Bhatkal: India’s Terror Capital?
I arrived in this so-called terror town in the dead of night. The slow passenger train of the Konkan Railways had been held up intermittently en route due to the incessant monsoon rains. On the platform, there was nothing but a sea of black. Muslim women in their enveloping head-to-toe black gowns, and a few men in white. I felt like I had arrived in Saudi Arabia.
Surrounded by rolling hills of the lofty Sahyadri Mountains (also known as the Western Ghats) on three sides and the azure Arabian Sea on the other, Bhatkal is a prosperous town with old quaint houses sharing space along with modern sprawling mansions and elegant shopping complexes. Situated midway between Mangalore and Karwar, in the Uttara Kanara district of Karnataka, it is a Taluka headquarters. With population of about 60,000, mostly Muslims, the town is today often referred to as the terror capital of India- it is home to the Indian Mujahideen.
Deeply steeped in history with an abundance of monuments reflecting the glory of a bygone era, the thriving town was a canvas of peace, affluence and piety just two decades ago. Prosperity, deep faith in religion and unity had been the hallmark of the town since time immemorial. Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jains have lived here in harmony for centuries. The culture of this picturesque vibrant town is of mixed origin, the two significant strands being the Arabs and the locals. Besides the two major communities of Muslims and Hindus, there is a sprinkling of Christians and four Jain families. The few Jains are a pleasant reminder of the days when they ruled the city.
A community of Arab traders, who were fleeing the tyranny of an infamous governor of Iraq during the caliphate of Abdul Malik Marwan, settled in this speck of land around the eighth century and they acquired the tag of ‘navayath’ or newcomers. Today, their descendants call themselves Navayathi Muslims and they have a website (www.bhatkallys.com) that’ll tell you all about their past and present.
The Navayaths are a sea-faring trading community which came to the place more than a thousand years ago. They constitute a larger percentage of the population and hold the key to the economy of the area. Among the Hindus, the Namadharis or Ediga form the majority. One stark difference that stands out is that unlike other places, it’s the Muslims here who are prosperous, not the Hindus. The extent of polarisation today can be gauged from the fact that there are hardly any Hindu homes in the upmarket areas; there are only gleaming houses where Muslims live. Sprawling bungalows and mansions have come up in the city with the help of Gulf remittances. In the three days that I spent there, I came across manors, castles, chalets, chateaus, English country houses and French villas- all owned by the Muslims. In my travels all over the country, I have not come across such a profusion of marvelous houses anywhere. Bhatkal is an architect’s dream city. On the sea front at Jali beach, there were unique beach houses, most of which would give a complex to the owners of such houses in the French Riviera, Las Palmas and Florida. There are even some dizzying cliff houses perched on the hills of the Sahyadiris. Prosperity is very obvious. Strangely, most of these properties are unoccupied. The owners are either in foreign shores, or have just asserted their status by building these edifices. In sharp contrast, the unkempt buildings and thatched houses mark the Hindu areas. The Navayaths have purchased nearly 5000 acres of land around Bhatkal, and with the recent influx of Gulf returnees due to the changed scenario there, more land will be soon acquired.
History recalls that due to its strategic location on the western coast, Bhatkal, has for centuries, been eyed by various invaders and settlers. The small town has witnessed the rise and fall of various dynasties and rulers. World famous medieval traveller Ibn Batuta has fondly mentioned Bhatkal in his chronicles. It was a part of Hoysala Empire from 1291 to 1343, and later fell into the hands of the Vijayanagara Empire. After the disintegration of the empire, the Jain Saluva rulers of Hadwalli brought this coveted town under their control. They built many temples and basadis during this period, vestiges of which can be still found. In the early years of the 16th century, the Portuguese took over. From the Keladi rulers, Bhatkal was passed on to Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan and after Tipu’s defeat in 1799, the British took over. Tipu Sultan shared a special relationship with the town, building a mosque at the heart of the town as a testimony.
