From communal harmony to terror infamy: How Bhatkal became a constant on intel agencies’ radar
Central intelligence agencies issued an alert to the Karnataka police on Thursday after intercepting ‘conversations of interest’ on satellite phones recently. While the districts in the state’s coastal belt have been notified, one town is of particular interest again.
Even though Bhatkal in the Uttara Kannada district has a population of fewer than 150,000 people, every intelligence agency, state or central, has its units deployed in the town. The reason is the name itself. Outside of Karnataka, more than the town, the word Bhatkal triggers memories of Yasin and Riyaz Bhatkal, two masterminds behind multiple terror attacks in the country.
Decades before these men emerged and the town came under the radar of the intelligence agencies, Bhatkal was an inconspicuous fishermen’s town, which remained peaceful following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.
GU Bhat, a senior journalist from Uttara Kannada district remembers the events of April 10, 1996, which he believes was a turning point in the town’s history. On that day, Dr DU Chittaranjan, a popular doctor in the town and an RSS activist was assassinated by unknown men inside his house.
“He reached home around 8 pm that night. Before having dinner, he watched the news. Just as he got up from his seat after his wife called him for dinner, someone shot him from behind through the window. He died on the spot. It was this murder that divided the Muslim and Hindu communities in the town,” said Bhat, who had covered the story.
Chittaranjan was sent to Bhatkal to build an RSS base in the town. He was popular in the town for charging his patients just ₹5 or less.
His popularity laid the foundation of the party in Bhatkal, which had elected only Muslim candidates from the constituency until the late 1990s. Under Chittaranjan, leaders like Anant Kumar Hegde, a former minister in the state government and Uttara Kannada MP, started their political careers.
Despite his popularity, Chittaranjan lost two elections. But the situation changed in 1993 when stones were pelted at the chariot procession of the famous Hanuman temple in the heart of Bhatkal.
As a result, in 1993, the town saw communal violence for over nine months. Around 19 people were killed in riots – ten Muslims and nine Hindus. Many residential areas were attacked during these riots, and religious were formed on lines of religion as a result.
A Muslim community leader and doctor practising in Bhatkal said even during this time, Chittaranjan stood for harmony between both communities together. “I remember he came to us and said there was a need to end the violence. Even the community trusted him, and he played a huge part in bringing the situation under control,” said the leader, who didn’t want to be named.
However, with his murder in 1996, communal disharmony in Bhatkal rose to new heights. Hegde emerged as the new face of the RSS-BJP in the town, and two months later, elected Member of Parliament from Uttara Kannada. Unlike his guru, Hegde believed in political polarization, said the community leader.
As the Hindutva wave got momentum across the Uttara Kannada district, resistance grew within the Muslim community. “Since the mid-1980s, there were many Muslim men from the Bhatkal who moved to Gulf countries, and over the years, the community became rich,” said a senior state intelligence officer.
While the Hindutva movement gained traction and power in Bhatkal, youth employed in Gulf countries became the backbone of resistance against the movement.
The Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bhatkal soon witnessed an influence of international players, who tried to support the resistance against the rise of Hindutva.
From this resistance emerged Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri and Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa, popularly known as Riyaz Bhatkal and Yasin Bhatkal. “When their name started getting associated with terrorism, Bhatkal town itself became a place of interest for the intelligence agencies,” said the officer.
As the terror suspicion associated with the name Bhatkal became a liability for its residents, an old tradition in the town made their lives even harder. Decades before the partition, Muslim families of the Nawayath community had business links with Karachi and other parts of Pakistan. Over the years, marriage alliances between Karachi and Bhatkal became common. Even after the partition, this practice continued, and many women who married men from Bhatkal got Indian citizenship.
Soon as the town’s name started getting associated with terror, the approval for citizenship of many Pakistani brides became difficult. A decade ago, the government even began deporting some of the ‘Karachi wives in Bhatkal’, said an official of the Karnataka police.
Pakistani wife of a suspected terror operative Syed Ismail Afaq, jailed for supplying explosive material that Indian Mujahideen (IM) used in bomb strikes across India, was deported on October 7, 2019.
There are around 70 citizenship applications from Bhatkal alone, says Karnataka police, and for the families the wait for citizenship is difficult. Javeed (name changed), whose wife is a Pakistani, says that due to the visa restrictions travelling within the country is difficult.
“We have to take permission from police if we have to travel. We have been going to multiple offices, and multiple police verifications have been done, but her request for citizenship hasn’t been processed yet,” he said.
Even though south India hasn’t witnessed a major terror strike since 2014, the intelligence agencies continue to keep a close watch on this small town. Many believe Chittaranjan’s murder was a ploy to change the political narrative of a town that was once known for communal harmony.