The Road Back from Ayodhya

The Muslim quest for inclusion in the new India

A new Muslim generation has lined up to step out of shadows of the Babri demolition. OMAR SHARIF & MADAN GEHLOT
01 February, 2010

IN THE AFTERNOON of 6 December 1992, Tariq Masood, a ninth-grade student in Gorakhpur, western Uttar Pradesh, saw the television go black in the middle of a Doordarshan news bulletin. The electricity in the town was cut off for the rest of the day and the batteries in their radio were dead. A few hundreds kilometres away, thousands of karsevaks led by various Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers had converged on the disputed site of Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi. Gorakhpur was under curfew. A phone call broke the news that the karsevaks had destroyed the Babri Mosque. Tariq sat quietly by his lawyer father, numb, watching him repeat the same words, “There must be a mistake. They must be lying.” In the days following 6 December, India was torn apart by a series of riots, which killed around 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. “For many years the destruction of the Babri Masjid shaped my life,” Tariq, now a 32-year-old IT consultant, told me when we met recently in Delhi’s Zakir Nagar area. “We went into a huddle. My father’s Hindu friends stopped inviting us home and we stopped inviting them to our ceremonies. I had no Hindu friends for years.”

After 17 years, 400 meetings, and 80 million rupees, the Liberhan Commission came out with its 1,029 page report in December, blaming the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for organising the demolition of the mosque and naming 60 BJP, RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Riotous scenes followed in the parliament for a few days, but the commission’s disclosures were hardly a revelation. Videos of Atal Bihari Vajpayee inciting a crowd of karsevaks at a Lucknow rally on 4 December, two days before the masjid’s demolition, have become staples on YouTube. Soon after the Liberhan report was made public, VHP leader Vinay Katiyar bragged to a television channel that 6 December 1992 was the “proudest day of my life.” Katiyar’s voice seemed to have an edge of desperation, a world away from the confidence of the 1990s, when he was a man journalists wanted to interview, when the Ram Temple movement had its last burst of fervour. He reminded me of March 2002, when a few weeks after the Gujarat pogrom, Ramchandra Paramhans, who headed the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas Trust, was leading thousands of karsevaks from across India in an attempt to defy a Supreme Court ban on construction at the disputed site by laying a foundation stone for the Ram Temple.

A view from Ayodhya in 1992 when karsevaks stormed the city. REUTERS/SUNIL MALHOTRA

I had travelled to Ayodhya, along with hundreds of other journalists. The city was barricaded and flooded with policemen, but hordes of karsevaks were sneaking in and converging there. The atmosphere was frenetic with slogans of  “Jai Shree Ram” and “Ram Lalla Jaynege, Mandir Wahin Banayenge.” Ramchandra Paramhans, a robust man with long matted hair and an ageing prize fighter’s body, held regular press conferences in the Karsevakpuram compound, a couple of kilometres away from the disputed site. Paramhans headed the militant Digambhar Akhara and was instrumental in installing a statue of Ram under the dome of the Babri mosque in 1949 and initiated in 1950 the legal battle to reclaim the Babri Masjid for the Hindus. “Even if Bhagwan Rama comes and says he was not born in Ayodhya, I will not believe him,” Paramhans was famously quoted as saying. Paramhans was a confident yet mercurial man, giving assurances of peaceful conduct one moment, telling jokes the other, and soon after threatening to drink poison and kill himself if he was not allowed to carry the foundation stones to the disputed site.

Scores of craftsmen worked full time, chiselling floral designs and figurines of Ram on the pink sandstone slabs that would come together to form the Ram Temple. Vajpayee was the prime minister, the worldwide condemnation of the Gujarat pogrom a fortnight earlier and the complexities of being in power had tamed the BJP. After a long series of negotiations, Paramhans’ boys were allowed a token ceremony, wherein a crowd of sadhus and four ten year-old boys from a Hindu gurukul led the procession carrying a sandstone slab from the temple workshop to a place near the disputed site, where they were made to hand over the stones to district authorities. “All we need is 24 hours and a few machines can put the temple together,” one heard often those days.

