Debating India


A circle of hate

Friday 24 October 2003, by SWAMI*Praveen

Investigation into the assassination of former State Home Minister Haren Pandya reveals that terrorism has found fertile ground in post-pogrom Gujarat.

in Ahmedabad

AN elderly Hindu woman has made the ruins of the Paldi-Bhatta Masjid in Ahmedabad her home. "Stop taking those photographs," she screams, "why do you want to have me thrown out of here? "

Thirteen months before he was killed, Gujarat’s then Home Minister, Haren Pandya, had stood before the same mosque. The people doing the screaming then were Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal volunteers, demanding that the building be brought down. Pandya, local residents say, was pushed to the front of the mob and asked to make the first of the many hammer blows that would bring the building down. Unlike Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Pandya was present among mobs responsible for the mass killings that began on February 28, 2002, the day after the carnage on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. Then, this March, Pandya’s past caught up with him, in the form of lead fired at point-blank range.

Pandya’s assassination, the joint investigation conducted by the Gujarat Police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has found, could prove to be just the first of a wave of Islamist terror strikes intended to avenge the pogrom of February-March 2002. Drawing on a wide network of right-wing religious organisations that have flourished among Gujarat’s ghettoised and riot-battered Muslims, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad have begun recruiting and training dozens of young people to execute acts of retaliatory terrorism. "Eight suspects trained in Pakistan," says Deputy Commissioner of Police D.G. Vanjara, "had been told by their handlers to sit at home and wait for instructions to execute an operation that would dwarf the Mumbai serial bombings. Pandya’s killing gave us the clues to dismantle one cell, but we know there are others out there, still waiting to strike."

Maulana Sufiyan Patangia used to run the Waliullah seminary next to the Lal Masjid - officially called the Hafizi Masjid - in Kalupur in the old city area of Ahmedabad. Now, he is Gujarat’s most wanted criminal. Believed to be the head of the massive terrorist cell unearthed during the course of the investigation into Pandya’s assassination, Indian intelligence operatives last sighted the cleric in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in early September.

For years, Patangia was just another small-time preacher for the Tablighi Jamaat, perhaps the largest Islamic movement in the world. His seminary taught only the Koran, some basic Urdu, and the six principles of Islam as understood by the Tablighi Jamaat’s founder, Mohammad Ilyas: kalima, or profession of the faith; the rules and details of the obligatory namaz prayer and other rituals; ilm-o-zikr, knowledge of religious principles; ikram-i-Muslim, respect for others of the religious community; tahsih-i-niyyat, purification of one’s inherent nature; and tafrigh-i-waqt, volunteering time for the Tablighi Jamaat’s core missionary work. Students and the faithful who attended prayers at the Lal Masjid were exhorted to give up frivolities such as television or cinema, and received advice on everything from the clothes they ought to wear, the manner of their beards, and the correct methods of ablution and urination. Like other Tablighi Jamaat clerics, Patangia shunned politics and condemned concern with worldly issues.

Patangia’s seminary thrived, funded generously by Saudi Arabia-based charities the cleric contacted on his biennial Haj and Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca. In the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia was a place of enormous ideological ferment that centred around the presence of troops of the United States there after the first Gulf war. It is possible the contacts Patangia made with Pakistani and West Asian Islamists during his visits began to change his views on the Tablighi Jamaat’s quietist approach. After the January 26, 2001, Gujarat earthquake, the cleric for the first time raised funds and mobilised cadre, at a mass level, for relief work in Bhuj. Although clerics in the Lal Masjid insist their work was intended to benefit all victims, irrespective of creed, most journalistic accounts of what went on in Bhuj after the earthquake suggest that religious organisations mainly helped their co-religionists.

Al Qaeda’s bombing of the twin towers in New York on September 11 brought about seismic changes in the Lal Masjid and its seminary. Patangia declared that Islam was in danger and that it was obligatory on all Muslims to resist the U.S.’ war on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Drawing on a core group from among his earthquake-relief volunteers, Patangia formed an Islamist study cell called the Idara-e-Fadlullah-ul-Muslimeen (Institution of Charity for Muslims). The group monitored the events in Afghanistan, relying mainly on the Internet since its members were forbidden to use the supposedly anti-Islamic medium of television. Tapes of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar’s speeches on the Afghanistan jehad were also circulated. Patangia, an informed source told Frontline, used to be jokingly called `Mullah Omar’, after the Taliban leader. His second-in-command, Suhail Khan, adopted the Osama bin Laden-style headgear, acquiring the nickname `Chhota Osama’ (Little Osama) in the process.

