In the bucolic remoteness of coastal Karnataka, affluence and heritage fail to hide the lure of radical Islam
Magnificent heritage buildings owned by rich Muslims of Bhatkal showcase the prosperity as much as the influence of Central Asian architecture here. Muslims of this sleepy North Canara coastal town, some 490 km from Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, are predominantly Nawayaths, who claim to have come from Arabia in the 8th century as traders and struck gold. Nawayath pride runs deep. “Until the Tenancy Act of 1972, implemented by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Hindus and other Muslims—mostly Dakhnis, from the Deccan plateau—used to stand yards away from the homes of Nawayathi landlords, and there was no question of any riots or Hindu-Muslim animosity,”says Dr Syed Zameerulla Sharief, a non-Nawayath Muslim who came to Bhatkal 35 years ago to marry a Nawayath. A former principal of Anjuman College here and a member of the Syndicate of Karnataka Folklore University, he feels that Nawayaths have been denied a reputation that ought to be their due. “They are highly entrepreneurial and are spread across the world now, but every year they come and spend two-three months here. They invest in property and spend a lot of money here,” says Sharief, who has authored several volumes devoted to this group of Muslims from Bhatkal, a town that, according to federal intelligence inputs, has become an epicentre of sorts for Islamist activities over the past decade.
Sharief appears crestfallen when he talks about a “handful of negative elements who are in any society” that are bent upon creating trouble. He is referring to the likes of the jailed Yasin Bhatkal, an infamous Nawayath who is a suspect in several bomb blast cases across the country, and Abdul Kadir Sultan Armar, a former member of the banned Student’s Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) who had left home 10 years ago with his younger brother Saif. Like Indian Mujahideen founder Yasin Bhatkal before him, Armar, an Islamic State (IS) volunteer, had also been recruiting jihadists both online and through one-on-one meetings. It was after the arrest of Bhatkal, also known as Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa, in a heroic manhunt by the Bihar Police that intelligence agencies discovered that Armar was engaged in acts of violence overseas. It now emerges that Armar, who used to live in Bhatkal’s well-off Nawayath Colony, was part of the Ansar-ut-Tauhid, an outfit that had claimed responsibility for the 2008 murder of US envoy John Granville in Khartoum, Sudan. His mission was to die fighting in Iraq and Syria, and so he headed for the IS and was killed recently in Kobane in north- east Syria along the Turkish border. According to an announcement on the Twitter handle @magnetgas12, his last words were: ‘Don’t forget to liberate India from Kuffars (non-Muslims)’.
A search for Armar’s home in Nawayath Colony ends fruitlessly, and the police later disclose to me that his mother Hajira Armar and father Shabbir Hussain Armar have shifted to Dubai. Over the years, Bhatkal has seen many of its youths waging what has been described as a religious duty of Muslims, jihad, in foreign locales; and many relatives of other jihadists killed in countries like Syria and Afghanistan have also shifted to cities in the Middle East, the police say. This may be why Open also failed to track down the relatives of Anwar Hussain, a Bhatkal resident who was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A visit to settlements such as Nawayath Colony, Maqdoom Colony (where Yasin Bhatkal was born) and Madeena Colony proves largely futile, with locals uncooperative when it comes to revealing information on the likes of Bhatkal and Armar. Explains one senior police officer based in Bangalore over the phone: “The reasons are manifold. One, local Muslims feel insulted when you probe them about terror links. Two, in these areas—across coastal Karnataka and even in some parts of Kerala—communal polarisation is beyond what you can imagine.” He adds that the potential dangers of such a situation are too many. “You can’t elicit proper information. Sometimes this also means that you are never able to establish the innocence of Muslims on the suspects list. It is a precarious situation,” he adds in a guttural voice.