Zafaryab Jilani leads the Babri Masjid Action commitee. AP IMAGES/RAJESH KUMAR SINGH

Seven years later, on a foggy December morning in 2009, I drove from Lucknow to Ayodhya to see what remained of that old fervour for the Ram temple. The repeated defeats of the BJP in the elections seemed to suggest the end of a phase of Hindu nationalism, anti-Muslim rhetoric and riots – from the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 to the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Over the last few years, there has been much talk about India’s great power status and the surge in its economy. Thousands of Indian professionals based in the United States have returned home to cash in on the boom. India is pushing aggressively on the world stage, trying to make its presence felt through investments in Africa and buying influence in Afghanistan by providing trillions of rupees in aid and helping build infrastructure, sending sophisticated scientific expeditions to Antarctica and producing even more expensive movies. I wondered: how do India’s Muslims relate to the New India? Were they finding a way to a share in the growing economy? Had they made peace with the ghosts of Babri? Did they see an end to the rampant suspicion and arrests in the name of anti-terrorism measures? I decided to travel to a few cities and towns in Uttar Pradesh, where 31 million of India’s 154 million Muslims live to gauge how much the recent past mattered, how they saw the present and hear their hopes for a future.

AYODHYA WAS A QUIET, medieval city of spires and domes mixing ancient Hindu temple architecture with a dash of Mughal style. When I visited in December 2009, the Sarayu River, which flanks the city, was hidden in mist and the small, jute and bamboo shacks of pundits on its banks were almost empty, waiting for pilgrims. A calf clothed in a jute sack stood by each shack. I walked around the well-washed streets and the bazaars of the city. Vendors sold brassware for the pilgrims and advertised the glory of the sweets—besan laddoos, pedas, jalebis—made in Ayodhya, almost untouched by the homogenising flood of globalisation. In the market leading to the much barricaded and guarded site of Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi, young boys sang devotional songs on television sets and the shopkeepers sold orange Hanumans made of plastic.

A few miles away, at the Ram Temple workshop near the Digambar Akhara, young pundits went about dusting mats, an activist sold DVDs of “the Ramayan” and karseva from a tiny wooden shack at the gate, and a few policemen stood guard with assault rifles. An old woman sold maps of Ayodhya. The compound was empty, quiet. Monkeys jumped around. The sandstone blocks and the pillars meant for the Ram Temple were piled up in large stacks, their pink darkened by thick layers of dust and moss. A framed picture of Paramhans hung beside a miniature model of the proposed temple. “Paramhans-ji is dead. The artisans have left,” one of the caretakers of the compound, a man in his late 50s told me. He seemed tired, resigned. I mentioned my earlier visit in 2002 when Paramhans was leading the push for foundationary rituals for the Ram Temple. “It is quiet now. There is no movement for the temple here now. Those days are over.”

In a nearby bazaar, I got into a conversation with a shopkeeper, Vinod Gupta. A plump man in his 30s, Gupta moaned that the barricades and the checkpoints on the road to the disputed site, where pilgrims make regular visits to a makeshift temple, hurt business. “Imagine how many people would visit if the temple had been made?” Gupta said wistfully. I asked if he saw any chances of that happening. “What chances? The BJP did nothing despite eight years in power. The only chance I see of a temple being built here is when Rahul Gandhi becomes prime minister.” I was perplexed by his expectations of the young Gandhi. “Think about it.” he said solemnly, “The locks were opened when the Congress was in power; the idols were installed when the Congress was in power; the Babri Masjid was demolished when the Congress was in power. Maybe we will have the temple when the Congress is in power.”

