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Terror In God's Own Country

Terror In God's Own Country

Author: Anil Nair
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: May 22, 2005
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/archive_full_story.php?content_id=70767

As the Kerala government investigates links between local militant groups and the ISI, Anil Nair reports on a hard Islamic identity that is beginning to take root in the state. And is inspiring religious violence that spills across Kerala's borders

Six years ago the Kerala police appears to have had hard evidence of its homegrown extemists, with links to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (The Indian Express, May 17). The police, of course, failed to act on it. The matter was kept under wraps. The secret of Muslim extremism coming to light only after the violence in Marad, in the summer of 2003.

Following the Kerala home department's revelations about the alleged ISI hand in the Kozhikode-based National Democratic Front (NDF), M.K. Narayanan, the national security adviser, has himself ordered a new probe. The dark underbelly of God's Own Country is under the microscope.

Make no mistake, Kerala is no Kashmir. The state's connection with pan-Islamic militancy is less about impressionable youth being handed the latest automatic rifles, and making a voyage from Karachi to Ponani by speedboat. It is more a combustible mix of personal resentment and perceived political traditions of faith. Understanding this is crucial if the state is to formulate a viable and longterm response to religious extremism.

The real turning point where Kerala's Muslim militancy is concerned was 2003. On May 3 that year, the state witnessed one of its worst incidents of communal violence at Marad. The toll, nine killed, was low. But what made the attack on Hindu fishermen in Kozhikode significant was its absolute onesidedness and meticulous planning.

Later that month, then Mumbai police commissioner R.S. Sharma, following the busting of a Lashkar-e-Toiba module in Thane, revealed details of a terrorist plan for a series of bomb blasts in Kerala.

Around the same time, Indian Army troops mopping up militant bunkers in Kashmir's Pir Panjal ranges during Operation Sarp Vinash stumbled on an abandoned satellite phone. Calls had been made from it just hours earlier, to Islamabad, Dubai and, of all places, Malappuram.

Cumulatively, these incidents seemed to be alarming. But RAW chief P.K. Hormis Tharakan, till very recently Kerala's director-general of police, still doesn't want to rush to conclusions.

''From a security aspect, nothing, of course, can be ruled out,'' he says, ''but Kerala doesn't have a terrorist problem per se. There have been serious communal confrontations in the past and we are keeping our eyes peeled for that kind of trouble. The only arms caches that have been found are pipe bombs and swordsticks. Communal harmony even in that - the Hindus make the swordsticks and the Muslims use it!''

On intelligence estimates of Rs 700 crore in hawala money being poured into Malappuram in the past three or four years, he says the police is ''taking it seriously''. To Thakaran, the hawala transaction is in some ways the perfect 21st century crime. ''For one,'' he points out, ''it occurs in several jurisdictions, thousands of miles apart. It's hard to determine who exactly commits the crime ... Only a minuscule amount, however, would be used for militant activities in Kerala.''

Head hunters by another name

An official from another Central agency, wishing anonymity, contradicts this. ''Of the hawala money,'' he says, ''a considerable amount will go to middleme,n but SIMI and NDF could be the final beneficiaries.'' He also says groups like the Chicago-based Consultative Committee of Indian Muslims and Jamayyatul Ansar, an organisation of expatriate Indian Muslims in Saudi Arabia, could be possible sources of funding.

MALAPPURAM'S peculiar demography provides perfect cover for groups that seek it. It is one of only two Muslim-majority districts in India, outside Jammu and Kashmir (the other being Murshidabad in West Bengal). Since the early 1990s, fundamentalists appear to have had a concerted plan to win over the community.
Kerala Nadvathul Mujahedeen's leader Ahmed Kutty paints a grim picture: ''The method of the extremists to take control of a mosque is always the same. It begins with a small cell of adepts praying with the others and trying to rally them. If there is not much headway, relentless arguing and verbal abuse follow. The majority then either falls silent or goes to another place.''

Where cajoling fails, there's direct action. The murder of Chekannur Maulvi, a reformist Islamic scholar, a decade ago still evokes memories in Malappuram. The frequent acts of cultural policing - like the burning of cinemas and attacks on Muslim women trying to marry outside their religion -are only some instances of fundamentalist violence at fellow Muslims. There have been reports of such incidents as recently as earlier this year.

Slowly the process of indoctrination acquires momentum. To some Muslims, alienated by the moral vertigo of contemporary society, an austere interpretation of Islam has an appeal. One of them even justifies the drug trade in these terms.