The archaeological treasures at Bhatkal speak volumes about its rich heritage. The extant Kethapayya Narayan temple in Mud Bhatkal was constructed in 1545 by Ketha Pai, a noted Goan jeweller, and was the most outstanding architectural specimen of that time. The Parshwanatha Jain Basadi on Bazaar Main Road ranks among the oldest structures of Bhatkal. The town is also home to centuries old magnificent mosques like the Jamia masjid, the Khalifa masjid, the Sultani masjid and the Noor masjid.
The town is strewn with reputed educational institutions managed by Anjuman Hami-e-Muslimeen, a pioneering education trust founded in 1919 for spreading the light of education across all sections of society. The Anjuman Engineering College is well known throughout the country for imparting quality technical education. The Jamia Islamia is a reputed centre for religious studies, while the Majlise Islah Wa Tanzeem is rendering valuable service to the welfare of the Muslim community. There are a few institutions which are run by the Hindu-managed Bhatkal Education Trust. The tragedy of Bhatkal today is that the Anjuman-run schools have no Hindu students, and there are no Muslims in the Vidya Bharati and private schools. The divide between the communities is palpable.
Even though the communities do not freely intermingle, they are dependent on each other, 90 per cent of the maids in Muslim houses are Hindu; so are most of the autorickhaw drivers. On the contrary, the Islamic bank in town gives interest-free loans to poor non-Muslims too. The room boy in Hotel Kola had told me that his name was Shah Rukh Khan, so did the waiter in the local eatery, the cobbler and the newspaper vendor. It seems that it was the easy way out, nobody wants to be named. In fact all the people I met asked me not to mention their names, neither allowed me to take photographs. Most of the names in this article have been changed to respect their sentiments.
Every Muslim family has at least two of its members working in the Arab world. Going to the Gulf is the aspiration of every local Muslim youth. A passport is a must for everyone who turns eighteen, and to ensure that they get one soon, they keep clean records. Bhatkal has the least juvenile crime rate in the country.
“Not many Muslims in India are as affluent and prosperous as we are. There is certainly a lot of jealousy due to this. And this has been tapped by fringe organisations,” said Syed Abu Baker. In this small town of 60,000 people, the Bhatkal Urban Co-operative Bank alone has around 25,000 accounts, a quarter of which are non-resident accounts. Other nationalised and private banks too have accounts with robust bank balances.
Even after a short visit, one is struck with the question of how such a utopian land has suddenly turned into a communal cauldron that it is today. The transformation certainly did not happen overnight. Bhatkal has been variously termed today as ‘mini Dubai’, ‘mini Pakistan’, ‘terror centre’ and ‘bomb factory’. It has earned the sobriquet of being the birth place of the Indian Mujahideen, the most dreaded terrorist organisation of the country.
Today, Bhatkal is the alleged home of India’s 10 most wanted terrorists. Besides the Bhatkal brothers, Riyaz and Iqbal, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is on the lookout for Ahmed Sidi Bapa alias Yasin, Muhammed Hussain Farhan, Afif Jailani, Mohammed Gurfan, Abdul Khadir Sultan, Jasim Iqbal Syeedi, Abdul Majid, and Dr. Arif Motesham. All of them carry fat rewards on there heads, and Interpol has issued red corner notices against them.
Of the 15 names mentioned in the charge sheet in relation to the terror blasts in Ahmedabad, Surat, Hyderabad and Bangalore, 13 are from the area of Mangalore and Bhatkal. Police teams from Pune, Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Mangalore have all visited the town. A Kannada paper recently reported that 10 mosques of Bhatkal were “bomb-making factories”. There were reports of the Karnataka police raiding IM hideouts in Bhatkal in October 2008 and finding pro-Taliban videos. There were rumours that Osama bin Laden too had spent time here. In fact the CIA too had done a covert search operation in 2010.
BHATKAL: A GATEWAY FOR JEHADI TERRORISTS
The otherwise serene, picturesque and sleepy Bhatkal, a coastal town in Karwar district of Karnataka state, defies its dark underbelly in the form of sleeper cells of the dreaded ISI and intricate network of the agents of underwold don Dawood Ibrahim. The communal clashes of 1992-93 in this sleepy town pre-dominated by Navayath Muslims brought to the fore the diabolical designs of external forces and internal elements inimical to the unity, integrity and security of India. “Bhatkal, indeed, has turned into a safe haven for terrorists to enter and exit India with impunity,” Justice Kedambadi Jagannath Shetty, former judge of the Karnataka high court, said during a tele-chat with Uday India.