Batla House where two students were killed in a September 2008 encounter. OMAR SHARIF & MADAN GEHLOT

THE ROAD BACK from Ayodhya to Lucknow is a work in progress. Smooth stretches of a wide, metalled highway are abruptly interrupted by swaths of dirt tracks, speed breakers, and half-built flyovers, forcing a traveller to take rough detours. Sparkling SUVs, heady, aggressive trucks, agile small cars, weary state transport buses, and tractors compete in a manic race to get ahead. After two hours of fumes and dust and blinding headlights, on my way back to Lucknow, the traffic came to an hour-long halt in a suburb of the city. Patience thinned; people honked, jumped lanes, shouted and screamed. The prickliness, the anxiety, the slow progress despite signs of hope, seemed like a metaphor for India’s journey back from the dark days of December 1992. I too was in a hurry to reach Lucknow to seek another measure of this journey by sitting through a meeting of the Muslim activists most involved in the Babri question the next morning. Amir ud Daula Islamia College in Lucknow’s Lalbagh area is a hundred-year-old, lemon-coloured Indo-Sarcenic-style building complex surrounded by automobile parts and mechanic repair shops. A brightly painted signboard near the college gate announced coaching classes for the Indian Administrative Service and another promised to teach ‘Spoken English and Etequette’ (sic). In a basement room in a college building, a long row of desktop computers sat along the walls and a poster of the educationist and founder of Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Syed Khan, hung from a peg. Twenty old and middle-aged men in sherwanis and suits sat around a set of cheap, mica-topped tables joined together. These Muslim activists and politicians were the members of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), which had over the past two decades dominated the political life of Muslims in India, especially in the north.

Zafaryab Jilani, the convenor of the BMAC, a sombre man in his 50s sat at the centre of the table. Jilani adjusted the greyish Karakul cap he wore over a brown Nehru jacket, ran his fingers over his salt and pepper beard, and urged the members to silence before the meeting could begin. He spoke slowly, patiently, like a man who had spent a lifetime in such meetings. He had. Jilani was finishing a law degree at Aligarh Muslim University in 1970 when he led a student agitation to protect the minority character of the university, which reserved half the seats for Muslim students. He has been involved in almost every Indian Muslim cause ever since: from the controversy around the Supreme Court judgement ordering greater alimony for a Muslim woman, Shah Bano—seen by the Muslim clergy as interference in the Islamic laws governing family—to being a part of the formation of the BMAC in 1986 after the VHP formed a committee to ‘liberate’ the Ram Janambhoomi. Jilani remains the lawyer for the BMAC in the legal battle for the ownership of the 27 hectares of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi disputed site. “The Babri question is as alive for us today as it was 15 years earlier. We couldn’t stop the demolition, but we are fighting the title suit in the case. We are fighting to get back the land of the mosque,” Jilani told me.

A maulvi who sat near Jilani began the proceedings by reading from a chapter of the Quran: “How shall we count all that You have given us?” The members bowed their heads in silence. The maulvi continued. “How shall we count all that You have given us?” A mobile phone rang. “We have to talk about the Liberhan report and some other issues facing the community,” Jilani addressed the gathering. Various members began speaking at the same time; he raised his voice every now and then to maintain order. He heard everyone out and tried to build a consensus on what position the committee should take on the Liberhan report. “The report establishes that the RSS/BJP had hatched a conspiracy to demolish the mosque. Various politicians and bureaucrats against whom there were no cases have been named by the report for their role in the demolition. We demand that investigations be conducted against them. Unfortunately, the Liberhan Report has ignored the role of Narsimha Rao (then prime minister) on technical grounds, when both Rao and the Congress party were equally responsible,” Jilani said.

Batla House where two students were killed in a September 2008 encounter. OMAR SHARIF & MADAN GEHLOT

Members moved to give their opinions and a few minutes later there was agreement that they were largely happy with the Liberhan Report. There was talk about the possibility of a judgement in the title suit of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi case in the Allahabad High Court, a judgement still awaited 17 years on. “The evidence is in our favour but the case will take at least another year in the High Court before a decision can be granted,” said Jilani. Tea arrived and the members entered into various conversations. There were no emotional rants, no Islamist discourse, no call for action. The big meeting on the question of The Babri Mosque was over in an hour.

