April 2, 10.15 pm: Night has set on the ancient city of Aurangabad in the sun-baked heart of Maharashtra when I get the call: “Tell him (me) to call when he reaches.”
That’s the only message I get after two days of failed attempts to meet a dentist called Dr Mohammad Arif Abrar (32), known to the police as one of the top leaders of an Islamic organisation that they allege wants to undermine the Indian state, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).
April 3, 9 am: The phone rings. “So, you have reached! Call me after half an hour.” Someone, I don’t know who, now starts checking me as I wait outside my hotel in Nagpur.
9.30 pm: “Where are you right now? Call me after some time.”
9.50 pm: “Come to Hotel ******* at 12 pm sharp. And come alone.”
At 12 pm, Dr Abrar — well groomed, clad in a shirt with white checks and plain navy blue trousers — and a young man are waiting at the meeting. As the meeting starts in a dimly lit restaurant in a hotel near the Aurangabad Police Commissioner's bungalow, the silent young man makes sure my cellphone is on the table.
"I am an ordinary man. Why do you want to meet me?" asks Abrar in crisp English. He's been asking the same question of a network of contacts as I requested a meeting with a man the police believe is one of the kingpins behind an alleged attempt to create the apparatus for a secret, silent revival of extremist ideologies in India’s small towns and big cities.
Central intelligence agencies and police investigators from half a dozen Indian states, including officers from Mumbai, are descending on the city of Indore to question Safdar Nagori — SIMI general secretary and allegedly a top jihadist ideologue — and 12 aides arrested last week and accused of plotting terror strikes across India. Dr Abrar was the first to name Nagori and his aides as being involved in many of those strikes.
As interrogations continue, the Hindustan Times travelled through Nagpur and Aurangabad and found that though SIMI was banned in 2001 and its top leadership urged people like Nagori to renounce terror and return the organisation to its academic origins, its base is intact.
Older and smarter, the organisation appears to be using a novel tactic: Use the law to fight accusations and stay legitimate. Dr Abrar, said a top police source, is a living example of the law-savvy approach decided at a meeting last November in Kerala. If the organisation has to function and follow the Islamist political ideology on which it was founded 30 years ago, all its leaders who face prosecution must face trial.
In cotton country, a tense meeting
“I am not giving you any interview as I am not authorised."
Dr Abrar begins the interview quickly and sharply.
Who is the authority then?
He does not say. "I am only meeting you because you have been contacting me and have come so far. It would not have been fair if you had to go back (without meeting me)," he says sternly, avoiding eye contact.
On January 31 this year, a tired-looking but well groomed Dr Abrar walked into a magistrate's court in Nagpur and gave himself up.
The Nagpur police had then arrested five persons and named seven in the case, including Dr Abrar, after they were found with alleged jihadi literature.
"I was practising in Aurangabad at that time and I do not know how I was named in the case," the doctor says.
"My being "absconding" is a failure of the police to trace me. I had not run away or changed my whereabouts or changed my identity."
Dr Abrar was also sought by police in the wake of the July 11, 2006 train bombings in Mumbai, a time when several SIMI leaders were questioned.
"This, despite the fact I had nothing do with it," he says.
Dr Abrar qualified as a dentist from Wardha, a town with prehistoric origins — and now known for being at the heart of India's suicide epidemic by cotton farmers. He practised in Pune, Nagpur and Aurangabad and became the father of a girl a month before he surrendered.
A top police source says Dr Abrar is not only a top SIMI leader of Maharashtra but also one of its first to surrender. This policy of surrender and fight, says the source, was decided at a meeting held in November last year in Kerala.
When this decision was taken, the source goes on, the Union government was deciding whether to extend the ban on SIMI. So, he says, it's "more than a coincidence" that a week after the union government renewed the ban, Dr Abrar surrendered.
'I want a normal life'
As Dr Abrar's young friend stares unblinkingly at my cellphone — I'm not sure why, maybe to see if I receive calls that might indicate I am not a journalist — I ask him if the decision taken at SIMI's supposed meeting in Kerala caused his surrender. After all, he was on the run for nearly two years.
His eyes narrow, and he becomes aggressive.
"Who told you about the meeting? What is your source?”
"If it is the all-India SIMI president who told you this, only then will I comment."
But Dr Abrar hints that the reason for his surrender is as my police said it was.
"We (SIMI) do not believe in running away. Because we have nothing to hide. Because we have done no wrong.
"We are a banned organisation and I cannot make any comment on that. To surrender was my individual decision. I would have done that long back had I not had my personal problems.
"I surrendered because I want to lead a normal life, follow my faith, take care of my family and start my practice."
The police dont believe this.
"It (the surrender) could be to test the waters," says Nagpur police commissioner Dr Satyapal Singh. "We are still verifying many of his claims."
Free, for now
Dr Abrar was released on bail by the 10th Ad-hoc sessions judge at Nagpur on March 11, 2008. There is little evidence against him.
"The police failed to furnish substantial evidence against him though he had been booked under a serious Act like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention Act), 1967," says Nagpur's leading criminal lawyer Asif Rizwy, who represents Dr Abrar.
"Even the police plea of conducting narco-analysis and other forensic tests on him were turned down by the court," says Rizvy.
Dr Abrar goes to Nagpur every Sunday to mark his presence before the police. It's a condition the court laid down as it granted him bail.
Dr Abrar first practised at a private clinic in Pune in 2004, moved to the Mangeshkar Dental College, Nagpur, and in August 2006, shifted to Aurangabad, where he practised at a local clinic (name withheld on request), till he surrendered in 2007.
Another police source, requesting anonymity, says Dr Abrar — married to the daughter of Jia-ud-din Siddiqui, an Aurangabad man they call a "firebrand SIMI leader" — had become a SIMI member in 1993. It was not until 1997 that he rose through the ranks and became an important member of the organisation, says the source. He became a member of SIMI's Zonal Advisory Committee, Maharashtra State and was later given charge of its Bihar unit.
Privy to the changes in the organisation and dedicated to its cause, Dr Abrar is one of the leaders who believe that following a hardline ideology will not help, the officer says.
"Every time there is a blast in the country, Muslim youth are targeted," says Dr Abrar. "This (mindset) has to change."
The mere mention of SIMI operative Safdar Nagori and his arrest in Indore brings anger to the doctor's face.
"Do not talk about them. We are not them. All are not the same."
Dr Abrar will also not comment on the theory that SIMI's moderate leaders are making a renewed attempt at trying to taking control of the organisation that was overwhelmed by hardliners like Nagori and others following an anti-India agenda. According to police records, this is one of the claims Dr Abrar made after his surrender. He also told the police of a meeting of hardline SIMI leaders at Ujjain, a week before the 11/7 train bombings, and of the organisation's structure, claims the source. After the serial train bombings, he told the police, he attended a meeting held in January 2007 at New Delhi, which dwelled on the "problem" SIMI was facing in the wake of the arrest of some of its top cadres and how to salvage the banned organisation.
As Dr Abrar decides to wrap up the meeting, the silent young man rises and looks around to see if everything seems all right. As he gets the all clear, Dr Abrar reaches for my cellphone and wordlessly deletes the telephone number on which I contacted him. And then, he's gone.