Justice Shetty headed a one-man commission of inquiry into the communal clashes that rocked Bhatkal for 20-days during 1992-93, in which hundreds of people lost their lives and property worth several hundred crores was damaged. During the course of the proceedings, Justice Shetty came across startling facts, which, hitherto, were unknown to the world.
For instance, it was revealed by the officers of the intelligence wing of the state police, customs and district administration that the RDX used by jehadi terrorists in the 1993 Mumbai blasts was first dumped in Bhatkal and then was transported to Mumbai via Ratnagiri. “A lot of hue and cry is being made on the killing of Sohrabuddin in an encounter and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is being pilloried day in and day out by the so-called human right activists. But it is the same Sohrabuddin who was the mastermind behind transporting the RDX to Mumbai, which was used in Mumbai blasts of 1993,” Justice Shetty contended.
The then Assistant Commissioner of Customs, VG Diwakar states (Page 364, Volume II of the Justice K.Jagannath Shetty Report), “There was information given to me about the smuggling of arms such as RDX, sophisticated arms being smuggled into Bhatkal coasts, orally the information was given to me by the DG (Director General of Customs) and I, in turn, informed the police to take preventive measures for the same.”
It is not only the AC of Customs but also the then DC (Deputy Commissioner of the district) Srivastava who, while deposing before the commission, stated, “From the state intelligence, I received information about some explosive material likely to land off the Bhatkal coast. This information came from the state intelligence through the state government in writing. This information in writing communicated to me is available in both DC and SP office. After the receipt of information, we took steps to intensify patrolling and we alerted the customs department at Bhatkal. We are expecting intelligence information that RDX type of explosives were landing at Bhatkal port. The sources from which we are expecting the mentioned explosives at Bhatkal port area. did not specify its likelihood of its usage in any particular place.” (Page 367 in Volume II of the report).
Uday India is in possession of all four volumes of the report submitted by Justice Kedambadi Jagannath Shetty to the state government. Similarly, an identical statement, or rather, a more grave deposition was made by Ananth Kumar Hegde, present BJP MP, in his capacity as Hindu memorialist. He said, “RDX was brought to India through various routes and one such route is Bhatkal. ISI and Dawood Ibrahim were the brain behind the smuggling of RDX for the purpose of creating chaos in India.” (Page 368 in Volume II of the report).
On page 369 in Volume II of the report, Justice Shetty contends: “These three witnesses (AC, Customs, DC, Karwar & Ananth Kumar Hegde) were rigorously cross-examined by Basheer Ahmed, counsel for Muslim memorialists on all points except regarding smuggling of RDX into Bhatkal. Thus, the witness version as to the activities of smuggling of RDX into Bhatkal is to be accepted. Even the police officials have not disputed, though these witnesses were cross-examined by their (police) counsel Seetharama Shetty.”
Yet another deposition, this time by Prasanna Kumar, Customs Officer, is damning which is precise, specific and categoridal in nature. On page 371 of Volume II of the report he stated, “We had received wireless message of smuggling of arms, ammunition, RDX by Bombay-based smugglers operating from Pakistan, to be landed at any place in the West Coast. We received this information in the first week of February 1993.” No wonder that the Mumbai blasts of 1993
happened in March that year, i.e., exactly one month after the RDX landed in Bhatkal and transported by Sohrabuddin!
That the cash-rich Navayath Muslims of Bhatkal town wanted to make the area exclusively and only for Muslims by driving away the Hindus was revealed by none other than the then Deputy Commissioner Srivastava. On page 319 in Volume II of the report he deposed thus, “The statement on page 9 reads that members of one community wanted to drive away the members of other community. In this context, I say that the majority of landlords are Muslims and tenants are Hindus (shops and buildings). I further say that the Muslim community wanted to drive away the Hindus.”