If the meeting about the mosque was more symbolic, the next session tackled more practical concerns. I was struck by a calendar in the conference room: Muslim Reservation Movement. A second session began on the demand of affirmative action for Muslims in India; most members of the BMAC, it turned out were also the members of the Muslim Reservation Movement. The room was instantly energised, the cell phones didn’t ring anymore, the banter ceased. In October 2004, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assumed office following almost a decade of BJP rule, he appointed former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Ranganath Mishra to head an eponymous commission to explore and recommend measures to elevate the socioeconomic status of minorities. Three years later, in May 2007, the Mishra Commission submitted its report, which was eventually tabled in the parliament in November 2009. “Indian minorities, especially the Muslims, are very much underrepresented, and sometimes wholly unrepresented in government jobs,” the Mishra report said, adding that the “Educational levels of Muslims and Buddhists are low and next to Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes.” The Commission recommended a 15 percent reservation for the minorities in government jobs and educational institutions, earmarking ten percent for the Muslims. The United Progressive Alliance government is yet to accept the report; its Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid declared that not all of the Mishra Commission’s suggestions were binding on the government and the implementation of its recommendations was unlikely.

“We have to lobby to get the Mishra report implemented,” Jilani told the meeting. Heads shook in agreement. Faces were sombre. They badly seemed to want to better their lot in a new India. A series of images flashed through my mind: the squalor of Old Delhi, the claustrophobia of Zakir Nagar, the uneducated artisans in the Lucknow Chowk area, the Bengali labourers in bigger cities, the poor boys in madrasas. “We should have a big rally,” one of the members suggested. “Yes, a big rally to draw attention,” another said. “We should have a big rally in Delhi,” the maulvi who had read the Quran suggested. “A march to the parliament,” another voice added. Jilani sat still, calculating, and then voted against the Delhi rally. “We don’t have enough resources to move thousands to Delhi. It will cost a lot of money. At least a few lakhs.” He paused. “What about Amethi? It is easier to gather people there. Anything that is said in Amethi reaches 10 Janpath.”

Seventeen years after the Babri demolition, the absence of any real political clout among Indian Muslims was palpable. Shafiq-ur-Rahman Barq, a white-haired, ageing Member of Parliament from the Samajwadi Party had spoken in the BMAC meeting about sitting in the Well of the House in protest for an hour and still not getting a chance to speak on the Liberhan debate. Aziz Ahmad, a doctor from Gorakhpur who is affiliated with the Bahujan Samaj Party and has unsuccessfully contested a series of elections, likened the participation of Muslims in Indian politics to the workings of a cricket team. “The Indian Muslim is the twelfth man in the team. We are mostly on the sidelines, waiting for a chance to affect the game.” Indian Muslim politics seemed to be a rather powerless attempt at petitioning the central government and hoping for a better share in the Indian story.

THE IDEA OF A NEW DEAL, better education, and a more equitable distribution of income seems to be energising a disparate group of Muslims in India today. “India’s Muslims have a moral claim to a better life. Look at the socioeconomic indicators of this community 60 years after independence and it seems that Muslims are the new Dalits of the new India,” says Areesh Ahmad, a young political scientist at Delhi University’s Ramjas College. Ahmed, who grew up in a Faizabad village, half an hour from Ayodhya, came of age in the post-Babri India. “Babri was to my generation what partition was to my father’s generation. Something that might help erase that trauma is if our government finally moves to provide reservation for Muslims in jobs and educational institutions in India. Reservations have empowered the Dalits and similar measures can help empower Muslims, help them join the Indian middle class in proportionate numbers,” Ahmed said. In December 2009, several Muslim Members of Parliament met the Prime Minister to lobby for the implementation of the Mishra Commission report. India’s Muslims seem to have missed a decade-and-a-half in joining the narrative of the aspirational middle class that defined India throughout the 1990s. A demand for a ten percent reservation in government jobs might seem arcane when most jobs have moved to the private sector and the old structures of power are losing their lustre. Most instances of Indian Muslim success have come in the private sector: Aziz Premji’s Wipro in IT, YK Hamied’s Cipla in pharmaceuticals, the numerous Khans in Bollywood, the Pathan brothers in cricket and Sania Mirza in tennis.

