A town called terror
Bhatkal, a port town on the Arabian Sea, is described as a hotbed of terrorism. It’s the home of the Indian Mujahideen — and Hindu radical groups too are taking root here, says V. Kumara Swamy
Once in a while, peace reigns over Bhatkal. That’s when the Karnataka town’s Hindus lead a procession on Ram Navami. In a tradition that goes back a hundred years, a group of Hindu elders visits the residence of a Muslim clergyman to seek his permission for a rath yatra to pass through a street and town dominated by Muslims.
On other days, suspicion stalks the town that’s being described in some circles as the home of the Indian Mujahideen — a fundamentalist group that’s started making its presence felt in the country. And that’s not all. Hindu radical groups are taking root in the town, which is getting more and more divided on communal lines.
“We wish the atmosphere of brotherhood — visible during Ram Navami — exists all through the year. But that’s just wishful thinking,” says C.B. Vedamurthy, deputy superintendent of police, Bhatkal.
Many believe it was the same rath yatra that sowed the seeds of discord in 1993. In the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, riots broke out in and around Bhatkal, a port town on the Arabian Sea, 150km north of Mangalore. The riots lasted for almost a year, resulting in a huge loss of life and property. That, residents stress, was the beginning.
• Bhatkal residents who have been linked to terror include the Bhatkal brothers (from top) Iqbal and Riyaz Shabandari, Ahmed Sidi Bapa, Muhammad Hussain Farhan, Abdul Majid and Muhammad Gurfan
• Srirama Sene local convener Shabbanna Kollur says he looks forward to the day when Bhatkal will become a Hindu rashtra. Srirama Sene chief Pramod Muthalik (below) is a frequent visitor
“Occasional riots, hate speeches, political assassinations and minor skirmishes over the years have scarred the psyche of both the communities. This has helped extremists from both sides to take advantage of the situation,” says Surendra Shanbag, the head of Bhatkal Seva Samiti, a group working for communal amity.
On Thursday, as Ajmal Kasab, one of the terrorists who struck in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, was sentenced to death, the spotlight was once again on Bhatkal, which some fear has been spawning terrorists. Two suspected Indian terrorists are even being referred to as the “Bhatkal Brothers” for their association with the town.
But Riyaz and Iqbal Shabandari, accused of executing bomb blasts including the Pune German Bakery blast, never lived in Bhatkal. They grew up in Mumbai, but visited the town often because they had relatives there, their mother says.
“We gave them a good education and taught them to be good Muslims. We haven’t seen their faces for years now,” says mother Sayeeda, sitting in her two-storeyed house, while Riyaz’s small son pesters her to buy him candy. The two brothers’ wives and seven children live in the same dimly lit house, as two intelligence bureau officers staying in the neighbourhood keep an eye on them.
“I say, please hang them if they are guilty, but stop harassing us. Every time there is a blast anywhere, the police land at our doorstep,” she says.
Observers say that after the 2002 Gujarat riots, Riyaz started getting close to a few radical youths of Bhatkal following the Salafi way, a puritanical form of Islam. Most Muslims in Bhatkal follow the Shafi religious school, which is also orthodox. Not surprisingly, the only women you see in town are swathed in a burqa.
The Salafis, though in a minority, have now established their own mosque in Bhatkal. But Hanif Shabab, a prominent local doctor, stresses that when elders of the community confronted the Salafi followers, they were assured that the group was merely interested in following Islam. “Even if they are extreme in their thoughts, we are sure that they are incapable of carrying out any large scale activities,” he says.
Intelligence agencies, however, suspect that Bhatkal was the base for the Shabandari brothers and others involved in bomb blasts. Bhatkal, they say, is a hotbed of terrorism not only because the memory of the 1993 riots is still vivid. The town, some point out, is on the coast, which makes it easier for people to access the sea. The cultural divide between the Hindus and Muslims has also been strengthened by the fact that the Muslims speak their own language — a mix of Konkani and Marathi called Navayathi.
But the local police and intelligence units brush aside the home ministry’s claims that beachfront houses on the Jali beach act as safe houses for terrorists. “We don’t know how the intelligence agencies came to such a conclusion,” says a Karnataka Police intelligence official.