In February 2002, when violence broke out in Gujarat, Patangia was in Saudi Arabia on his regular pilgrimage. He used the opportunity, the CBI and the Gujarat Police say, to seek support from the Pakistan-based Islamist Right. Abdul Bari, a one-time Hyderabad resident who has for several years been a key Lashkar-e-Toiba leader tasked with carrying out terrorist operations in India outside of Jammu and Kashmir, put up Rs.3.75 lakhs to fund Patangia’s efforts. Incidentally, the Andhra Pradesh Police believes that Bari’s front organisation, the Muslim Defence Force, was behind the attempt to assassinate the religious leader Sathya Sai Baba. The cash, investigators allege, was also used to purchase grenades and crude guns for an abortive attack on a Rath Yatra in July 2002. Bari, ideologically affiliated to the Ahl-e-Hadis sect, soon fell apart with Patangia because of theological differences.

Patangia, however, had two parallel channels of support running for him. Two Saudi-based Jaish-e-Mohammad fund-raisers of Hyderabadi origin, Farhatullah Ghauri and Abdul Rehman, had been energetically raising funds for the victims of the Gujarat pogrom at a series of public meetings for Muslim expatriates from South Asia. Salim Sheikh and Rashid Ajmeri, both Ahmedabad residents who had long been living in Saudi Arabia, put Patangia in touch with the fund-raisers. This time, a more spectacular form of riot-retaliation was discussed. Investigators say that Rs.5 lakhs was transferred through hawala channels to organise and fund Pandya’s assassination. The funds are believed to have been received some six months before the assassination itself, around October 2002. Patangia, however, began dragging his feet on the issue, much to the surprise of his financiers.

Behind the scenes, the Ahmedabad cleric had allegedly developed a third line of support. Rasool Khan `Party’ (Ahmedabad slang for wholesale contractor or businessman) had once been a key lieutenant of top city mafia lord Abdul Latif Sheikh. Sheikh was a top associate of the Karachi-based mafioso Dawood Ibrahim and had contacts in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He was arrested in October 1996 and subsequently killed while allegedly attempting to escape from police custody. Months before Sheikh’s arrest, the Gujarat Police had arrested four Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front operatives from Ahmedabad on charges of executing a major terror bombing in New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area. The bombings, it turned out, were planned at a meeting in Rawalpindi, at which Dawood Ibrahim aide Abdul Razzak `Tiger’ Memon had been present. Memon had arranged for Sheikh to help the bombers hide out in Ahmedabad after the New Delhi outrage.

Soon after his boss’ arrest, Rasool Khan went underground. He lived in obscurity in Hyderabad, claiming to be a businessman with interests in Rajasthan. His brother, Idris Khan, stayed on in Ahmedabad and was roped in to help re-establish contact with the Dawood Ibrahim group in Karachi. In May 2002, the CBI and the Gujarat Police say, the Khan brothers met Patangia in Mumbai. Rasool Khan, incensed by the communal violence of the past months, reactivated his Karachi links. The road led directly to the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Karachi-based commander Abdullah Shah Mazhar. Having broken with the mainstream Jaish-e-Mohammad leadership of Masood Azhar, Mazhar was keen to establish his credentials. He, however, wanted evidence that Patangia was serious - and evidence was duly provided on May 29, 2002, when five low-intensity bombs went off on public transport buses in Ahmedabad, injuring 26 people.

By December, the Jaish-e-Mohammad leadership in Karachi was ready to deliver. Patangia now made available eight personnel to undergo training in Pakistan. Mohammad Parvez Sheikh, Mohammad Yunus Sareshwala, Mohammad Riaz Sareshwala and Rehan Puthawala are now charged with having travelled to Pakistan through Dhaka, having first crossed the porous India-Bangladesh border on foot. A fifth member of this group, Munawar Beg, travelled up to Dhaka but was sent back on the grounds that he was too old and unfit for weapons training. Three others, Kalim Ahmad Karimi, Shahnawaz Gandhi and Anas Rashid Machiswala, flew from Mumbai to Dubai, from where, the CBI and the Gujarat Police say, they travelled to Pakistan on fake documents. The group underwent a basic weapons and tactics course, and then received specialised explosives training before returning in March. Their orders were simple: to do nothing until orders came in from Pakistan.