Yet the reasoning, the demand for a share of government jobs by the Muslims is tied to the old insecurity that arose from the riots and their interactions with the bureaucracy and the police. The 2006 Sachar Committee Report on the socioeconomic conditions of the Muslims in India revealed that around 40 percent of India’s prison population is Muslim, yet some of the biggest Muslim neighbourhoods in cities like Delhi have relatively low crime rates. “Most of them are in prison for very small offences, like stealing a bicycle, but they don’t always have legal help and end up serving time instead of getting bail,” said Iftikhar Gilani, author of My Days in Prison, one of the most revealing accounts of India’s penal system. Ahmed sees a remedy to that challenge in better representation in the organs of government. “Having a certain presence in the system makes the delivery mechanisms of the state such as the bureaucracy, the police, the PDS, more humane to your peculiar needs,” he argued.

Muslim ghettos in Delhi like Zakir Nagar are stained with poverty and a desperation to be accepted. OMAR SHARIF & MADAN GEHLOT

The shocking Sachar Committee Report put on record what could be sensed on any visit to a Muslim majority area in India. Fifty-two percent of Muslim men were unemployed, compared with 47 percent of Dalit men. Ninety-one percent of Muslim women were unemployed, compared with 77 percent of Dalit women. Muslims held less than five percent of government jobs, especially in the elite Indian Civil Services, in which they comprised a meagre two percent. The flagship scheme of the UPA government’s response to the Sachar Report is the Multi-Sectoral Development Programme (MSDP) aimed at addressing infrastructural deficits faced by Muslims in minority districts. The scheme had covered only 47 districts till the end of 2009, and faces the problem of addressing its target group: the Muslims. The scheme has been implemented mostly in backward districts with a minority share between 20 percent and 50 percent. “As a result the scheme would reach out to only 30 percent of the Muslim population of the country, the bulk of the Muslim population remains left behind,”  Tanweer Fazal, a sociologist at Jamia Millia Islamia, wrote in a recent essay on a blog dedicated to the Indian Muslim question. “The disempowered Muslim community within these districts would scarcely muster enough influence to ensure resource allocation in localities and villages of their residence.”

ON AN EARLY JANUARY AFTERNOON I walked through the manicured lawns of Jamia Millia Islamia University to meet the vice chancellor, Najeeb Jung. Jamia is not a minority institution but attracts a large number of Muslim students. Jung is one of the few Indian Muslims who made it to the Indian civil services in the 1970s. After working at the top of the petroleum ministry and a stint as the head of Europe operations of Reliance Petroleum, a few months ago, Jung, a tall, suave man with a salt and pepper beard, had joined the Jamia as its vice-chancellor, replacing the celebrated historian Mushirul Hasan.

Jung sat beneath a wall of framed pictures of his predecessors, a Who’s Who of educated and successful Indian Muslims. His career had proceeded without any help from constitutional reservations for Muslims in jobs or universities and he seemed to be struggling with the idea, weighing its after-effects. He spoke about India’s first Dalit president, KR Narayanan. “I was reading his memoirs and he writes about feeling the burden of being in office because he was a Dalit. And that is when he is in the presidential palace. Reservations for Muslims can also be a cross around the neck,” Jung told me. He was silent for a moment, weighing his words. Suddenly, his voice changed, his face was a little grave as he said, “But the Indian polity has to consider the question of what it wants to do with so many unemployed Muslims.”