On the anti-national activities being carried out by elements belonging to Muslim community, Justice
KJ Shetty Commission’s report deals extensively. On pages 324, 325 and 326, the witnesses states: “In Anjuman high school ground, a black flag was hoisted atop the flag pole and the pole was smeared with black coloured grease. It was in the wee hours of 26th January, when the nation was about to celebrate the Republic Day. In Sultan street,
which is a Muslim majority area where no Hindus dare to go, slogans such as ‘Pakistan Zindabad, India Murdabad’ were written boldly on the walls .”
The justification given by a Muslim memorialist Mustaq Ahmed for such anti-national activities shocked Justice Shetty. He has recorded in his report (Page 328, Volume II) verbatim, “ The hoisting of black flag and pasting of the pole by grease on Republic Day was an expression of protest and resentment of Muslim community for not complying with the promise made by the Central government to re-build the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Moreover, such protests are permissible in a democratic set-up. Smearing the flag post with grease and hoisting of black flag in the premises of Anjuman High School ground does not amount to insult to national flag.”
The process of communalisation allegedly by the Muslims took the toll of Dr U Chittaranjan, BJP MLA, who was a darling to the common man, belonging to both Hindus and Muslims. Thousands of Muslim women were seen weeping silently over the death of Dr Chittaranjan, who by his affable character and ever-smiling attitude had treated thousands of patients irrespective of religion and community.
Though 18 years elapsed of Dr Chittaranjan’s cold-blooded murder (1995), the criminal who actually pulled the trigger to kill Dr Chittaranjan has never been caught, though several hundreds of suspects from the Muslim community were rounded up and later released by the police. Dr Chittaranjan’s son, Dr Rajesh Chittaranjan contends, “The initial investigation by the local police destroyed vital evidence. Later it was handed over to CoD and then to CBI. But nothing has come out.”
Bhatkal was used as a laboratory by jehadi terrorists to experiment and test their logistical, personnel and infrastructural facilities, to carry on their nefarious activities with diabolical intentions. The country is paying price for the acts of omission and commission of the pseudo-secular governments and ‘so-called’ secular, left and kept intellectuals.
By SA Hemantha Kumar from Bengaluru
In the 1980’s, Bhatkal was a major centre for gold smuggling. The Intelligence Bureau had set up a full fledged office, mainly to keep tab on the thriving hawala rackets. Even then they had found it difficult to penetrate and crack the operations. The Navayath is a close knit and guarded community. Even the language is unique; it is an amalgam of Persian, Konkani, Kannada and Marathi.
The communal divide that runs deep today has its roots in recent years. The Navayaths, who constitute 90 per cent of the town, own most of the land and Namdharis, backward caste Hindus who worked on their fields, addressed them as saibru—loosely meaning ‘sir’. On the occasion of the Habba, a local rath yatra held during Ram Navami, the chariot starts from the house of a Muslim Shabandri family, as a mark of respect. In a tradition that goes back a hundred years, a group of Hindu elders visits the residence of the Muslim clergyman to seek his permission for the Rath Yatra to pass through a streets dominated by Muslims.
Communal harmony began to wear thin from 1991. Uma Bharti, then a firebrand BJP leader, gave a speech in front of a mosque, which triggered a riot for the first time. In the following elections, the BJP made inroads, whereby its candidate, Chittaranjan, managed to save his security deposit and even secured 141,647 votes.
In the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in Ajodhya, riots broke out in and around Bhatkal. In 1993, during the occasion of the Rath Yatra, some miscreant threw a stone at the chariot, and a riot started, killing 17 persons. Veerappa Moily, the then chief minister, came to appeal for peace but held the BJP and the right-wing Hindu outfits such as Hindu Jagran Vedike responsible, and said that the Muslims were not guilty. The town was under curfew for more than six months, something that happened for the first time outside Kashmir. For the BJP, the next big push came after the Babri Masjid demolition, when Chittaranjan got elected in the 1994 election with a clean 50% margin. No Muslim candidate contested the polls.
