It has been termed mini Dubai,mini Pakistan and the birthplace of the Indian Mujahideen. Yet as Bhatkal returns to focus after the Hyderabad blasts,it shows no sign of the fault-lines that are said to be behind the rise of the IM.
There is no communal tension in this coastal town in Uttara Kannada,Karnataka; it has no registered case of terror; the BJP has ample support; the police chief moves unguarded on a motorbike; the biggest attraction is a Shiva statue that is the worlds second tallest.
Bhatkal 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,with links to the town as suspects in several blasts starting 2008,and identified them as co-founders of the IM.
A Kannada paper recently reported that 10 mosques of Bhatkal were bomb-making factories. Another earlier wrote that Osama bin Laden often visited Riyazs home and trained him in making bombs. National dailies talked of the Karnataka police raiding IM hideouts in Bhatkal in October 2008 and finding pro-Taliban videos. Last October,Fasih Mahmood,who had studied engineering in Bhatkal,was deported from Saudi Arabia and arrested for links with Yasin.
Uttara Kannada SP K T Balakrishna disagrees with what he calls a carefully crafted image of Bhatkal. I dont know how Bhatkal got this image of the birthplace of Islamic terrorism. I am yet to find anything. Even the IM founders never lived here. They lived in Maharashtra.
And former BJP minister Sadashiv Naik says: I dont know what those three did or the charges against them,but there was and there is no sleeper cell here. No Islamic terrorism.
Riyaz and Iqbal were brought up in Mumbai and escaped to Bhatkal,according to investigating agencies,in 2002-03 when their alleged involvement with the SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) surfaced. Iqbal practised Unani medicine and Riyaz worked into the construction business in Mangalore. They became friends with Yasin. The three left around 2008-09 and it is since then that charges against them have piled up. They are now accused of having held a series of meetings with local youths during their stay in Bhatkal and formed the IM.
According to the editor of a local online publication,Sahil Online,Bhatkal was maligned on account of whatever was fed by the Maharashtra ATS. How many journalists who write about Bhatkal have ever visited here? They simply reproduce what is fed to them, says editor Inayatullah Gawai.
Apart from Riyaz,Iqbal and Yasin,the Bangalore police headquarters has records of only one man from Bhatkal sub-division linked to any major criminal activity. Md Shabbir Hussain Gangawali,arrested allegedly with fake currency in Maharashtra,was later named a suspected IM member and accused of supplying jehadi literature.
A town at peace
Except the 1993 riots that claimed 17 lives,police records show,there has rarely been a communal incident here.
The house of Bhatkal police chief ASP Sudheer Reddy has not one security man. He moves around on his Pulsar; his four-wheeler is mostly parked at office. He lives in a rented house with his wife and son on the towns outskirts,bordering a reserve forest.
Congress MLA J D Naik,who lives in a Muslim locality,says: There is no terrorism here. IB and media created it… Three men are named,but they hardly lived or did anything here. The Maharashtra ATS has made baseless claims about secret meetings…
The BJPs Sadashiv Naik rubbishes the claim that the three were behind the 1996 murder of BJP MLA U Chitranjan. Riyaz is reported to have been in Maharashtra then; a CBI report does not name any accused.
Muslims have no complaint about the BJP. The BJP is not communal here. Police,politicians… no one harasses us here. The police of other states have given us a bad name, says Sayid Khalil,president of the Anjuman Hami-e Muslimeen Education Trust. It runs several institutes,in one of which Fasih had studied engineering.
The famous Shiva statue is on a sprawling religious-tourist resort built on the beach by R N Shetty around two decades ago. The resort gets over 20 lakh tourists every year. The number of tourists crosses 35,000 on some days, says manager Manjunath Shetty.
Yasins family dismisses as wrong the police claim that he met Fasih at Anjuman College of Management and Technology at Bhatkal. The college has no record of Yasin,and his family says he dropped out of school after Class X.
The agencies suffered an embarrassment after Yasins brother Mohammad Samad was arrested by the Maharashtra ATS from Mangalore airport on his return from Dubai in 2010. He was touted a prized catch by then home minister P Chidambaram. Cops thought he was Yasin and named him the prime accused in the Pune bakery blast of 2010. After the mistaken identity was discovered and he was released in June,Chidambaram asked his forces to exercise restraint.
Samad,24,who regularly visited Dubai earlier for his family business,now remains in his Bhatkal home. I spent 40 days in custody. They did strange things to me… you can imagine, says the lanky youth.
He was subjected to all kinds of torture. He is yet to overcome that, says uncle Yaqoob. The home minister apologised for Samads arrest. But can they restore his life and career?
Neighbours are wary of associating with the Shahbandaris and Siddibappas. Ismail Shahbandri,the father of Riyaz and Iqbal,was once returning from the market with a heavy sack of grains when he tripped. No one came forward to help,he says.
We lived in Mumbai for 35 years. My sons were born and brought up there. We came here in 2002 and a few years later,both disappeared. I have not heard of them since then, he says.