Residents of Udali, a predominantly Muslim village in Assam’s Hojai district, remember Haji Nabab Ali with veneration. He had, after all, built the village’s first tin-roofed house, way back in 1946. “They were like the first family of the mohalla,” said Amiruddin Borbhuyian, the headman. “Everyone knew them, their house particularly.”

Cut to September 2018 and Haji Nabab Ali’s descendants are facing a social boycott.

At an emergency mohalla meeting chaired by Borbhuyian earlier this month, the village passed a unanimous resolution to excommunicate the Ali family, currently comprising Haji Nabab Ali’s grandson, Intaz Ali, and his son’s family. No one in Udali, it was decreed, would have anything to do with its once revered residents. Even the local mosque would be out of bounds for the family. “Total social boycott,” confirmed Borbhuyian, “except if there is a death in the family, in which case we will help them with the burial.”

The boycott was Udali’s response to the alleged involvement of one of Haji Nabab Ali’s great grandsons in a case that has stunned this middle Assam district. Saidul Alom was arrested on September 15 for being part of a group that was “preparing a plan” to “set up a base of Hizbul Mujahideen” in Assam, according to records of the Hojai judicial magistrate’s court accessed by

‘A base of Hizbul Mujahideen’

Saidul Alom is one of eight people – all but one from Hojai – arrested by the Assam police since September 14 for their alleged links with the Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen. They follow the arrest of Mohammad Kamruj Zaman, also from Hojai, by the Uttar Pradesh police on September 13. According to a first information report filed by the Assam police, Zaman was “making preparations to carry out subversive terrorist activity” during Ganesh Chaturthi festivities in Kanpur “as per the direction of Hizbul Mujahideen superior commanders”.

In April, a photograph, apparently of Zaman brandishing an automatic rifle, had emerged on social media. The caption stated that Zaman, who had been living in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar since 2013, ostensibly selling clothes on the footpath, was now a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen and going by the name of Dr Hurairah. It had befuddled many: how did a petty trader from Assam make it to the propaganda page of a Kashmiri militant group? Save for an isolated case, there was no known instance of a non-Kashmiri joining the militancy in the state.

As the public sensation caused by the picture waned in Assam, Zaman seemingly dropped off the radar of the state’s security establishment. In August, as per the FIR, Zaman slipped into his hometown of Jamunamukh, in Hojai, for a “secret visit”. The Assam police admitted they were unaware of the trip until the Uttar Pradesh police informed them following Zaman’s arrest. The visit, which lasted over 10 days, was allegedly an attempt by Zaman to “collect illegal arms, recruit new cadres and raise funds” to “carry out terrorist activities” in “Hindu dominated areas of Hojai district”, the FIR claims.

Ankur Jain, Hojai’s superintendent of police, was defensive when asked about the alleged visit. “It is easy to blame the Assam police,” Jain said. “But the truth is the intelligence agencies also did not know. It was a collective failure.”

Besides, he insisted, the police had more than made up for their initial lapse. “After the UP police caught Zaman, within three days, we had seven people,” he said. “We caught them before they could do anything. I think the network, at least in Hojai, has been completely dismantled.”

According to the Assam police, the eight people arrested following Zaman’s arrest had provided him logistical support, in varying measures, during his alleged visit. At least three of them, the police claimed, were part of a larger conspiracy to help the Hizbul Mujahideen establish a footprint in Assam.

Why Hojai?

But why would a Kashmiri separatist group be interested in Assam? Additional Director General of Police Pallav Bhattacharya claimed Hizbul Mujahideen saw Assam as a “safe corridor” to cool off in after carrying out attacks in Kashmir.

There could be an “arms component” as well. “Dimapur is not very far,” Bhattacharya said. Dimapur in Nagaland is known to be a thriving centre for illegal arms trade, catering to the many insurgencies of the North East. Reports suggest that Hizbul Mujahideen faces an arms shortage in the Kashmir Valley.

Why Hojai in particular? Bhattacharya said the choice may be incidental since Zaman, the first link in the chain, was from Hojai.

The investigating officer, Deputy Superintendent Jyoti Ranjan Nath, offered a different explanation. “Hojai is one of the biggest hubs of Agarwood oil extraction, more people go abroad from here than any other part of the state,” he said. “This has probably led to people being influenced by more radical strains of Islam from other parts of the world. For example, when I was interrogating Saidul Alom, he said Kamruj [Zaman] told him only Kashmiri Muslims are pure Muslims and how they offer namaz is the only right way to do so.”