In 1996, Chittaranjan was murdered and right-wing Hindu elements lost no time in blaming the Muslims for it. Till date, nine CBI teams have failed to nab the culprits. The killing, which led to the occasional riots, hate speeches, political assassinations and minor skirmishes over the years, has scarred the psyche of both the communities. This has helped extremists from both sides to take advantage of the situation. Suspicion stalks the town and it has become a hotbed for extremism. Even a small incident which involves a non-Muslim will draw a few hundred Muslims who will assemble in less than five minutes and vice versa. The poor representation of Muslims, (only 2 per cent) in the district police is a big problem during riots. Young people aspiring to go abroad find that it’s not easy to get a passport anymore. The verification process for a Bhatkal resident has gone up ten fold, and the wait is never ending. Living with the shared feeling of helplessness, with real and perceived persecution, describes what Bhatkal is under today: a siege mentality.
The town has also been a playground for right-wing Hindu outfits such as Sriram Sene, Bajrang Dal, Karavali Hindu Samiti and Hindu Rakshna Vedike. Indeed, these Hindu organisations have been quick to pounce on what they see as an opportunity. In 2004, a local BJP worker Thimappa Naik was killed in Bhatkal, and like the Chittaranjan murder, this case too remains unsolved.
The IM has made its presence felt in the country for the first time in 2008. The town earned the terror tag after police and anti-terrorism squads of several states named brothers- Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandari, and Mohammad Ahmad Siddibappa alias Yasin, who had links with the town as suspects in several blasts starting 2008, and identified them as co-founders of the IM.
Even though the real names of these Indian Mujahideen operatives are Riyaz Shahbandri, Iqbal Shahbandri and Yasin Siddibapa, they are known by their new surnames – Bhatkal – both in the media and police circles. The police have intentionally decided to address them by the name of their town as it makes it easier to keep a record on them. However, this has proved to be the bane for the townsfolk.
However, the local police disagree with the “carefully crafted image” of Bhatkal. They deny that Bhatkal is the birthplace of Islamic terrorism. Even the IM founders never lived here. They lived in Mumbai. There is a great deal of police presence in this small town, not to mention the continued surveillance by intelligence agencies. Apart from Riyaz, Iqbal and Yasin, the Bangalore police headquarters has records of only one man from Bhatkal linked to any major criminal activity. Md Shabbir Hussain Gangawali, who was arrested allegedly with fake currency in Maharashtra, was later named a suspected IM member and was also accused of supplying jehadi literature
Inayutallah Gavai, editor of a local online publication, Sahil Online, says that Bhatkal was maligned on account of whatever was fed by the Maharashtra ATS. “You are the first journalist in years to visit this place. Others just write what is fed to them.” He publishes a local daily and keeps the online site updated. I met him in his office near the bus stand. “There is just no animosity between the communities, it is outsiders and the Intelligence agencies which keep things on the boil. Stay here for a week, you will get the full feel of things, we are peace loving people” he said in sincere earnestness. “All kinds of nonsense are being written about the town and the Muslims here. We are being called a terror hub when in fact our doors are always open and our mosques anyway have no doors.” On my way back, I met a returning NRI at Mangalore airport. During our conversation he berated that the whole town has been embarrassed due to the brothers. He explained that Navayathi Muslims prefer to use family names, a common practice in south India, or surnames like ‘Shahbandari’, ‘Ruknuddin’, ‘Mohtesham’ or ‘Ikkery’. There are very few persons who have the title ‘Bhatkal’.
Locals who work in the Gulf face the heat every time they land at any airport. The scrutiny of passports which have Bhatkal as the holder’s hometown is minutely done. “Others manage to get away with their security check in no time, but for us Bhatkal residents, it is an endless wait. They actually have separate inquiry wings for this at the airports to not cause inconvenience to others. We find it very embarrassing. Just yesterday, a youth named Farhan, who was returning to his job in Dubai, was detained at the Airport for hours and only released after the Bhatkal police gave him a clean chit. This happens on a regular basis”.
