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Bhatkal: The taint of terror

The communal divide in the prosperous town of Bhatkal in Karnataka runs deep. The stigma that the town is a hot spot of terrorism derives from this.

india Updated: Mar 01, 2010 01:22 IST

“Eyes mark the shape of the city” – After Dark, Haruki Murakami

Bhatkal town in coastal Karnataka has been hitting the headlines after every terror blast since 2008.

Of the 13 names mentioned in the charge sheet in relation to terror blasts in Ahmedabad, Surat and Bangalore, all in 2008, 11 are from the area of Mangalore and Bhatkal. Those include Riyaz Bhatkal and his brother Iqbal Bhatkal, the suspected co-founders of the Indian Mujahideen, believed to have had a hand in the Pune blast of February 2010.

Bhatkal is 150 km north of Mangalore.

News reports on this remote coastal town in Karnataka give the impression that it has become a terror factory. Police teams from Pune, Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Mangalore have visited the town. And a local Kannada newspaper even claimed that Al Qaida head Osama bin laden had also dropped by.

PROSPERITY FACTOR

The Muslim community of Bhatkal — Navayaths — is a sea-faring trading community known for its business acumen and traces its origin to Yemen in West Asia. Each family has at least two of its members working in the Arab world. It’s the “aspiration” of every Muslim youth. A passport is a must for everyone who turns 18. “So the youngsters make sure they have a clean record,” said Mohammad Hanif (57), a Unani doctor.

Sprawling bungalows and mansions have come up in the city with the help of gulf remittances. Prosperity is obvious. The fully-fledged Intelligence Bureau office, however, was necessitated due to smuggling during the gold boom of the 1980s. “There were cases of economic frauds, hawala and other economic offences in the gulf. But the connection to terror is new,” said Mahesh Singh (name changed upon request), an Intelligence Bureau official.

When Riyaz Bhatkal’s name came up for the first time in the media in 2008, it was a rude jolt for the residents. “A few people went to the police station to protest. They couldn’t believe it,” said Vasanth Devadig (32), a local journalist. “Now they don’t want to associate his name with the town.”

Hanif said: “Muslims don’t use Bhatkal as surname. His name is Riyaz Shabandri. The media has attached it (Bhatkal) to his name. It’s a conspiracy to disgrace Bhatkal.”

“Jealousy” is something Bhatkal Muslims believe is behind the hatred for them. They invite political leaders, from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mostly, to the eid milan function every year in Dubai to show the trying circumstances in which they’ve been earning the money. N.G. Kolle, district head, BJP, Dakshina Kannada, and Vishweswara Kagiri, state education minister, were invited last year. “People think Muslims pick up money from trees there or we’ve been up to something illegal,” said Yahya Damudi, a community leader.

DIVIDE AND RULE

The communal divide in Bhatkal runs deep today. But it was not the case always. The Navayaths, who constitute 90 per cent of the town, owned 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 ther habba, a local chariot procession, the chariot starts from the house of a Shabandri family, a mark of respect.

Communal harmony began to

wear thin from 1991. Uma Bharti,

then a firebrand BJP leader, gave a speech played on a loudspeaker in front of a mosque. This triggered riots. In the following elections, the BJP for the first time, though it still lost, had

managed to save the security deposit and even secured 141,647 votes. One Dr Chittaranjan (who used one name), the contestant, later became an MLA. The BJP needed one more “big push”. It came in 1993. During the occasion of ther habba, some miscreant threw a stone at the chariot, and a riot started. 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. However, the Muslims were not impressed. Ali Sukri Akrami (80), a priest, recalls his first reaction when somebody told him about it: “In hone (Moily) to aag lagaa di Bhatkal mein (He’s set Bhatkal on fire).”

It turned out to be a prophetic. The town was under curfew for more than six months due to riots, some that happened first outside Kashmir.

In 1996, Chittaranjan, who was then MLA of Bhatkal, was murdered, and right-wing Hindu elements lost no time in blaming the Muslims for it. “Why would Muslims do that? Isn’t it asking for trouble?” said Hanif. Nine CBI teams have failed to nab the culprits. However, the Muslims continue to carry the stigma.

BATTLE LINES

Mangalore was seen as crucial to the pan-Indian terror logistical network after the police claimed they had busted an Indian Mujahideen module. But it has also been a playground for right-wing Hindu outfits such as Sriram Sene and Hindu Rakshna Vedike. “Here everything is divided, a very fertile ground for terrorism. The poor representation of Muslims — only 2 per cent — in district police is a big problem during riots. There have been complaints of the police taking sides,” said A. Subramanyesvara Rao, superintendent of police, Mangalore.

Sri Ram Sene’s Mangalore pub attack on St Valentine’s Day in 2009, which caught the nation’s attention, is just the tip of the iceberg. “Recently when Pramod Muthalik’s (of Sri Ram Sene) face was blackened, one maulana (priest) was beaten up and a few mosques were attacked. But we’ve been trying really hard to teach the Muslim youth not to get provoked and they have not been retaliating these days,” said Umar A.H. of the Forum for Justice and Rights. “But when innocent people are picked up by the police for terrorism and they are beaten up by Bajrang Dal men in jails, then things go really out of control.” The feeling that innocent Muslims are being picked up is widespread. Fakeer Bava, one of the 13 mentioned in the post-Mumbai blasts charge sheet, was released on bail for lack of any prima facie evidence.

The country sees Bhatkal through the news reports that tell us very little about the conditions that give birth to the likes of Riyaz. Living with the shared feeling of helplessness, with real and perceived persecution, makes Bhatkal what it is today: a siege mentality. Any wonder it has become the surname of many suspected terrorists?