BHATKAL ~ What happens when the name of a small town in coastal Karnataka begins to flash on terror radars across the world? Among other things, it has knock-on effects that are both absurd and explainable.
In April this year, when Shah Rukh Khan was detained on his way to Yale University by US immigration authorities at New York’s White Plains Airport after he stepped off a private plane with Nita Ambani, it was probably the result of a ‘name alert’ thrown up by a database. “The alias ‘Shahrukh’ is mentioned in a dossier with Interpol,” says a source with the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS). This is because a trio of dreaded terrorists from that small town in Karnataka are thought to be sharing ‘Shahrukh’ as an alternate name.
The small town in question is Bhatkal, and the alleged terrorist who first took a fancy to the actor’s name is a man called Riyaz Bhatkal, who is currently on the ‘most wanted’ list of Indian investigative agencies as much as Interpol. Along with his brother Iqbal and suspected ringleader Yasin Bhatkal (also from the same town), Riyaz is thought to be a founder member of the banned terror outfit Indian Mujahideen. All three are known to use ‘Shahrukh’ as an alias (as also ‘Dr Imran’), and all three are alleged to have planned and executed a series of bomb blasts across India these past few years.
They have been on the run for several years now, but a visit to Bhatkal confirms that they remain on everyone’s mind in this town. Those who remember Riyaz from the old days speak of his fixation with Shah Rukh Khan. He had been a fan of the actor ever since he saw him on TV in Fauji, a tele-serial of the late 1980s. So taken was Riyaz with the actor that he started modelling himself on him, dressing and styling his hair the same way.
But that was a long time ago.
Bhatkal is a scenic town. It must have been a pleasant place to live before it gained notoriety as a ‘hub of terror’. In Madeena Colony stands a green single-storey structure that must surely have seen better times. Six years ago, a police team visited this house and left it so sullen, it may never recover. It has no celebrations or visitors, and its shabby appearance only adds to its air of desolation.
This is the house of the Shahbandri family, and Riyaz and Iqbal are the sons of the household.
As we approach the house, an old man outside looks up from a newspaper. “I am Iqbal and Riyaz’s father,” he says, “Please leave us alone. My wife is ill. We don’t want to talk to you.” With that, he gets up and recedes into the house through an unkempt curtain at the door. Then, a frail old woman in a burkha peeps out and turns away too. She is Riyaz and Iqbal’s mother, we gather. She took ill after she heard a regional news channel report that the gangster Chhota Rajan had eliminated Riyaz. It was untrue.
In the six years that the brothers have been on the run, they have dropped their family name in favour of ‘Bhatkal’, but this has been of little help to their weary parents. “The family has been boycotted by neighbours and other relatives,” says Inayat, editor of Sahilonline, a local news portal, “The parents are old and suffer from various illnesses. They keep to themselves.”
According to others who knew the brothers before they fled Bhatkal, Iqbal was the quieter of the two; Riyaz was the flashier one. “They were good boys who obeyed their parents and never got into any trouble,” says Inayat, “It is difficult to say what went wrong and where.”
The Shahbandri family is visibly poor. They own a flat in Mumbai’s Kurla area, where they had lived before moving back to Bhatkal nearly a decade ago, but it is occupied by a squatter. “This tenement was given on rent to a maulvi who has cheated them,” says Inayat, “He has stopped paying the old couple their due rent, so they have no income to live on.” They make do with occasional sums of money from the brothers’ maternal uncle.
Their house has been raided by the police numerous times after ‘tip-offs’ about bombs allegedly being made on its first floor. “None was recovered,” says the maternal uncle, “My sister lost her heart to live here. But they have no choice. She lives in the hope that her sons may just turn up one day.”
The police dossier on the Bhatkal brothers, however, has only grown heavier by the year.
Nearly a kilometre away from the Shahbandri household, in the upscale Maqdoom Colony, lives the family of Yasin Bhatkal, touted as the mastermind of the Indian Mujahideen. He remains the most ‘wanted’ of all. According to the police, Yasin has managed to give them the slip on several occasions.
Like Iqbal and Riyaz, Yasin began using ‘Bhatkal’ only after leaving the town eight years ago. He was born here as Mohammed Ahmed Zarar Sidibapa.
The Sidibapa bungalow in Maqdoom Colony has a compound dotted with coconut and mango trees and enclosed by a high wall. It’s a joint family, and they appear reasonably well-off. The front porch often has visitors (mostly from the media) who sit patiently on chairs awaiting the arrival of Yakub Sidibapa, Yasin’s paternal uncle, family spokesman, and owner of a furniture shop and fabrication unit. “We’ve stopped speaking to the media after all the lies they’ve written,” he says, “We have also filed defamation cases against two leading newspapers.”