In Lucknow, a man very different from Jung had spoken of the same idea. About a mile away from Lucknow’s fabled Imambara, a dusty lane led to a small private school, the Unity College. One June afternoon I met the Shia leader Kalbe Sadiq in a small office inside the Unity College complex. Sadiq, a diminutive man with a wisp of a beard dressed in the loose cloak of an Iranian cleric, has established the Unity College as a high school for poor students. Around 600 students are being educated in two shifts at the school, a lot of them children of uneducated artisans in Lucknow’s garment industry. “Education and economic progress are the biggest challenges we need to overcome. That is what forced me to start this school,” Sadiq explained.

But the challenges for Indian Muslims don’t end once they reach the university. Ameeq Ahmad was born to a labourer father in a village near Azamgarh eight hours from Kalbe Sadiq’s Lucknow. He had three brothers. In the late 1970s, as the oil boom propelled the need for labourers in the oil kingdoms of West Asia, his father, like thousands of other Muslim men from the area, decided to move to the Persian Gulf countries to seek work. “I am 31 now and my only memories of my father are of seeing him for two weeks every year. He spent his entire life working in the harshest conditions away from home so that my brothers and I could get an education and make better lives for ourselves.” Ameeq studied at an old Azamgarh institution, Shibli College, before moving to Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. Six years after graduating in history and getting a filmmaking diploma, Ameeq has made several documentary films for the state broadcaster, Doordarshan, on Sufi saints and one on the life of India’s fifth president, Dr Zakir Hussain. He is currently at work on a biographical film about the eminent Muslim leader, India’s first education minister and the most important leader of the Indian Muslims, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.  “It will hopefully be shown in various madrasas, schools, and Muslim colleges around the country. Young Muslim students need role models to look up to,” Ameeq said when we met on the stairs of a journalism school in South Delhi’s New Friends Colony, where he teaches documentary filmmaking.

Ameeq Ahmad at the media school in Delhi where he teaches. OMAR SHARIF & MADAN GEHLOT

Ameeq, an athletic man with a small build who speaks chaste Urdu, found himself shaken last year when two Jamia Millia Islamia students were killed in a controversial encounter with the Delhi Police in the Batla House area near the university. The police claimed that the slain students were terrorists and members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Protests and inquiries followed. One of the students killed was from Azamgarh and another arrested student came from there as well. Various sections of the media described Azamgarh as Aatankgarh, bastion of terror. Hardly anyone in the mostly Muslim Jamia Nagar area believes the police version. Amid police patrols and various competing claims of whether the boys from Azamgarh were terrorists or whether it was yet another case of Delhi police staging a fake encounter, fear blanketed Jamia Nagar. Hundreds of students from Azamgarh were called home by their parents. “These were mostly students who came from backgrounds like mine, whose parents had worked for years in the gulf countries, made some money and told them: go study in Delhi!” Ameeq told me. “Now the same parents were saying, ‘Forget the books. Come home, here you would at least be safe.’” Ameeq struggled for months to get such students to return to the university in Delhi.

The atmosphere of fear wasn’t limited only to the circumstances surrounding the Batla House case, but the larger question of radicalisation among India’s Muslims. This was most starkly illustrated by the 2001 ban on SIMI. Officials contended that group members had formed a terrorist wing, Indian Mujahideen, which was responsible for a series of bomb blasts across India. A majority of the members of SIMI were from Uttar Pradesh, especially from the areas around Azamgarh. In his excellent and meticulously researched book, Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e- Islami (2009), anthropologist and Monash University Professor Irfan Ahmad shows that the radicalisation of SIMI was a direct reaction to the demolition of the Babri Mosque. SIMI had responded to the Babri demolition by choosing 72 of its members to march to Ayodhya. Seventy-two was the number of the companions of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussain, who were killed in the legendary battle of Karbala. “They invoked the idea of jihad as self-defence after the Indian state failed to protect minorities, but it didn’t go beyond the realm of theory,” Ahmad told me.

