In Malegaon, beat constable is a relic
Of Malegaon’s 12 lakh residents, some 75 pc are Muslims. But the police employ less than 10 pc Muslims — and there was little information on radicals in the local population. Zeeshan Sheikh & Neelesh Misra report.Special coverageindia Updated: Aug 05, 2008 01:42 IST
In the cobweb of lanes and ghettos called Malegaon, don’t mention the B-word. The beat constable – the strongest defender against terrorism -- is a relic.
"This is the worst possible place that a policeman can be transferred to," a senior police official said in the Maharashtra town, refusing to be named. "It feels like you have stepped into a different country altogether."
In this different 'country’, three bombs tore through the Muslim celebrations of Shab-e-Baraat on Sept 8, 2006 at the Hamidiya Masjid, killing 37 people and wounding more than 100 others.
Courts will decide whether the nine accused were the ones who helped carry out the bombings. But Malegaon represents an ailment India’s security establishment has not been able to handle in its battle against terror: the increasing alienation of the Muslim community from the country’s police.
In New Delhi, a top official who has handled several high profile terror investigations – including Malegaon -- says the unspeakable.
"In many states, there seems to be an unwritten law not to keep Muslims in the intelligence. It hampers investigations," he said at an off-the-record briefing, sitting in his office on a stuffy August morning. "And we have also not been able to reach out to the Muslim community which could help us prevent and probe attacks."
In a city of 12 lakh people, some 75 per cent are Muslims, but the police force has less than 10 per cent members from the community.
All that meant that there has been little information over the past years on radical elements among the local population, a local police official said on condition of anonymity.
"The point is, over here there is a largescale use of Urdu language. The police officers are not capable of understanding the nuances of the spoken word or reading the hundreds of pamphlets that are published here," he said.
There is also a large floating population of weavers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – and local officials say a system of national identity cards could have helped keep a tab on those going in a out of the city. Many officers regard it as a "punishment posting", insiders say -- recently a senior police official refused to take over charge and relocate to the city.
"For me, the major concern is … a drying up of human intelligence at the police station level," said a senior intelligence official in New Delhi.
On the day of the blasts, Nasir Sheikh, the police inspector in charge of the Azad Nagar police station, was standing in plainclothes near the entrance to the mosque, lost in a crowd of thousands he was trying to control with only three other policemen.
It is unclear if deploying just three policemen along was a call he took, or was due to the excessive workload of the force as in the rest of the country. But it was one of the weak links in the chain.
No one was frisked as the crowd – which included thousands of beggars seeking alms on the auspicious day – just streamed in. It was a Friday, and the crowds would head to the cemetery after prayers.
At ten minutes to two, a deafening explosion jolted the area. Two more followed in quick succession, the last at a nearby traffic intersection. In the utter panic, the delirious crowd turned on Sheikh and the other policemen, and thrashed them.
Gathering evidence or clearing the area was a tall order; the policemen fled. No eyewitness statements were taken, no sketches made of suspicious people; busloads of beggars from nearby areas left too, possibly carrying with them vital clues.
It all came down to the basics: the beat policeman.
"It just seemed that the police thought that being a Muslim dominated locality, there was no possible chance of a bomb explosion ever taking place here," said Abdul Ali Bagban, a 50-year-old fruit vendor. His son was killed in the blasts.
In another part of the town, primary schoolteacher Majeed Master, 56, wondered how the blasts would touch his life. Master’s 27-year-old son Zahid Ansari was a known activist of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and has been picked up by the state’s Anti Terrorism Squad after a 2006 arms haul in the state’s Aurangadad town.
Master had spent his life in the communal tinderbox of Malegaon. After years of government neglect, the city of garbage-strewn roads and overflowing gutters had become a symbol of the ghettoised Muslim community and a fertile ground for organizations like SIMI.
As word of the blasts spread, policemen, intelligence agencies and media personnel swarmed the mosque, each unaware of the identity of the other. Curious onlookers checked the blast sight, touching shrapnel, the bicycles on which the bombs were planted – a nightmare for the forensics experts.
Days passed. Clues dried up – until, police say, a young, slightly incoherent man approached the local police superintendent one day and said he was part of the group that planned the bombings. He had broken links with his parents over the choice of the girl he married, and said he had fallen out with the terror group.
He named a man called Shabbir Ahmed Masiullah – or Shabbir "Batterywala" – as the main conspirator. When the Malegaon blasts happened, Masiullah was in detention for his alleged links to the July 2006 Mumbai train bombings – but officials believe he planned the blasts before his arrests.
Another man arrested and charged with planting a bomb – Zahid Ansari – said he had an alibi: he was at a public congregation 600 kilometres away from Malegaon when the blasts happened.
After widespread protests against the local police, the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation in December 2006.
At the Hamidiya Masjid, little has changed. A Hindustan Times reporter walked into the mosque during Friday prayers yet again last week, carrying a heavy bag that didn’t – but could have – contained something more lethal than photography equipment.