''Let me be clear, I personally don't support such activities,'' says advocate Abdul Gafoor, an active supporter of the Indian Union Muslim League, ''but in theory and from a historical perspective, it is a kind of colonial revenge. Heroin, for example, is produced in the third world and consumed in the West. Call it reverse imperialism.''

It is a wierd logic. To Ahmed Kutty, another resident of Malappuram, ''Such logic stems from defensiveness, from the belief that we reside in the Dar-ul-Harb or House of War. The Koran demands that we live in Dar ash-Shahada or House of Witness, in which believers and unbelievers compete in doing good works to prove the truth.''

For Malappuram's sake, the witness will hopefully prevail over the warrior.

Footsoldiers of faith

THERE are three reasons, Shahul Hameed reveals, why he prefers a C-4 device. First, it is a plastic explosive and the extra coating makes it safer to handle. Second, it allows remote switching mechanisms and hence leaves little or no electronic signature. The third reason is ideological or, probably, madly idiosyncratic: the C-4 is malleable and can be pointed in a particular direction. Hameed prefers his victims be oriented towards Mecca when his bombs explode.

After its ban, the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is known to operate in southern India primarily through the NDF and Islamic Youth Front in Kerala and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam. These are above-ground organisations that reportedly use hospitals as meeting places and influential people's cars and homes to ferry and hide fugitives.

Police sources say they bury caches of arms near mosques and launder funds for militant activity through local charity or zakat committees. One thing these organisations truly value is their ''engineers'' - a euphemism for expert bomb-makers.

THE Sunday Express set out to meet some of these people. As per our SIMI contact Naushad's instructions, we did not take a bus or an auto-rickshaw but walked a good 45 minutes from the Coimbatore railway station to a particular locality that must go unnamed. It is a teeming place and on both sides of the narrow streets the once audacious green of most houses bear slender crescents on their doorways. A canal runs beside the road, its water oily and black after flowing through half the city. In the early evening the exhaust from passing vehicles raises a vile smog.

Following instructions, we barge into a sleazy hotel where rooms are rented by the hour. The man at the desk is surprised to see two men, but, anyway, he accepts the advance and gives us a room. We spend 24 hours staring at the ceiling, till a teenage boy comes to the room and whispers an address.

MEETING Hameed in a suburban residential area, the first thing one notes are the disconcerting eyes, like shards of mirror that seem to dare the person before him: do you see what I see? ''Splinters from a premature explosion, though prompt medical attention saved my sight,'' he explains, and laughingly adds, ''it is part of our trade. I know some who are dead because they relaxed for a moment.''

His chaste Tamil occasionally betrays a Malayalam accent. For this former ''commando'' of the disbanded Islamic Sevak Sangh, the past decade has been one of safehouses, disguises and the perpetual possibility of imminent arrest or death.

On a table are a smattering of booklets and blurry photocopies. They are all English or Tamil translations of original fatwas, issued in Arab by Wahabbi clerics. One speaks of a hadith where the Prophet purportedly singles out India as a special target for jihad.

''Whosoever will take part in jihad against India,'' Markaz leader Muhammad Ibrahim Salaf claims in the booklet, ''the Prophet has declared, 'Allah will set him free from the pyre of hell'.''

Another is a tirade against President George W. Bush, demanding he stand trial before an interational court and take ''responsibility for the September 11 bombings carried out by the Zionists''.

THERE are no telltale signs of the ''engineer's'' true trade in the room. But Hameed doesn't disappoint us with details. He speaks of how C-4 blocks are made by mixing RDX powder with water and a bit of engine oil, to form a slurry, then distilled. And that the final product has the consistency of hard clay.

He is lucid in describing his craft: ''It takes considerable energy to set off a C-4 explosion. Choosing the right kind of detonator is crucial. A pound of C-4 can blow up a truck and its chemical reaction is so fast, nothing can outrun the explosion.''

Imagine a few pounds of the stuff going off in a crowded marketplace or a train and it becomes clear why security agencies are so frantic about taking out these ''engineers'' and the networks that disseminate bomb-making skills to a generation of militants.

Coimbatore, of course, is the city that saw a series of 12 bomb blasts on a single day in February 1998, a day when L.K. Advani addressed an election meeting there. Then home minister Indrajit Gupta blamed ISI-backed militants for the blasts, which killed nearly 50 people. Simple past, complex presences

IN A mosque near Kondotty, north Kerala, you are softly assaulted by muted colours, tiled floors and curvilinear faux-wood. It is the time of the maghreb or evening prayers and the men are reciting aurad (litanies). The devotion is apparent on their faces, their stooped postures, their silence during the khutbah (sermon), and subsequently in their tortured expressions following the du'aa' (supplication) with the imam.