In the years after the banning of SIMI in 2001, hundreds of Muslim youth have been arrested on terrorism charges. After the blasts in Delhi in 2008, there was a lot of talk about a terrorist group, Indian Mujahideen, being an offshoot of SIMI. In November 2008, Human Rights Watch revealed that close to 100 Muslim men were arrested after bomb blasts in Hyderabad in May and August 2007. The state government had admitted torturing 21 of the suspects and offering them compensation. A thorough 2008 investigation by Tehelka magazine reporter, Ajit Sahi, revealed rampant abuse of power by police — the arrest, torture, and imprisonment of hundreds of young Muslims across India in terrorism-related cases on the basis of almost no evidence. Ahmad, who interviewed most of the SIMI leadership and spent considerable time with its members, agrees with Sahi’s assessment. “There has been a tremendous transformation within the SIMI cadre. Most of its former leadership is running small business or working various jobs and going about their lives.”

Given that radical Islamist activism within Indian Muslim groups was largely driven by the rise in Hindu nationalism, a decline in the appeal of the BJP and the petering out of the Ram Temple movement has further tempered the small but visible section of Islamist activists in India. According to Ahmed, the membership of SIMI at the time of his research in 2002 was less than 1,000. The mothership of Islamist politics in South Asia, Jamaat-e-Islami, has, in recent years, encouraged Muslims to tactically vote for the Congress and other parties that could challenge the BJP. And in the aftermath of the 2009 Mumbai terror attacks, the Jamaat came out strongly in anti-terror rallies. This relative lessening of fear is what is helping Ameeq bring some of the students from Azamgarh back to Jamia to continue their education. In our last meeting Ameeq told me, “Many students have agreed to come back now. That is the hope.”

But higher education and upward mobility can’t shield the Muslim middle class from humiliation and despair and the burden of identity. India’s Muslims don’t move to Delhi; they move to Okhla. An invisible border separates the upper-middle-class New Friends Colony and the Muslim ghetto surrounding Jamia Millia Islamia. The autorickshaw driver excuses himself if you want to enter Okhla; the property dealer excuses himself if you want leave Okhla. Over the last few months, I spent considerable time in Okhla talking to young, educated Muslim professionals, like Tariq Masood, who had made a long journey from watching the despairing aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in his small town of Gorakhpur to studying economics, marketing and computers at Aligarh to rising to be a well-paid consultant at an IT firm in Delhi. The street turned narrower, the construction more frenzied and claustrophobic as I walked to Tariq’s two-bedroom apartment in Zakir Nagar. Earlier, I had met a property dealer who spoke of intense building activity, often illegal and permitted by generous bribes to the police, because most Muslims wanted to live in the area; old personal networks and cultural affinity were partly the reason, but the big impetus came after the 2002 Gujarat riots.  “A three-bedroom apartment here goes for anything from 3 to 5 million rupees,” the builder said.

Children in Zakhir Nagar look outward on a city from which they often feel excluded. OMAR SHARIF & MADAN GEHLOT

Tariq, his wife, their four-year-old daughter Zoya and I sat in their sparse living room. A play station and a computer sat on a table, two paintings with lush landscapes hung on a wall. A little later, three girls from the apartment building, friends of Zoya, walked in. Zoya and the girls walked into a bedroom and started playing with a bunch of soft toys in the room. “Why don’t they play outside?” I said casually. Tariq and his wife smiled and asked me to join them on their tiny balcony. We stared at the ghetto outside: a squalid jumble of brick and concrete and dust. For miles around us, I couldn’t see a tree or an open public space. There was no space for a child to play.

Tariq has been trying to rent an apartment in Noida, a Delhi suburb, or in the East Delhi neighborhood of Mayur Vihar. His wife is a Christian and they tried using her name. “When they find out her husband is Muslim, they refuse,” Tariq told me. “We try to make this small world as interesting as we can. Zoya is growing up and I want to give her a better place to live. This is our home, our world, but I often think about immigrating to the US or Canada.”