Nawayath pride has, over the years, given way to wounded pride as tenants got rights over land owned by Muslim zamindars and a political churn meant that the once-dominant community faced opposition amid the rise of Hindutva politics in Karnataka. “The 1993 riots changed the face of Bhatkal, the ones that followed the demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya. A six-month curfew was clamped following that. Since then, the town has coped with it to some extent, but thanks to its affluence and trade links, it became easy prey to calls for jihad,” says Dr JS Sadananda, a political science professor at Karnataka’s Kuvempu University. He vouches for the observation that Hindus, who are the poorer lot in Bhatkal, continue to work as domestic help in Muslim households, but says the interaction is just transactional, that’s all. For his part, he is worried about the proliferation of Muslim religious institutions in town. Flush with funds from overseas and rich community leaders, Bhatkal is now home to some of the finest and most opulent mosques and religious institutions, including Jamia Islamia Bhatkal, the campus of which boasts of an imposing set of buildings: a mosque and the Qur’an Museum nearby, where you may see copies of the Qur’an in 55 languages, including Aogorian, Bosnian, Yunanian, Maqdunanian, Hawasa, Albanian, Somalian, Chinese, Qazaqian, Thai and Sindhi, apart from the popular English, Spanish, Russian and French, as well as some rare scripts. It also has on display a 1,000-year-old copy of the Qur’an and one that is claimed to be the world’s smallest (just an inch long), brought from Egypt. One of the copies is embroidered on cloth. The museum, run by Mawlana Abdul Hasan Ali -Nadwi Islamic Academy, also sells textbooks for Muslim schools across India and even exports these for use in countries such as Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. “This museum [set up in 2001] is one-of-its-kind in the country,” claims Mohammed Illyas Nadvi with a tinge of pride.
At Jamia Islamia Bhatkal, its vice-principal Maqbool Nadvi dwells at length on how for centuries temples and mosques went about their business without any hiccups in the town. Nadvi is a title accorded by Lucknow’s Darul Nadwat-ul-Ullema seminary, which intelligence agencies say has become a recruiting ground for jihad- ists from various parts of the world. Islamic scholar Maulana Salman Nadvi of Darul Nadwat-ul-Ullema had congratulated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on his announcement late last year in which he claimed to have re-established the ‘Islamic caliphate’.
Maqbool Nadvi, who says he’s from Bhatkal and then claims he doesn’t speak local Kannada and would thus prefer to speak in Urdu or Hindi, reiterates what various Hindu leaders of the town point out: that the majority of the town’s Hindus depend on Muslims for their livelihood, working as house helps and labourers. Kwaja Moinuddin, a member of the faculty at Jamia Milia, complains of media ‘propaganda’ that maligns the affluent among Muslims in this region and elsewhere. “They first hang a bad name on rich Muslims and then the perception builds up to the extent that people start believing these lies,” he says, referring to a media ‘onslaught’ on Bhatkal. To establish their credentials of religious amity, the Jamia staff are eager to parade before me a Hindu named Irappa who says he has been work-ing here as a guard for over 35 years. “We invited Hindu swamis and Brahmin priests to our functions. The projection of Bhatkal as a hub of terror is an outsiders’ job,” says Maqbool Nadvi angrily. He and another member of the faculty, Saajid Ali, who speaks English with a Westernised accent, take me on a guided tour of the institution (barring the classes of senior students). In a long corridor of a building on the sprawling campus, lush with assorted plants and coconut trees, some 50-odd students are “learning by heart” the Qur’an. One of them, 20-something Hassan, had memorised the book within three months and can recite any verse impromptu. “Notably, most of these students look meek and can be moulded the way their handlers want to,” says the senior police officer from Mangalore.
He is right. It is obvious.
Professor Sadananda avers that “on the face of it” religious institutions look like “mere religious institutions where they teach religion”. He echoes several police officers who have monitored Bhatkal closely when he says, “Many of the recruits to terror outfits are often isolated from the rest of the students in the name of pursuing a different course, and when some of them disappear overnight, the justification given is that they have gone for higher studies.” That is just a ruse, suggests a senior Delhi-based intelligence official.
Adds the Mangalore-based police officer: “All of it cannot be propaganda. Maybe there is a little bit of hype, but what about sev-eral recruits from Bhatkal to foreign shores? Please understand that they are not travelling to Kashmir or just Pakistan. Nobody denies that they are waging jihad in countries such as Syria and Iraq, and when they die, it all comes to the surface. Why is that nobody in the town is worried about such a trend?”