Patangia, say investigators, chose to jump the gun. Vanjara said: "His problem was that he had already taken money for the hit on Pandya. The financiers in Saudi Arabia were leaning very hard on him for results. Moreover, the organisation had to show people that it could actually do something other than talk." The cleric issued orders soon after his recruits returned from Karachi, the investigators say. On March 13, they say, the Sufiyan cell attempted to assassinate VHP leader Jagdish Tiwari. Days later, Pandya was dead. Although spectacular, the operation proved a strategic disaster. As interrogations were followed by arrests, the Sufiyan cell fell apart. The much larger objectives of the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Karachi had to be put on hold, at least for the moment.

"NO photographs," said 27-year-old Mufti Mohammad Rizwan, Patangia’s successor at the Waliullah madrassa, "they are against Islam."

Ever since the hunt for Patangia began, the seminary has been the subject of relentless scrutiny and Rizwan has started learning not to answer questions. "I know nothing of the finances here," he insists, "Maulana Sufiyan used to deal with all those issues." Nor, he says, does he have any idea where his predecessor might be, or why he has chosen not to surrender to the courts and face trial. "Over the years," Rizwan says, "you come to know the basic character of a person, and I know the Maulana was not a terrorist." Does he understand why someone in post-pogrom Gujarat might want to avenge the killings of Muslims? "You have seen this city," Rizwan replies guardedly, "you should know the answer."

Some 350 students from Ahmedabad and its surrounding villages attend Arabic and Urdu classes at the seminary. Gujarati, spoken by most older Muslims, is not taught; in communally surcharged Ahmedabad, language, like geography, has become a key marker of identity. Unlike madrassas run by other sects, this Tablighi Jamaat seminary seems to have retained the sect’s historic contempt for all forms of knowledge other than the purely religious, and does not even give lessons in advanced theology or the interpretation of the Koran. Some, like 12-year-old Mohammad Musaib, were pulled out of government schools because their parents believed a religious education was more important. Others attend formal schools for part of the day, and the seminary during their free hours. Rizwan seems little concerned about their career prospects. "Most of the children’s parents have shops," he says, "so they can join the family business."

Sarfunnisa Machiswala (55) had hoped her son, Anas Machiswala, would do just that. Machiswala (22) set up a small keychain-and-belt shop after graduating from school, and late last year asked for a loan of Rs.10,000 to expand the business. Machiswala told his family he would travel to Dubai and Kenya to seek work, failing which he would buy leather goods with which the business could be expanded. His parents wished Machiswala well, believing the money he earned during his journey would help reopen a family-owned shop which had for long been closed. "My son’s passport bears stamps for Dubai and Kenya," Sarfunnisa Machiswala insists, "so how could he have gone to Pakistan? " The police do not buy the argument; they say they will produce evidence from the Kenyan High Commission in New Delhi during trial to show the Nairobi entry stamps on his passport are fake. Perhaps ironically, there is no photograph of Machiswala other than the one in his passport, for he believed images contravened Islamic tenets.

In some cases, parents and children seem to inhabit different worlds of faith and experience. Soon after leaving school, Shahnawaz Gandhi began attending Patangia’s seminary. He discarded the pants and shirt he had worn while growing up for the Tablighi Jamaat’s preferred ankle-length pyjama and loose, long jubba. Then, the young man stopped watching television, on the grounds that viewing graven images of any kind was just a step away from Islam’s proscription of idolatry. By contrast, his father Mohammadbhai Nanamian Gandhi enjoys spending time listening to Hindu bhajans sung by Pankaj Malik, in praise of the Bhakti-tradition icon Meerabai, and listening to old Hindi songs. The family members, again, say that Shahnawaz only travelled to Mumbai hoping to start a readymade garment business during the time the police say he was in Pakistan. Again, however, the passport records discovered by the Gujarat Police and the CBI show otherwise.

Like the Machiswala and Gandhi families, the parents of most of the six men charged with training in Pakistan believe the CBI and the Gujarat Police are conducting a communally motivated witch-hunt. "The only reason they have arrested by son," says Mohammad Habib Karimi, the father of 28-year-old Kalim Ahmad, "is that he knew Patangia, which is not surprising since he lived just two houses away." Karimi said: "Haren Pandya’s father has said that Narendra Modi had him killed to get rid of a political rival. So why don’t the police go and arrest the Chief Minister? After all, how is the word of someone saying that my son is involved any more credible than the word of Pandya’s father? " The argument is impeccable, except that Karimi denies his son even had a passport. Prosecutors handling the case, however, have a document bearing the face and name of Karimi’s son, with the dates of his travel to Dubai neatly recorded.