Jain, however, was more circumspect. “Yes, there was an attempt at radicalisation, that is very clear,” he said. “But, to be honest, to be drawing links to anything at the moment is pure speculation because we don’t have any evidence.”

Jain pointed out that the local Muslim community had no sympathy for any of those arrested. “In fact, here, Muslim organisations have taken out rallies condemning the actions of the accused,” he said. “There is public support for the police investigation, proving that there is no wide-scale radicalisation.”

Hojai is a site of Hindutva mobilisation in Assam. It is home to one of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s bigger hubs outside its headquarters in Nagpur. Many local residents call the Hojai town “mini Nagpur”. But police officials said this had nothing to do with the alleged attempt at Islamic “radicalisation”. “During our interrogation, the accused only acknowledged their knowledge of the existence of the Gitasram but nothing more than that,” said Jain, referring to the RSS centre in Hojai.

A string of arrests

One of the first to be arrested by the Assam police on September 14 was Sahanawaj Alom, a technician at a medical diagnostics laboratory in Jamunamukh. Nath called Sahanawaj Alom a childhood friend of Zaman and the “main culprit” behind the spread of the Hizbul Mujahideen’s influence in Hojai. “He had been engaged by Zaman to spread the network,” Nath claimed.

According to a police report filed in the magistrate’s court, Sahanawaj Alom had helped Zaman “conceal his identity” and “evade arrest” during his alleged visit in August and supplied him with a mobile phone and a SIM card. The report further claims that Sahanawaj Alom had been “kept under secret police surveillance” since August 25, apparently after information was received from “secret sources” that he was in contact with Zaman and was providing him “different types of information secretly”.

Why then was he arrested only after the Uttar Pradesh police stumbled upon Zaman? “We did not have enough proof to act before,” Jain replied. “But after the UP police shared information with us, we arrested him immediately.” The police claimed that Sahanawaj Alom, fearing arrest, was trying to flee Hojai when they apprehended him.

Sahanawaj Alom. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

On September 15, the police arrested Saidul Alom and Omar Faruque. Saidul Alom, Jain said, was a “meritorious overground worker”, a term that is commonly used to describe non-combatant members of a militant group tasked with logistics. According to the police, Saidul Alom was the only one among the eight arrested men who had gone to Kashmir. “He disappeared for a couple of months earlier this year,” said Jain. “He had gone to Kashmir, where he got in touch with the Hizbul.”

According to Nath, Saidul Alom met Zaman during one of his visits home last year. They had been in contact ever since through BlackBerry’s instant messaging service, he added.

Faruque, who worked with a travelling amusement fair, was “recruited” by Sahanawaj Alom with the lure of money, the police said. According to the police’s submissions in the magistrate’s court, apparently based on confessions of the arrested men, Faruque, Sahanawaj Alom and Saidul Alom knew about the conspiracy to “carry out terrorist activities”.

On September 16, the police arrested Zaman’s older brother. Shaiful Islam is accused of providing “safe shelter” to his brother and “concealing information”. Additionally, the police have accused him of “providing shelter with food to other Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist members” who had allegedly visited the Zamans’ home in Jamunamukh earlier.

In April, two cousins of Zaman told that he was accompanied by three Kashmiri-speaking men when he last visited home, in January 2017, before his pictures emerged on social media. The police suspect the three men were Hizbul Mujahideen operatives. “We have not been able to identify them exactly, though,” said Jain.

Shaiful Islam. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

The other arrested men are Riyaj Uddin, Jainal Uddin, Mohammad Bahrul Islam Mizi and Abhimanyu Chauhan. The police alleged that the homes of Riyaj Uddin and Jainal Uddin were used for providing Zaman “safe shelter” during his August visit. Mizi, on the other hand, had allegedly lent his motorbike to Sahanawaj Alom which was used to ferry Zaman round. Chauhan, arrested on September 23, was a businessman with links to the illegal arms trade in Dimapur. “Riyaj Uddin had put Sahanawaj in touch with Chuahan,” said Nath. “They were hoping to utilise him to procure arms.”

The police said they were building on their investigations now. “We will make sure we have a watertight case so that no one gets away,” said Jain.

