The dirt track, masquerading as a state highway, came to an abrupt end at Balkatwa, the native village of arrested Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) recruiter Mohammad Zubair alias Umar Madani, 50, in Bihar’s Madhubani district, nearly 200 km north of Patna, near the Indo-Nepal border.
A group of about 20 young men immediately surrounded our car. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” the leader of the group, a young man, in his early 20s, with a beard and a skullcap, asked rudely. About 20 per cent of Madhubani’s total population of nearly 30 lakh is Muslim.
Seeing HT photographer A P Dube’s equipment, he immediately guessed we were journalists.
“We know what you want to project,” said the young man, pointing to the village madrassa (Islamic school, attached to the local mosque). “Do we look like terrorists? You people have defamed our village and tried to project all of us as terrorists.”
According to police and intelligence officials, Madani, who was arrested on June 4 in New Delhi with Rs 50,000 in fake Indian currency on him, has himself admitted being in touch with LeT’s top operatives, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and Hafeez Mohammed Sayed. He had visited Pakistan and sneaked into India past the Indo-Nepal border, looking for educated youth he could recruit to the LeT’s cause.
The local youths anger was, however, palpable.
“The man you are looking for left this village 15 years ago. Only his mother Saima Khatoon and his younger brother’s wife, Sumaiya Khatoon, are still here,” the leader said, signalling us to leave.
Durgesh, our local guide, quickly bundled us back into our car.
Earlier that day, Yogesh Chandra, the station house officer at the Basoppatti police station, under which Balkatwa falls, had warned: “Locals have chased away several visiting journalists ever since ‘that Madani fellow’ was arrested (in Delhi on June 5).”
Madan Paswan, the mukhiya (headman) of the village, whom we met later, told us that Madani’s name still figures in the local voters’ list.
“Madani last visited the village in 2006 to sell his share of ancestral property,” he said, adding the only male relative of Madani that he knew of “is a brother who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi”.
Madhubani, the district known the world over for its millennia-old school of painting (mainly depicting Hindu gods and goddesses), has a new claim to fame, or, rather, notoriety.
Its location, along Bihar’s porous 714-km border with Nepal has made it a hub of gun running, narcotics smuggling, fake currency rackets and a fertile recruitment ground for terrorists.
According to intelligence reports shown to HT, the ISI has a well-entrenched network in place on both sides of the border, which it often uses for its subversive activities against India.
ISI agents like Madani recruit local youths and take them to Nepal on the pretext of providing jobs.
“The ISI then begins to support the recruits’ families financially. As most recruits come from extremely poor backgrounds, this effectively locks them into the terror network,” an intelligence officer working in the region, who cannot be identified, told HT.
Then, intelligence officers pointed out that many Pakistanis have settled down on the Nepal side of the border. The Indo-Nepal Treaty, 1950 that allows Indian and Nepalese citizens free access to the other country allows them to move across the border with impunity as well. "This is proving to a big headache for us," a senior police officer told HT.
Over the past three months, the state police and other security agencies have seized fake currency notes worth Rs 20 lakh from here.
“In April, we arrested a Pakistani national and seized fake Indian currency worth Rs 16 lakh and huge cache of illegal arms from him,” he added.
The poverty in the district is evident. There are no industries worth the name; so, most young men and women have to migrate elsewhere for jobs.
A fake passport racket is also thriving in the region. “We have detected at least seven cases where the Patna passport office has issued passports on the basis of forged police verification reports – all from this area,” said DSP (Law & Order) Parvez Akhtar.
Given the poor spread of the law enforcement network in the district, it is fair to assume that these are just the tip of the ice-berg.
And once the Madani arrest goes off the radar, the fig leaf of increased policing that increased media attention has brought about, will also subside. Then, it will be back to business as usual.