Speaking to me inside the spacious house, Yasin’s mother Rehana is distraught and agitated. Clad in a burkha, her eyes are moist as she looks at me and her hands cold as she holds mine. “The police are hounding us,” she says, “But my son’s name is not Yasin. And Bhatkal is only the name of this place. My son’s name is Mohammed Ahmed Zarar Sidibapa. I don’t know who Yasin Bhatkal is. The man the police call ‘Yasin’ is not the same person as my son.”
Like the Shahbandris, the Sidibapas have not seen their son for nearly a decade. The family says they are clueless on his whereabouts. “I have not seen him or spoken to him in the past eight years. We do not know where he is,” says Rehana, “About eight years ago, he went to Dubai to work with his father Ahmed Zarar Sidibapa. [Next], he left home after a fight with his father. Since then, though my husband is in regular touch, my son is not.”
It was about four years ago that the family first heard the name Yasin Bhatkal, when an officer of the Intelligence Bureau, a ‘Suresh’, visited them for information on Yasin. “He was here for half an hour,” says Yakub, “We told him that we did not know any Yasin Bhatkal. Since then, police from Mumbai, Pune and Gujarat have come to our house and searched it about 15 to 20 times.”
The searches have not yielded anything, says the family. “They have been looking for Yasin Bhatkal’s photographs, which we do not have,” says Yakub, “Mohammed Ahmed Sidibapa was a very quiet child who was very shy of being photographed. Besides, in our community, we do not take many photographs. First the police published Mohammed’s tenth standard pictures. The recent ones being published are of Mohammed Sidibapa, whom the police say is Yasin. How did the police get this picture? It is not a CCTV one.”
Rehana and Yakub say they are unaware of what Mohammed has been up to these past eight years. “Aath saal pehele ka puchho, hum uske baarey mein bol sakte hain,” says the uncle, “Lekin abhi seena taan ke kuchh nahin bol sakte hain.” (Ask us about eight years ago, we’ll have something to say, but there is nothing we can confidently say about him today.)
According to the family, Mohammed was born on 15 January 1983, and speaks English, Hindi, Urdu and Kannada. In the police description, Yasin is fair and about 5 foot 6 inches tall, as learnt from interrogations of his alleged accomplices in terror who have been arrested.
Every new series of blasts and wave of allegations draws the police to their doorstep. “They ask us the same questions, we have the same answers. Then they go off,” says Yakub, who too has undergone gruelling interrogation sessions with the police. Rehana, who has developed multiple health problems since the advent of ‘Yasin Bhatkal’ in their lives, has become a feverish watcher of TV news. “I want to see him at least once,” she says, teary-eyed.
After the 13 February 2010 blast at Pune’s German Bakery, Rehana’s younger son Abdul Samad Zarar Sidibapa was arrested by the Maharashtra ATS for his alleged role in the terror attack. The 23-year-old Samad was taken into ATS custody at Mangalore’s Bajpe airport on his return from Dubai, where he had gone to visit his father.
The ‘prized catch’ that he was, he was reportedly taken to Mumbai by a chartered plane and interrogated for 40 days. At the end of it, the ATS did not find any evidence to link Samad to the Pune blast.
Though he was picked up as a German Bakery blast suspect, Samad found himself charged under the Arms Act in connection with a 2009 arms seizure involving the gangster Chhota Shakeel. The court found no evidence against Samad and granted him bail (it has been two years since, and the police have filed no chargesheet in the case).
The Maharashtra ATS later admitted its error, but that is cold comfort for Samad, who now stays aloof and confined to his house. “Iske saath jo police ne kiya,” says Yakub, “Aap sunengi toh aansoo ayenge.” (If you hear what the police did to him, you’d be in tears.) “In jail, I was wearing just one garment, my underwear,” is all Samad volunteers, his eyes moistening. “My brother is just an image for the police. How can he just walk in and out of places carrying bombs and setting off blasts?” asks Samad, “It sounds fantastic. Earlier, they had Dawood Ibrahim, now they have someone called Yasin Bhatkal.” According to Yakub, Samad has never been to Pune and his detention in Mumbai was his first time ever in Maharashtra.
Yakub says that the family’s life can never be the same again. They do not let Samad go out alone. He is always accompanied by his uncle. Recently, he had attended a relative’s wedding, but the moment people saw him there, they all cleared out of the area. The family now keeps daily records of every little thing and movement of his as proof. They have an exhaustive file of where he went and what he did. Samad’s youngest sister even maintains a diary with details of all visitors to their house.