Besides the brothers, Bhatkal residents who have been linked to terror include Ahmed Sidi Bapa, Muhammad Hussain Farhan, Abdul Majid, Muhammad Gurfan and Dr Mohammed Arif — names which routinely come up whenever there is a blast in the country.
The locals, however, stress that Bhatkal is being given a bad name for no reason at all. Arif, who has been accused of being an accomplice in the blasts and is believed to be on the run, practises medicine in Bhatkal’s Medina Colony. “This is how our intelligence agencies work. They are supposed to be searching for me when they know that I am very much here,” says Arif.
Even the local police say that the names of the so-called terrorists that intelligence agencies have unofficially disclosed to the media have no terrorist links. “These names appear out of nowhere. We don’t have any record on any one of these people except Riyaz,” says Vedamurthy.
S.J. Khalid, general secretary of the Tanzeem, a religious group, stresses that “many of the so called absconding people” work in the Gulf. “We have arranged telephonic conversations between them and the intelligence agencies and they know that these boys are innocent, but their names keep cropping up.”
The Navayath community now fears that the terror allegations could radicalise the youth. “We are finding it very difficult to convince our youth to stay calm despite the provocations from the Hindu Right,” says Khalid.
Indeed, some Hindu organisations have been quick to pounce on what they see as an opportunity. The Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagarna Vedike and Karavali Hindu Samiti have been setting up offices in Bhatkal.
“We have been telling our police that Bhatkal is a mini Pakistan and there is enough RDX in the town to blow it up many times over,” alleges Krishna Naik, head of the BJP Bhatkal unit. The Hindu organisations also blame Muslims for the assassinations of BJP MLA U. Chittaranjan in 1996 and local BJP worker Thimappa Naik in 2004 in Bhatkal. Both the cases remain unsolved.
Bhatkal has also been the focus of Srirama Sene, known for its violent agitations in Karnataka. At a recent rally, its local convener Shabbanna Kollur said, “We look forward to the day when Bhatkal will become a Hindu rashtra.” Prominent fundamentalist Hindu leaders such as Shankar Naik, allegedly involved in attacks on churches, and Girish Shetty have made Bhatkal their base.
Intelligence agencies are also worried about moderate Hindus turning radical in deeply polarised Bhatkal. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some people make it to Abhinav Bharat,” says a senior police officer, referring to the organisation accused of carrying out bomb blasts in Malegaon and Ajmer. “We had earlier seized some explosives in the Karwar region that were bound for Goa. But investigations are still on,” he says.
J.D. Naik, the Congress MLA from the region, blames the BJP and Hindu organisations for vitiating the atmosphere. “These organisations have tried to spread a fear psychosis among Hindus and I must admit they have succeeded to a great extent,” he says.
The extent of polarisation can be gauged from the fact that there are hardly any Hindu homes in upmarket areas, which are full of gleaming bungalows where Muslims live. Unkempt buildings and thatched houses mark the Hindu areas.
Surrounded by rolling hills on three sides and the Arabian Sea on the other, Bhatkal is a town with well laid roads and sprawling bungalows. People have easy access to hospitals, ATMs and modern educational institutions. But unlike other towns, it’s the Muslim here who is prosperous, and not the Hindu.
“We are a trader community and we have at least one person working in the Gulf from every family. Not many Muslims in our country are as affluent as we are. There is certainly some jealousy against this. And this has been tapped by fringe organisations,” says D.H. Shabbar, vice-president, Anjuman Hami Muslimeen, which runs many educational institutions.
In a town of 45,000 people, the Bhatkal Urban Co-operative Bank alone has around 20,000 accounts. “About 25 per cent of these are non resident Indian bank accounts. Even individual investors have robust bank balances,” says Abdul Razaq, managing director of the bank.
But the divide between the communities is palpable. Even children are not spared. The Anjuman-run schools have no Hindu students, while there are few Muslims in Vidya Bharati and private schools. “That’s the tragedy of Bhatkal. I was educated at Anjuman and even some BJP leaders studied there,” says Congressman Naik.
Some locals have set up peace committees — but the efforts haven’t been successful. “Whenever we try to bridge the gap between the two communities, communal forces somehow succeed in keeping the pot of hatred boiling,” rues Qadir Meran Patel, president of the Islamic welfare society, which gives out interest-free loans to people of both the communities.
Not surprisingly, some old residents look forward to Ram Navami. At least that’s one day of peace.