Rediff.com's Vicky Nanjappa travels to Bhatkal on Karnataka's west coast to investigate how a quaint town turned into a hotspot. There he meets the parents of Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal who, security agencies say, are behind a spate of terrorist attacks in the country.
Ismail Shahbandri and Suwaida live in the Madeena colony of Bhatkal, Karnataka, along with 12 other family members. Leading up to this modest dwelling, one cannot believe that this belongs to Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal Shahbandri, the 'founders of the terrorist outfit Indian Mujahideen,' as mentioned in the Intelligence Bureau records.
Famously known as Riyaz Bhatkal alias Shahrukh Khan, he has been on the run for several years now. He has been accused of masterminding terror strikes in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Delhi, apart from founding the IM following the disintegration of the Students Islamic Movement of India.
At Bhatkal, when you speak of the Shahbandri brothers, there is immense anger for two reasons. A section of the locals believe that the two brothers could be involved in terrorist activities and thanks to them, there is a massive Intelligence Bureau and police presence in this place, something that Bhatkal could do without.
Secondly they are angry that the name 'Bhatkal' is being attached to their names. "What on earth is Bhatkal? It is not a surname; there is no Muslim with such a surname. They are Shahbandris, and let it remain that way. By attaching that name to them, you are spoiling the name of the entire town," they say.
Suwaida and her husband Ismail live with 12 others, including Riyaz's wife Nausha and her three children. Iqbal's wife Sana too lives with them with her four children, one of whom is mentally challenged.
As we prepare to speak to the mother, Suwaida, a couple of people also go on to add that the two brothers have hardly anything to do with Bhatkal. They are 'Bombaywallahs' and they have spent half their lives over there. Only when the heat on them rose, did they take shelter in Bhatkal and with that they got the entire police force following them.
The mother says, "My sons grew up in Mumbai. They visited Bhatkal a couple of times since we have relatives here. I am originally from Bhatkal, but we used to stay in Mumbai. I gave my sons a good education (both are engineers) and more importantly, I always taught them to be good Muslims. What is more heart-breaking for a mother than not to see the faces of her sons for so many years?"
"The scenario is tough. We used to live in Kurla (in Mumbai's central suburbs) in a rented apartment. After this problem took place, we had to come down to Bhatkal and settle down with the help of our family members. However, today there is so much written about my sons in the media that even our family members do not want to talk to us," she adds.
"My sons were never members of SIMI. They just used to visit its office in Kurla once in a while in order to study, since our house was very small. The trouble, however, began when two of their friends were killed in front of them. For no fault of theirs, the police began chasing them. A few years later SIMI was banned and it became harder on us, since my sons were branded as SIMI members," she says.
"In 2000, we realised that it was impossible to live in Mumbai and shifted to Bhatkal. The police followed my sons here and unable to bear the pressure, Riyaz fled; and since then we have not seen him. Two years later my other son, Iqbal, too fled the place. It is sad that they have to suffer due to fabricated stories," she adds.
"While this is one part of the story, there are other families too which face similar problems. Yaseen Bhatkal, who the Anti Terrorism Squad thinks is the mastermind behind the Pune blasts, too is missing. There are other names such as Arif who has been practicing medicine in Bhatkal whose name crops up every time there is a blast. Arif says that according to the IB I am absconding, but see, I am very much here and carrying on my daily work," she says in amazement.
"When one looks into the police records in Bhatkal and speaks with the local police, they say they have a record only regarding Bhatkal. Interestingly, that report has only now come up, all these years he enjoyed a clean slate in the police stations of Bhatkal," she adds.
Image: Ismail and Suwaida Shahbandri in Bhatkal