“If my son is involved, hang him,” says Rehana, “but don’t harass us like this.”
Over at Madeena Colony, the home of Iqbal and Riyaz is kept under constant surveillance by the police. “Once two of their relatives were talking about another relative, an unwell qazi (judge) called Iqbal who was being brought to Bhatkal from Mangalore,” says a resident of Bhatkal who doesn’t want to be named, “Within a short while, the police swooped down and raided the houses of both these relatives, demanding details of ‘Iqbal’. Since then, people have been living scared, and whoever visits their house is questioned by the police.”
Both the Shahbandris and Sidibapas—like most others of their community in Bhatkal—are Nawaiti Muslims, who say they are descendants of Yemeni Arabs who came to the port town several centuries ago, married Jains of the Konkan belt, and assimilated many aspects of the coastal culture. Today, while many of them speak English, their traditional language is a mix of nine, including Konkani, Kannada, Marathi and Malayalam.
The people of Bhatkal have always had close ties with Kerala. Its traders frequent Kozhikode, and so strong is its influence that Bhatkal’s local cuisine has a Malayalee flavour and Kozhikode’s famed ‘Sulemani chai ’ is a hot favourite here too.
With its large Muslim population, Bhatkal has been slapped with unwanted labels before. After the 1971 Indo-Pak war, it suffered jeers of ‘mini-Pakistan’. It still does. “Now that our people live in Gulf countries and there is a steady stream of money coming from there, Bhatkal is also being referred to as a ‘smuggler’s paradise’,” says Dr Mohammed Hanif, a social activist.
Bhatkal boasts of 95 per cent literacy. Thanks to Gulf remittances, the posh parts of Bhatkal are lined with sprawling bungalows . The town also has a thriving Gulf Market, a popular haunt for people from Goa and Kerala who drive down regularly for large supplies of items imported from West Asia.
However, with the Bhatkal trio so often in the news, and that too with red corner alerts issued against them, people in this quaint town are a nervous lot nowadays. “The entire town has been branded ‘terrorist’, and it is not easy to live with such a tag,” sighs Dr Hanif. “They may or may not be involved [in terror activity], but why brand the town?” he demands, “Bhatkal is not a centre of terror, as the police say. Earlier, they even said that Osama bin Laden had visited Bhatkal.”
In that, Bhatkal’s case has echoes of Azamgarh’s experience, a place in Uttar Pradesh that has never been able to shake off its infamy as the hometown of gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim and Abu Salem. If Indian intelligence agencies are to be believed, Azamgarh today is the nerve centre of the Indian Mujahideen. This is why as many as 1,000 of the town’s mobile phones are under surveillance.
People in Bhatkal know they are under similar scrutiny.
What pains them, though, is police persecution, which they say is routine. “There was a murder and my brother was picked up as the prime accused,” says Dr Hanif, “He was nowhere at the scene, nor was he a conspirator.
For two years, we had to run around for bail. We spent Rs 7 lakh. He was acquitted by the court after another two years. Who will give back four years of his life?”
It doesn’t even take a crime for the police to come by, says Dr Hanif. “Even if there is a private argument between two people who happen to be Muslim, the police slap them with stringent charges,” he claims, “So even if no complaint is made, they have a police case.” Muslim youth in Bhatkal live in constant fear of being hauled up on fake charges, especially under the dreaded Arms Act, “the provisions of which can get them a death sentence, if convicted.” They are soft targets for anybody who wants to go after them. “Anyone who is caught is labelled an Indian Mujahideen operative and an accomplice of Yasin, Riyaz and Iqbal,” says Inayat.
This persecution of Muslims in Bhatkal must stop, more or less everyone in the town agrees. According to Satish Kumar, general secretary of Bhatkal Nagrik Hithrakhshana Vedike, business is suffering too. It is difficult for Bhatkal’s traders—Hindu or Muslim—to get hotel accommodation in Bangalore, Kozhikode and other places. “The moment we say, ‘We are from Bhatkal’, they turn us away,” he says.
Sayed Hasan Barmawar, social worker and founder member of Islamic Welfare Society Bank, says Bhatkal is a victim of the worst kind of group profiling. This will stop only when the police stop treating the entire town as a hub of terror. “We are respectable people,” he says, “treat us so.”
“We want peace,” says Satish Kumar, “and these routine police accusations are destroying the peace between Muslims and Hindus here.”