Riyaj Uddin. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

Devastated families

The arrests of the eight men have devastated their families. Saidul Alom’s father, excommunicated by his neighbours and forced to temporarily shut his grocery shop because of the humiliation, seethed with anger as he spoke about his son. “I made sure he went to an Assamese-medium school and not a madrassa, and this is what he does,” Intaz Ali said, his voice trembling. “The disgrace he has brought to this family, I cannot even begin to tell. All my self respect is gone.”

Ali recalled that his son had first shown “signs of change” just before his Class 12 exams. He had passed his Class 10 exams with “star marks” – over 80 % – and joined one of Nagaon district’s premier junior colleges. But just before his senior secondary exams, he had wanted to drop out and attend a madrassa instead. “I beat him that day and then I banged my head against the wall, I told him, ‘You have to sit for the exams, come what may,’” he said. “He relented and I said, ‘Thank you Allah, everything is fine again’.”

Intaz Ali, father of one of the arrested men. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

But Ali’s relief was to be temporary. His son started disappearing for long spells, claiming he was going for tabligh, or religious expedition. “I told him Allah is at home, why go out looking for him?” said Ali. “Sometimes he would listen but he would run away again. I gave up hope.”

This summer, Saidul Alom again left for around three months, telling his family he was headed to Delhi for tabligh – a trip that security officials believe was actually undertaken to meet Hizbul Mujahideen operatives in Kashmir. “Now, if the police release him also, I will not let him even step in my yard,” said Ali. “I do not want a son who is an enemy of the country.”

Neighbours recount a similar story. “He was a very sharp boy academically,” said one. “Then suddenly he went out of his mind, all he did was take Allah’s name. They even got him married hoping the presence of a woman would change him. Evidently not.”

After returning home in August, the police alleged, Saidul Alom hosted a Hizbul Mujahideen operative from Kashmir at a mosque in the neighbouring town of Lanka. A functionary at the mosque confirmed that Saidul Alom spent a night there with another man. “He paid for two people, that’s what the records also show,” he said. “But we don’t know who the other person was. Saidul submitted only his identity card.”

At Jamunamukh’s Solmari village, Faruque’s wife Jasmine Begum said she knew little about her husband other than that he worked at fairs across the region. “He had no fixed timings,” said Jasmine, a mother of two children, aged six and two. “He would hardly be home.”

She had little hope for the future. “If he is guilty, the government will punish him,” Jasmine said. “If he is not, I hope they see the face of our two kids and show some mercy.”

Jasmine Begum, wife of Omar Faruque. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

A few kilometres away, Bahrul Islam Mizi’s elder brother, Jahangir Alom, is bitter. “The media made him a jihadi, called him a linkman of the Hizbul,” he complained. “Have they checked on the ground what kind of a boy he is? He doesn’t even know what Hizbul is. You should ask people in Jamunamukh, he is a patriot, he organises rallies on August 15, he can play the national anthem on the piano.”

Jahangir Alom insisted his brother had lent his motorbike to Sahanawaj Alom in good faith. “How was he supposed to know he is a criminal?” he asked. “That Sahanawaj Alom used to be so honey-tongued. As a young boy, he [Mizi] should be let off with a warning.”

Bahrul Islam Mizi. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

At Sahanawaj Alom’s home in Jamunamukh, his mother Nikah Alom is inconsolable. “My baba is such a nice boy, he is not like that,” she said, breaking down. “What will I do now? My husband is a heart patient. Who will check his blood pressure now? The police have taken all our phones away, I cannot even call anyone now.”

Nikah Alom said she had no idea about her son’s alleged activities, or ideology. “He would be away at the laboratory tending to patients from 9 in the morning to 10 at night,” she said. “After that he would come home and tuck his two children in bed.”

When she met her son in jail, the conversation was brief. “I have done no harm to anyone,” he supposedly told her. “Just pray to Allah for me.”

Nikah Alom hoped her son would return home soon. “I only want Allah to bring him back,” she said. “What will happen to the kids otherwise?”

Nikah Alom, mother of Sahanawaj Alom. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

The one-street town of Jamunamukh is still coming to terms with the fact that almost half a dozen of its young men, who they came across regularly and greeted, who did jobs as mundane as them, have been accused of having connections to a terror group. “They were all good boys, always well-behaved,” said Khalil Uddin, a town elder. “What can we say, we did not even get a whiff of what they were up to. But these days, who knows what is in people’s heart?”