A Place Called Bhatkal

bhatkalMagnificent heritage buildings owned by rich Muslims of Bhatkal showcase the prosperity as much as the influence of Central Asian architecture here. Muslims of this sleepy North Canara coastal town, some 490 km from Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, are predominantly Nawayaths, who claim to have come from Arabia in the 8th century as traders and struck gold. Nawayath pride runs deep. “Until the Tenancy Act of 1972, implemented by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Hindus and other Muslims—mostly Dakhnis, from the Deccan plateau—used to stand yards away from the homes of Nawayathi landlords, and there was no question of any riots or Hindu-Muslim animosity,” says Dr Syed Zameerulla Sharief, a non-Nawayath Muslim who came to Bhatkal 35 years ago to marry a Nawayath. A former principal of Anjuman College here and a member of the Syndicate of Karnataka Folklore University, he feels that Nawayaths have been denied a reputation that ought to be their due. “They are highly entrepreneurial and are spread across the world now, but every year they come and spend two-three months here. They invest in property and spend a lot of money here,” says Sharief, who has authored several volumes devoted to this group of Muslims from Bhatkal, a town that, according to federal intelligence inputs, has become an epicentre of sorts for Islamist activities over the past decade.

Sharief appears crestfallen when he talks about a “handful of negative elements who are in any society” that are bent upon creating trouble. He is referring to the likes of the jailed Yasin Bhatkal, an infamous Nawayath who is a suspect in several bomb blast cases across the country, and Abdul Kadir Sultan Armar, a former member of the banned Student’s Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) who had left home 10 years ago with his younger brother Saif. Like Indian Mujahideen founder Yasin Bhatkal before him, Armar, an Islamic State (IS) volunteer, had also been recruiting jihadists both online and through one-on-one meetings. It was after the arrest of Bhatkal, also known as Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa, in a heroic manhunt by the Bihar Police that intelligence agencies discovered that Armar was engaged in acts of violence overseas. It now emerges that Armar, who used to live in Bhatkal’s well-off Nawayath Colony, was part of the Ansar-ut-Tauhid, an outfit that had claimed responsibility for the 2008 murder of US envoy John Granville in Khartoum, Sudan. His mission was to die fighting in Iraq and Syria, and so he headed for the IS and was killed recently in Kobane in north- east Syria along the Turkish border. According to an announcement on the Twitter handle @magnetgas12, his last words were: ‘Don’t forget to liberate India from Kuffars (non-Muslims)’.

A search for Armar’s home in Nawayath Colony ends fruitlessly, and the police later disclose to me that his mother Hajira Armar and father Shabbir Hussain Armar have shifted to Dubai. Over the years, Bhatkal has seen many of its youths waging what has been described as a religious duty of Muslims, jihad, in foreign locales; and many relatives of other jihadists killed in countries like Syria and Afghanistan have also shifted to cities in the Middle East, the police say. This may be why Open also failed to track down the relatives of Anwar Hussain, a Bhatkal resident who was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A visit to settlements such as Nawayath Colony, Maqdoom Colony (where Yasin Bhatkal was born) and Madeena Colony proves largely futile, with locals uncooperative when it comes to revealing information on the likes of Bhatkal and Armar. Explains one senior police officer based in Bangalore over the phone: “The reasons are manifold. One, local Muslims feel insulted when you probe them about terror links. Two, in these areas—across coastal Karnataka and even in some parts of Kerala—communal polarisation is beyond what you can imagine.” He adds that the potential dangers of such a situation are too many. “You can’t elicit proper information. Sometimes this also means that you are never able to establish the innocence of Muslims on the suspects list. It is a precarious situation,” he adds in a guttural voice.

Read the rest of this article at Open magazine.

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