While the Gujarat Police’s appalling communal record may be one reason why Muslims do not attach credibility to the prosecution account, there also seems to be a certain unwillingness to concede that the Tablighi Jamaat could have been involved in terrorist activity. Some parents seem to have encouraged their children’s participation in the sect’s activities, admiring its core concerns with inner spiritual improvement and charity. "During all the time my son used to attend Patangia’s classes," says Gandhi’s mother Jamila Gandhi, "he never once distinguished between Hindus and Muslims. During the earthquake, he and his friends donated blood, which saved the lives of people of all faiths. He would never have done something to hurt Hindus." Hence the organisation’s ostensible piety may have led many Muslim parents to support their wards’ membership for precisely the same reasons some Hindu parents are happy their children participate in the activities of Hindu fundamentalist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

Although the Tablighi Jamaat was once criticised by other Islamists for its apparent disdain for the obligation to wage jehad against religious oppression, there are signs that things have been changing since the mid-1990s. In a February 13, 1995 article in the Pakistani newspaper The News, the journalist Kamran Khan quoted Harkatul Mujahideen office-bearers on the deep links between their global jehadi activities and the Tablighi Jamaat. "Most of our workers do come from the Jamaat," Khan quoted an unidentified office-bearer of the Harkat as saying. "We regularly go to its annual meeting at Raiwind. Ours is a truly international network of genuine jehadi Muslims. Our colleagues went and fought against oppressors in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Burma (Myanmar), the Philippines and, of course, India." The Jaish-e-Mohammad is an offshoot of the Harkat-ul Mujahideen.

Although the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan claims to be apolitical, as it does elsewhere, many of its followers have taken part in right-wing Islamist activity. Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir, who was Director-General of the ISI during former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first stint in office, was a Tablighi Jamaat activist, as was Mohammad Rafiq Tarar, the President of Pakistan during Sharif’s second tenure. In the autumn of 1995, the Pakistan Army, reportedly acting on the orders of then Director-General of Military Intelligence Major-General Ali Quli Khan Khattak, arrested a group of 36 officers and 20 civilians led by Major-General Zaheer-ul-Islam Abbasi on charges of conspiring to overthrow the regime of then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and declare an Islamic state. The conspirators, the Pakistani media reported, were mainly Tablighi Jamaat and Harkat-ul Mujahideen members.

In its November 1995 issue, the Karachi-based Herald reported that the group had been indoctrinated by Lieutenant-General Ghulam Mohammad Malik, head of the key 10 Corps. Although no direct link was ever established between him and the coup plotters, the Bhutto regime eased Malik out of office. The General, it turned out, was a close associate of the spiritual head of the plot, Mufti Iqbal, a cleric based in Raiwind. Taking advantage of the Tablighi Jamaat’s overt rejection of politics, Iqbal had been repeatedly invited to deliver religious sermons at the 10 Corps during Malik’s stewardship. Investigators in Pakistan later discovered that a powerful dissident element within the Tablighi Jamaat had begun to reject organisational orthodoxy, and privilege jehad bin-saif, or holy war by the sword, over jehad bin-nafs, or the war for the conscience.

COULD something similar be under way in Gujarat? No one knows for certain, but investigation of the Sufiyan cell certainly points in that direction. In a recent book, The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jamaat, the scholar Yoginder Sikand points out that the organisation has always been remarkably flexible, responding to changed times and circumstances. Born in the crucible of the Arya Samaj’s efforts to incorporate marginal Muslim communities back into the Hindu fold, and tested during the communal violence that rocked northern India during Partition, the Tablighi Jamaat and its growth has also had an organic relationship with Hindu fundamentalism. Although the sect is very secretive, and produces no worthwhile official literature on political events or ideology, it could well see the political rise of the Hindu religious right as the next great test to its project.

If so, dozens of young people in Gujarat, scarred by the violence of 2002, seem ready to join the cause. Intelligence officials estimate that about four-dozen recruits may have separately made their way to Pakistan for training. One trainee, Munir Ahmad, was killed in the course of summer operations conducted by the Indian Army to clear terrorists from the Hil Kaka heights near Surankote in Poonch district. Ahmad, who was undergoing basic training on Hil Kaka before heading for Pakistan, earlier worked at a confectionery store in Ahmedabad. Five unidentified men who travelled with him to Poonch escaped the fighting and are thought to have made their way to Pakistan. The men were allegedly transported to Poonch by Latif Pathan, a resident of Bhainch village close to Poonch town. Pathan had been in Godhra during the communal pogrom in Gujarat, and participated in a meeting where local clerics called for the creation of a self-defence force.

Each riot feeds and informs the next bomb blast, which in turn legitimises and inspires the next riot. There is no end in sight, sadly, to this circle of hate.

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