Intelligence agencies are of the firm opinion that Bhatkal was the base for the Shabandari brothers and others involved in the bomb blasts. The town, they point out, is on the coast, which makes it easier for people to access the sea. The day I was there, the boats were all high up and tied down; the Arabian Sea was in its full fury. In fact the Intelligence agencies have set up base in a few of the beach front houses to keep a watch on the activities.
Today, the residents of Bhatkal find it hard to cope with the name of their town being associated with every terrorist activity in India. While people are averse to getting their daughters married to a Bhatkal resident, the bigger worry is the job market, which has taken a big hit. The fact that the IM terrorists hailed from Bhatkal had not sunk in completely for a long time in the job market. However, post 13/7, Bhatkal’s name was all over the media and it made matters worse. Many who have come back find it difficult to have their contracts renewed. Bhatkal was famous for the Bhatkal biryani which could easily called as one of the dishes you must taste before you die. All the buses passing by Bhatkal made a stopover for the biryani. But now that too has stopped, said another resident.
Bhatkal is the focus of Srirama Sene, known for its violent agitations in Karnataka. I had met its chief Pramode Muttalik in Goa earlier, and he told me that he looks forward to the day when Bhatkal will become a Hindu dominated town. “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.” An insensitive administration has introduced a police beat that Muslims call “communal profiling”. It was meant to be a joint effort of the police and the community to improve security, but using that leverage, the police has started going from one Muslim household to another, seeking details of family members, their income, passport and vehicle numbers etc. On the other hand, the few Hindus that I met say that the Intelligence agencies target them instead of the terrorists. The few Hindu organisations that are active are under constant watch, and fearing harassment, the activists were reluctant to come out and speak. Jayant Naik, the convener of Sri Ram Sene says that he has many cases against him. His activists prohibit cow slaughter and this puts them at odds with the district administration. They are often thrown in jail and taken into preventive custody at the drop of a hat.
The administration accuses the RSS of indulging in a smear campaign to make coastal Karnataka a Hindutva laboratory. I met the sole RSS functionary in Bhatkal who told me that they do not hold the Sakhas anymore as attendance is nil. Surendra Shanbag of the Seva Vahini takes a middle path. He blames elements in political parties and the media who are driving a wedge between the communities. His Seva Vahini promotes harmony, and has tied up with Rabita, a Muslim
voluntary group to restore Bhatkal’s lost image.
By Anil Dhir from Bhatkal
PLEASE MAKE THIS ARTICLE IN THE BOX
TWO MURDERS AND TWO JUDICIAL COMMISSIONS
BJP leader Thimmappa Honnappa Naik was shot dead by unidentified assailants at Bhatkal town on the 2nd of May 2004. He was going home after closing his ice-cream shop when he was shot dead. The killers fired ten shots, killing him on the spot. Till date the killers have not been identified nor any arrests made. Thimmappa’s son accuses the BJP of putting things under wraps. He holds BJP’s Anantha Kumar responsible for suppressing the probe and for non-tabling of two judicial commission reports. Two years later the BJP MLA Chittaranjan too was murdered in April 2006. Over the years, nine teams from the CBI probed the murder, without success. The Justice Ramachandraiah Commission that probed Chittaranjan’s murder and the Justice Kedambadi Jagannath Shetty Commission that inquired into the communal riots at Bhatkal in 1992-93, have both submitted their reports.
Though the J H Patel and S M Krishna governments had announced that the two reports would be discussed in the Cabinet and then placed before the state legislature, the state government kept the two reports under wraps.
The BJP had “promised to table” the report once it came to power in the state, but it never gathered the courage to do so. BJP members preferred to be evasive about why the report was not tabled. They said they had studied the report very carefully as they did not want further communal problems in the state. The Justice Jagannath Shetty Commission report, which was published in a section of the press, had made a detailed mention of the ISI activities in Bhatkal taluk. According to the report, the commission recommended the constitution of a special intelligence unit comprising officials who could tackle communal violence.
This writer met Suresh Naik, Thimappa’s son at his shop. He blames the BJP leadership for scuttling the probe. The Navayaths make handsome contributions to elections funds and will get away from the killing. “My father died for the Party”, he told the writer. (AD)