What adds to his assertion on the “implosive nature” of the town is the recovery of arms and explosive materials from Bhatkal following the 28 December IED blast last year on Bangalore’s bustling Church Street. Soon, Karnataka Police claimed that a huge cache of explo- sives, including ammonium nitrate and gelatin sticks, detonators, electronic timer devices and PVC pipes were retrieved from a house in Bhatkal after the arrest of three local youths in that case. “Many more such links to the ISIS and various other international Islamist groups have been traced to Bhatkal. Young Muslims from the town are increasingly becoming cannon fodder for such outfits. There is a lot of money coming in from overseas to the place, and therefore it is easy to organise young people by luring them with money and by indoctrinating them for years,” says the Delhi-based intelligence official.
Interestingly, the Intelligence Bureau and a section of the media covering Bhatkal’s terror links have earned the wrath of Muslim organisations here. Dr Mohammed Haneef Shabab, former general secretary of a Muslim body, Tanzeem, thunders, “It is a RAW plot to defame Muslims. It has international roots, and a particular journalist based in Delhi with the help of the IB is spreading such canards. How come Bhatkal alone is being targeted for being a haven of terror? Any place in India, especially Gujarat, is communally sensitive and polarised and has seen numerous anti-Muslim riots. I have myself seen the Bhiwandi riots [of 1970] and the 1993 Bhatkal riots. I see a pattern in the targeting of Muslims by the RAW and IB and such organisations which are highly Hinduised.” Indian intelligence agencies have often come under similar attacks. However, they deny any anti-Muslim bias in their functioning.
“Over the years, the trade links between Nawayaths and the Middle East ended up being a terror link, too,” says Professor Rajaram Tholpady of Mangalore University’s Department of Political Science. “Nawayaths had an advantage over other Muslims in trade and it was natural that when organisations in the Middle East wanted to recruit young people to die for no good reason, they turned towards people they already knew and had strong ties with. Which explains why traders of Bhatkal became conduits for terror activities. Both, at the moment, to me, seem inseparable,” he argues, recalling that the town had established itself as a hub for electronic goods and other foreign products many decades ago. “We used to travel to Bhatkal to buy such products because until 15 years ago they were available only in Bhatkal in Karnataka,” he notes. The town, he believes, may be the nerve centre of a severe communal schism that has afflicted the western coast of India. “What people fail to notice is that terror is a by-product of a deep resentment between communities, especially Hindus and Muslims, which is on the rise thanks to several factors, including jihadist tendencies and the RSS brand of politics,” he suggests.
On Muslims from affluent places like Bhatkal—with its imposing centuries-old, garish homes—turning so alarmingly radical, Tufail Ahmad, an expert on jihadist movements and Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC, offers his take: “While Muslim youths from poor economic backgrounds are indeed recruited proactively by Pakistan-based jihadist groups and intelligence agencies active in India, the case of self-radicalising jihadists across the world indicates that they come from good economic backgrounds, are educated with access to modern technologies and social media, and hold passports to travel internationally.” Ahmad is currently working on a paper on lone jihadists.
Adds Ahmad, “It is clear that most Indian youths who attempted to or joined the ISIS ultimately over the past year came from economically sound backgrounds, and were often students of engineering in Hyderabad and Mumbai. It merely illustrates the point that radicalisation is fostered by middle-class Muslims who build mosques, madrassas and tombs of religious leaders to assert their own control over the community. The rich Muslim classes over the thousand years of past rule in India never established a technological university for common Muslims.”
Aneesh Bhat, a resident of Shirali town a few kilometres away, affirms that viewpoint. “I have seen that after losing land following the Tenancy Act in the 1970s, Nawayaths were in a mad rush to regain lost glory, and then came the Gulf boom, much to their delight. They mixed well with Arabs as well as the Chinese over the years. They are astute traders and when the terror links were established, they were recruiting among their own people, educated and from middle-class or rich homes,” claims Bhat, an argument the likes of Haneef Shabab rubbish, saying, “When Nawayaths—derived from ‘newcomers’—first came to India, only the males came. They came to Bhatkal later, and that was when they married Jain women. So the question of them not being broadminded is a lie,” he fumes, “We invite Hindus and Christians to our functions, but we are never invited to theirs.”
Meanwhile, police officers in Mangalore and Bhatkal— some of them Muslims—confirm that ‘Middle Eastern money’ flows into Bhatkal in large quantities. “Some of it is definitely is being used to recruit youths. First they disappear to Mumbai or someplace else or they go for studies. Then we come to know that they are dead somewhere in a foreign land, and that their families are rehabilitated abroad,” says one of them, reinforcing an image many have of the townsfolk. “Let me tell you, the stereotype is the truth,” he says, laughing. Some families of terror masterminds are ostracised by society here, though.
