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One road, two lives

The Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of the Students Islamic Movement of India. Neelesh Misra and Haidar Naqvi walk down a road in Kanpur tracking the saga of India’s most dangerous militant religious movement — as seen through the lives of two young men. ABC of SIMI

india Updated: Aug 09, 2008 23:59 IST

You could say that Syed Wasif Haider ended up setting off bombs because of Kanpur’s terrible power situation. Haider was 27 years of age in the winter of 2000. He worked as sales manager at American company Becton Dickinson was happily married to Kavita, a Hindu woman, and had two daughters — five-year-old Maria, and two-and-a-half-year-old Dania. One morning, the power inverter broke down in this cosy home in the Humayun Bagh neighbourhood of Kanpur. Haider took the machine to Jilani Electronics near the Gulab Ghosi mosque. The Kashmiri owner introduced him to another person — Maulana Mumtaz, a signboard painter with a mesmerising personality.

Haider’s life was about to change.

Across the state lived another man of the same age — Syed Abdul Mobin, father of three daughters and two sons, with his wife Sumbul. He had studied Arabic and Unani medicine at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) after leaving his village in the Dumariyagunj district near the Nepal border. The police say he was also SIMI’s first bomber.

Some thirty metres away from Jilani’s repair shop where Haider had gone, is the cluttered and chaotic Parade Road. The story of SIMI, India’s most dangerous militant religious movement, runs through it.

The meet that sounded the bugle

Almost a year back, on the evening of October 29, 1999, thousands of Muslim men — and about 150 women — had poured into the Halim College campus on Parade Road, roaring Islamic slogans. It was the beginning of a three-day SIMI conference that announced its assault on democratic, secular India.

At the congregation, seven-year-old Gulrez Siddiqui got on the stage and electrified the audience of some 20,000. He roared: “Islam ka ghazi, butshikan/Mera sher, Osama bin Laden (The warrior of Islam, the slayer of idols/My lion, Osama bin Laden).”

Later, on a telephone line kept before the microphones, the voice of Sheikh Yaseen, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, reverberated through the awestruck gathering. He was making a live address, as was Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, and the imam of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Israel. Those present included Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, vice-chairman of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Three Afghans walked around with green badges bordered with silver and gold. One of them, Ali Khan, admitted that he was a Talib from Kandahar.

Kandahar was where all attention would shift to in two months. There were books and cassettes of speeches by Maulana Masood Azhar, who, unknown to all at the point, would be released on December 31, 1999 in the Afghan city after an eight-day Indian Airlines hijacking.

“It was all a shock for us. We realised they are developing international links. We distanced ourselves,” says Haji Mohammed Salees, 51, who runs a hosiery shop and was at the congregation. Salees is rumoured to be a founding member of SIMI and was briefly arrested in 2001, but now writes in newspapers against the organisation.

We are sitting down the same road at another milestone of the SIMI story — Bhatia Restaurant, once a SIMI planning hub, where major operations were allegedly planned over tea and fried snacks.

“The road that SIMI was taking could never have helped Muslims,” said Salees.

The Kandahar-Kanpur link

That road had started with a different destination in the first place.

SIMI was founded with the aim of “character development of students”. In many parts of Uttar Pradesh, priests went door to door asking parents to have their children join the Shaheen Force, the SIMI children’s wing where they are taught basic tenets of Islam.

Its influence spread gradually. In 1984, priests were knocking at the door of the deeply religious Mohammed Farooq in Bachhawa village. Farooq promptly signed up his son Syed Abdul Mobin for the Shaheen Force. And then, Mobin headed for the AMU, the centre of SIMI’s power.

By the 1990s, Mobin had completed a three-year course in Arabic language. He had also become a SIMI Ansar, with the task of moving door to door, motivating young Muslims.

Haider, too, finished his Mathematics Honours — from the DBS College, Kanpur. Between 1994 and 1997, he worked as a sales representative with the Weighing Balance Company at first and UCB, a Belgian company, later.

Life was falling in place. He had broken tradition and married a Hindu woman, Kavita, who would convert and assume the new name of Mariam.

In 1995, Mobin travelled to Bhopal to attend the four-day All India Ansar Meet, where SIMI leaders openly talked about an armed struggle. Mobin, a young man who loved football, was ready to pick up grenades.

Thousands of kilometres away, in Afghanistan, the radical students’ group Taliban assumed power in 1996. “The corruption in SIMI came after the Taliban took over Afghanistan,” says Salees, munching on a pakoda at Bhatia Restaurant. “They thought, ‘If they can do it there, we can also do it here’.”

For some time, Kanpur was indeed getting shades of Kandahar.

By the time of the Ikhwan Conference in 1999, much was changing within SIMI. Two rival groups had emerged. One was led by president Shahid Badar Falahi, who wanted to transform it into a political party and fight elections. The other was led by the hardliner Safdar Nagauri, who wanted an armed jihad.

By September 1999, Mobin was a Unani doctor. He had also deepened his association with SIMI. His father was happy that he had married and had five children. But at the same time, the police say he had become SIMI’s treasurer, and was living at AMU.

In 2000, Mobin volunteered to be a bomber when attacks were planned in UP after the Ikhwan conference. He was assigned Agra, deputed with Hizb-ul Mujahedeen’s Ali Mohammad and bomb expert Gulzar Wani, and received Rs 8,000 in installments. The bomb was assembled at an AMU hostel and taken to Agra by bus on July 28.

On the way, they somehow broke the timer device. The plan failed. Mobin was asked to escape — and lie low.

Countdown to Independence Day

Within months, Haider’s inverter shut down and he met the mesmerising Maulana near Parade Road. They began to spend time together, meeting Maulana’s new friends, including one called Nazir Kashmiri. The Maulana, allegedly involved in several terrorist attacks since 1993, excelled at narrating horror tales of the oppression of Muslims in Kashmir and elsewhere.

“I loved listening to stories of militant heroes. I was also filled with rage,” Haider would later tell his interrogators. By August, unknown to his family, he was ready.

They were to carry out blasts around August 15. But before that, a dry run was required. Haider brought out his Maruti Gypsy in which he took Nazir Kashmiri and Maulana Mumtaz to a remote rural expanse near a railway track in Unnao.

Haider had stepped over the precipice. On August 14, he and the others took two bombs — one in a pressure cooker and the other in a wooden box — and buried them under gravel at the Aryanagar crossing. They heard the huge blast while passing by the Halett Hospital. Nazir asked to be taken to a place with a roof a kilometre away from Aryanagar. They went to a friend’s house from where Nazir set off the second blast by remote control.

Mobin was working on another August 15 operation. He was in a rented room at Qasai Bada in Aligarh, making a timer-controlled bomb to be set off at Agra’s cantonment. One afternoon, when Mobin had stepped out, a technical glitch caused a huge explosion, instantly killing four of his fellow militants.

On September 4, Mobin was arrested.

Over the next year, Haider — who now carried a gun at all times — walked his way through a series of terror operations. On July 24, 2001, he was arrested near the Red Fort in New Delhi with RDX and hand grenades on him. He got a life sentence.

Months later, SIMI was banned by the Vajpayee administration and it went underground. The schism within was also complete — Nagauri and his cohort had transformed it into a conventional terror group.