Yadav won from the Azamgarh constituency, after a short quick-fire campaign across the countryside in just one jeep, compared to the well-resourced campaigns of his rivals.

Apart from him, there were two newcomers: Harbhajan Lakha from Phillaur (Punjab), and a rising star in the party called Mayawati from Bijnaur (Uttar Pradesh), later also Yadav’s next-door neighbour at the apartment complex for lawmakers at new Delhi’s North Avenue.

“We had started hearing that there is a lady called Mayawati who was gaining prominence with Kanshi Ram ji – but that was the first time I met her, after we got elected to Parliament,” said Yadav.

They did not hit it off.

“Since that time, she seemed like a very ambitious woman. She said she was a teacher, but she had dreams beyond her capabilities, I used to think,” said Yadav, one of the founding members of the BSP, sitting at the Azamgarh courthouse with fellow lawyers.

The success of Kanshi Ram’s BSP, founded in April 1984, was a significant political ripple at a time when upper and intermediary Hindu castes dominated politics. It won more than 1 million votes right away -- in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, leading to the first parliamentary success in 1989.

Yadav’s political career began when he was invited to Kanshi Ram’s closed-door dinners with Azamgarh’s political activists, where they discussed strategies to create a niche in the already crowded political space.

Yadav soon gave up his successful legal practice to join politics.

“I had nothing. I was a middle-class criminal lawyer. I have never had even a car in my life, I still don’t,” Yadav said. His former colleague Mayawati’s declared assets are worth Rs. 87 crores.

Kanshi Ram started inviting Yadav to share the stage with him and speak at every other public rally.

“I agreed with him that power of all sorts – whether political or financial, or intellectual -- vested in a few hands and it was time to change that,” Yadav said. “I was hugely impressed with Kanshi Ram ji.”

The mercurial Kanshi Ram headed a new shift in political thinking. He was ready to align with any political rival, saying he would do it as long as it served the interests of his key constituency, the Dalits.

Parliament was dissolved in 1991 after the fall of the Chandra Shekhar government. Yadav and the other BSP lawmakers lost that year in the Congress wave after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.

In the 1996 elections, a quirk of circumstances saw Yadav being pitted against and losing to his own cousin, former state Chief Minister Ram Naresh Yadav.

“After that, I was left with savings of just over Rs 10,000 then. But I was content,” Yadav said.

The BSP, though, had arrived. In 1996, it was granted the status of a national party.

“But Kanshi Ram’s influence had begin to wane by now. The old guard was being sidelined. Mayawati was gaining control,” Yadav said. In 1998, he quit the BSP.

“The themes and policies for which we had joined the BSP and worked for it -- a socialistic outlook, working for the dispossessed – had vanished from the party,” said Yadav.

“The party’s mission was to go after the three M’s – money, media and mafia. Now all is lost.”

Back to being a reporter: Road trip for UP elections, for TOI

Three years on, those bullets still fly

Neelesh Misra

Sanjarpur (Azamgarh), Uttar Pradesh:

“Abbu, how come those juniors of mine made it to IPL?” cricket-crazy Saif Ahmed asked his father who had travelled to meet his 21-year-old son in the South Delhi room.

It wasn’t a friendly cricket chat over tea for the 51-year-old PCO owner Shadab Ahmed, who had come from his eastern Uttar Pradesh village of Sanjarpur to the Lodhi Road premises. Saif, arrested during the Sept. 19, 2008 Batla House raid in Delhi, has been accused, along with his elder brother, of terrorism in several cities across India. The room belonged to the Delhi Police Special Cell, which had arrested him.

“It’s destiny, I told him … but we are all fighting back,” Shadab Ahmed, said of the meeting as he sat in his large courtyard lined with plants in the dusty, sparse village of Sanjarpur. Children laughed and played somewhere in the background, women trying to shush them.

As Uttar Pradesh heads for crucial state assembly elections that are likely to impact national politics, what happened in that room on that 2008 day continues to create political ripples here. Several parties have tried to bite into the angst created by the Batla House swoop -- Muslim leaders say it raises issues of justice for the Muslim youth it alleges are framed in terror cases. They also oppose the branding of Azamgarh as a terror hub.

The terrorism slur for the Ahmed family started with the oldest of Ahmed’s children, the currently-absconding Dr Shahnawaz, who has been accused in several terror cases.

“Let there be a judicial inquiry and let them be punished if they are found guilty,” Shadab Ahmed said.

Saif was in the bathroom at the Batla House, a cobweb of lanes near the Jamia Millia University, as commandos stormed his room. He was arrested and two of his roommates, Atif Amin and Mohammed Sajid, killed. They were all accused by police of being members of the terror outfit Indian Mujahideen. According to his father, Saif says he has been framed.

The police raid became the sole provocation for the creation in 2009 of a new political party called Rashtriya Ulema Council, which hired trains to take supporters to New Delhi to oppose the cases. The party is contesting 70 of the 403 seats in the elections.

Main opposition Samajwadi Party asked for judicial inquiry and a joint parliamentary committee probe, a demand turned down by Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

“Batla House remains on the political consciousness of people here,” Prof K K Mishra, a political analyst at the Banaras Hindu University. “It will have an impact.”

Another expert, Prof Ghayas Asad Khan of Azamgarh’s leading Shibli College, said the impact of the issue had waned.

“Wounds might have healed, and people might start forgetting – though when political activities start, Batla House emerges again,” he told TOI.

Congress Party leader Digvijay Singh visited Ahmed in this dusty, sparse village and met Saif’s family, provoking the Bharatiya Janata Party to retort that he should visit the families of Pakistan-based terrorists as well. The state’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party has been criticised by Azamgarh residents of sending out all such accused to investigators in other states, to avoid dealing with issues of justice.

“My son is not a terrorist. He had gone to do a computer course … I thought he would make a living. Otherwise I wouldn’t have let him go there,” said Shadab Ahmed.

“He was a brilliant batsman. He won so many tea sets in competitions ... I would reluctantly let him go outstation to play when his friends insisted. If he was around, he would have been a big cricketer,” said Ahmed, referring to his son in the past tense. “Many of his juniors have gone to this championship, whats-it-called … IPL. I told him, `its destiny’.”

Ahmed says he does not know the whereabouts of his elder son, Shahnawaz.

“He is wanted. Allah knows where he is. Whichever case is unsolved, police put it on him,” he said. “I have a great complaint against the media. The moment a blast happens, they start talking as if they know exactly who did it. If you do, why not have them punished?”

As courts decide whether the two men are guilty, there are dozens of other youth from Azamgarh who are in jails in similar cases, and residents of the district routinely bear the brunt of its negative branding.

“This blot of terrorism on Azamgarh is affecting our children very badly,” said Ahmed.

“Our children don’t get a place to stay in Delhi and Bombay. Even Hindu children. There are bright kids who cannot go,” he said. “People are told, “You are from Azamgarh? You must be a terrorist.”

(This story originally appeared in The Times of India, as part of the ongoing series "UP Yatra With Neelesh Misra")

(All photos by the author, except when credit mentioned otherwise)