Many ISIS recruits from India, intelligence agencies note, are either from Bhatkal or hired by operatives who are. “That is the startling fact. Bhatkal is not being targeted for being an affluent Muslim area, but because money is also used for nefarious activities, either through religious institutions on the sly, or through banned organisations. Many of the camps near Bangalore were run by Yasin Bhatkal where he trained people from other states. He was actively at it even on the Indo-Nepal border until he was caught,” says the Delhi-based intelligence official. As Open had reported—see ‘A Few Good Men’ by PR Ramesh, issue dated 22 September 2014—a small group of policemen from Bihar had to risk their lives to nab Yasin Bhatkal.
For his part, Haneef Shabab is insistent that he sees “a CIA-led” conspiracy in portraying Bhatkal—among other Muslim dominated places—as a terror hotspot. Muslims account for nearly half the population of Bhatkal, which according to India’s 2011 Census stands at nearly 50,000, with males and females evenly balanced. The town has an average literacy rate of 83 per cent, higher than the national average of 59.5 per cent, with male literacy at 88 per cent and female literacy at 78 per cent.
“I believe [Shabab’s] contentions are laughable. How does one explain concrete evidence of hawala money and terror links through trade that have been unearthed even by international agencies and local ones? Maybe on the surface there is a lot of calm. This is called ‘a clean act’. They are very stealthy in managing these operations and the majority of Muslims have no clue about what happens around them. Calling intelligence reports and media coverage ‘anti-Muslim propaganda’ is to miss the point: Bhatkal is a trouble spot indeed,” says the Bhatkal-based police officer.
According to intelligence reports, about 50 Indian youths could have joined the ISIS over the past year or so. These Indians include those who have either gone directly from Mumbai to join the battle or who first joined one of many jihadist organisations in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and later landed in Syria. Many of those who have signed up for jihad via Pakistan, say these reports, have been recruited through the India-Nepal corridor. A second group of Indians joining the ISIS includes expatriate workers. Among them, some youths based in Singapore and Australia are reported to have gone to join the ISIS, while some Indian youths based in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries have simply moved to Iraq and Syria. There are also reports indicating that some persons of Indian origin based in Western countries such Australia, the US and UK have either joined the ISIS or are under surveillance for being in touch with the jihadist group. “The Bhatkal connection is crucial to at least some of these movements of people,” says the Delhi-based intelligence official.
Of course, several Nawayaths, who speak Nawayati— which Sharief explains is a mix of Marathi, Konkani, Arabic, Persian and Urdu—are proud of their ‘distinct’ heritage and commercial success, and they do not want to be identified with terror in any way. “To brand a whole community like that is not fair. I think it is important to know what the real situation is amid all the hype,” insists Nauman Patel, a Nawayath from Bhatkal who is now a techie based in Bangalore. He highlights the case of Abdul Samad Mohammed Zarrer Sidibapa, who was arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad for allegedly supplying arms for use in the 2010 Pune German Bakery blasts. “He was later found to be innocent,” says Patel, “The point is one should not act or extradite people with preconceived notions.” A few police officers admit that errors are often made while terror investigations are being carried out. “Our motto is that no innocent man should be punished and that case [of Sidibapa] was a lesson in humility for whoever did it,” says a senior police officer based in Bangalore.
In Bhatkal, which the great Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta had referred to as ‘Bad-e-Qillah’, Muslim leaders such as Haneef Shabab are also piqued that intelligence agencies are busy running ‘adverse’ propaganda campaigns against the Muslim-dominated region by ‘hook or by crook’; as an example of this, they cite the ‘renaming’ of Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa and his brother Shah Riyaz Ahmad Mohammed Ismail Shahbandari as Yasin and Riyaz Bhatkal. Says Shabab, “We Nawayathis don’t use such [town-based] surnames.”
Shabab’s resentment mirrors that of other Muslim leaders who seem to adopt a ‘my-community-is-above- reproach’ posture. Behind the calm in this humid coastal town known for its mouth-watering fish dishes—and where history sleeps and heritage beckons—there is deep unease and distrust.