All along the old Tipu Sultan Road in Malappuram district, the antique beauty of mazhars and dargahs, so inconspicuous against the undulating landscape, are a dwindling force in lives to which they not so long ago gave meaning.

Replacing them are marble and glass mosques - bland, clean, expensive. The new architecture seems to be echoing the vision of a single, simple Islam. It rests on close fidelity to the words of the Koran, is rid of ties to any particular place or period, is concerned with ''family life'' and Sharia and is underwritten by extensive global funding networks.

Naushad is one Malayali who is in the vanguard of such an Islam. He is an ansar of SIMI, whose proclaimed aim is ''the liberation of India through Islamic inquilab''. As a full-time underground worker, he says he models himself on the small but elite cadre of believers who helped the Prophet recapture Mecca.

IT all changed so fast. ''Until the demolition of the Babri Masjid,'' says Naushad, ''I never saw myself as all that different from other Indians. But after December 6, 1992, how could I deceive myself? Whatever doubts might have remained died with Gujarat in 2002.''

He holds a mildewed Koran, its spine cracked with age. The Koran looks odd in his large, calloused hands, which seem more accustomed to carrying vice grips and OHM meters.

Multicoloured ribbons allow him to turn chunks of pages at one go and jump from one favorite verse to the other: a green ribbon opens to Sura 3:28 ''Let not the Believers take for friends or helpers unbelievers rather than believers; if any do that, in nothing will there be help from Allah''; a yellow one is on Sura 30: 1-4: ''In a land close by; but they (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious.''

If there is a certain stereotype of the gun-toting Macho Muslim Militant, all flowing beard and suspicious of his very shadow, then Naushad negates it. For one, he is clean-shaven. And he never once raises his voice.

The worshippers in the mosques have dispersed. Naushad takes us to a home where we tuck into modest lentil soup and dates, a diet that is ''very mustahhab (recommended)'', he suggests, and then sit and talk.

''The first time the true power of the ummah (community) hit me was during the protests against Rushdie's blasphemous book. I became aware of what a fatwa could do. Soon afteraqwards Ayatollah Khomeini died and there were these images on TV of the mourners flowing around him like lava,'' Naushad remembers.

BY then he had already spent eight years in Secunderabad toiling away in sundry auto-workshops and bakeries. He had left his native Malappuram after graduation, haunted by an ethos that interprets lack of a government job as personal failure.

Successively in Mumbai, Lucknow and Secunderabad it dawned on him that, the signs of an expanding economy notwithstanding, a dignified future would forever elude him. ''In these cities I lacked real connection with anything. People came and went. There was much false intimacy. People didn't take responsibility for each other,'' Naushad says.

Confronted with a choice, the asperities of a rigid Islam seemed better than the self-destruction urban alienation seemed to inevitably lead to.

EARLIER in the day, we had stopped beside a wayside dargah in the same district. Till not so long ago this tomb was the meeting-place for diverse groups: the medieval pir himself in his grave, and around him pilgrims, sellers of pious artifacts, sherbet vendors, tattoo painters and fortune-tellers. Hindu mothers brought their children here for good health, Muslim women sent offerings to the nearby kavu bhagavathi or mother goddess for an auspicious marriage.

The marble balustrade of an imposing new madrasa now overshadows the tomb. We hear children rhythmically chanting the Koran in Arabic. This madrasa has no Hindu pupils and teachers on its rolls, let alone regular Hindu donors, as used to be the case in the older institutions.

''Muslims represent the forces of truth (haq) while Hindus and Christians embody the forces of apostasy (batil),'' insists Naushad, adding, ''borrowing from Hinduism is akin to shirk, which is unlawful and a sin.''

BESIDE us a man is furtively forcing his goat to perform a full prostration to the pir's tomb before dragging it off to be sacrificed. By preaching a ''pure'' Islam isn't Naushad peddling a version of faith unrecognisable to tradition and piety alike?

As we hurtle down dust roads he looks out the car window at the plantain groves and bubbly streams. He went to school not far from here, sat on straw mats and memorised maths tables. In the afternoons he and his friends, both Hindu and Muslim, stripped off their shirts and played seven-a-side football on the school ground.

Naushad has been unusually candid throughout, displaying warmth and humour. Yet once in a while, he catches himself and draws back. His lips purse, sentences become monosyllables and you lose him.

Like now, when he replies: ''I have developed an inability to mourn ... Faith means forgoing everything for the future.'' Somehow in that disturbing future, Kerala is losing the certitudes of its past.
 


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