Bhatkal was just another remote coastal town in Karnataka before “the most wanted terror mastermind” — Riyaz Bhatkal — made it his surname.
Police on the terror trail from Pune, Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Mangalore have visited this town on NH 17, two hours away from Mangalore. The media has also thrown up his brother Iqbal’s name after the Pune blast. They were last seen in this town in 2008 before they vanished.
Their family — father, mother, wives and seven children — live in Madina colony. “You know why we are here? asked the Pune police. Yes, there’s been a blast, we said,” says the mother, Sayeeda (60). They are used to such visits now. “They accused my son without any investigation. The Indian Mujahideen is just a figment of imagination. There is no proof against him till date.”
They live in penury, a sharp contrast to the rest of the town. Relatives and neighbours are scared to talk. The top floor of the house, which was turned into a ‘laboratory for making bombs’ according to a local daily, now has an examination schedule pasted on the wall. “I don’t even know if they are alive,” says the father, Ismail Shabandri (70).
His mother is quite vocal, while his father is soft-spoken. “Innocent youth are being picked up. The lawyers who take the cases are shot in broad daylight. If this goes on, we don’t know what all will happen,” says Sayeeda.
The residents don’t want to associate his name to the town. “His mother is from Bhatkal but his father is from Modeshwar village. And he was born and brought up in Mumbai,” says Mohammad Arif Ibrahim, his uncle. When his name first came up in 2008, people were not ready to believe.
“His name is Riyaz Shabandari. Muslims don’t attach the name of the place. It’s just a conspiracy to malign the reputation of Bhatkal,” says Mohammad Haneef, a medical practitioner. Why would anybody want to do that? “Jealousy,” he replies. An answer HT heard several times in the town. Even from intelligence officers.
The town is inhabited by Navayath Muslims, traders who trace their origins to Yemen. A quick drive around town shows how well they have prospered in the Gulf. Prosperity greets you in the form of villas and mansions. Every family has at least two members working in the Gulf. Riyaz’s family was settled in Mumbai. His father, Ismail, too went to Bahrain and then Dubai. Thus, he could educate Riyaz and Iqbal to become engineers.
It’s possible that two political speeches led to who and what Riyaz Shabandri is today. In 1991, Uma Bharti’s speech, urging for the demolition of Babri Masjid, was played on a loud speaker in front of Noor masjid. A large-scale riots ensued and two Muslim youth were killed in police firing.
As the town slowly regained normalcy, the then Karnataka chief minister, Veerappa Moily made a speech in 1993, blaming the BJP and the other right wing outfits for triggering the riots. Trouble began to brew again. Bhatkal was under curfew for over six months. Casualties: 17 dead. 13 Muslims. 4 Hindus.
Out of the 13 members that were mentioned along with Riyaz in the chargesheet, after the Mumbai train blasts, 11 are from the area of Mangalore and Bhatkal. “The area is divided, there is a lot of mistrust. It is a fertile ground for terrorism,” says Subramanyesvara Rao, SP, Mangalore.