Central intelligence agencies on Thursday issued an alert to Karnataka police after recently intercepting “conversations of interest” on satellite phones. While the coastal belt districts of the state have been notified, one city is again of particular interest.
Even though Bhatkal in the Uttara Kannada district has a population of less than 150,000, every intelligence agency, state or central, has its units deployed in the city. The reason is the name itself. Outside of Karnataka, more than the city, the word Bhatkal evokes memories of Yasin and Riyaz Bhatkal, two brains at the origin of multiple terrorist attacks in the country.
Decades before these men emerged and the city slipped under the intelligence radar, Bhatkal was a low-key fishing town, which remained peaceful after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.
GU Bhat, a veteran journalist from Uttara Kannada district, remembers the events of April 10, 1996, which he says marked a turning point in the city’s history. That day, Dr DU Chittaranjan, the town’s popular doctor and RSS activist, was assassinated by strangers inside his home.
“He arrived home around 8 pm that night. Before dinner, he looked at 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 instantly. It was this murder that divided the Muslim and Hindu communities in the city, ”said Bhat, who covered the story.
Chittaranjan was sent to Bhatkal to build an RSS base in the city. He was popular in the city to charge his patients just ??5 or less.
His popularity laid the foundation for the party in Bhatkal, who had elected only Muslim candidates from the constituency until the late 1990s. Under Chittaranjan, leaders like Anant Kumar Hegde, former minister of the state government and MP for Uttara Kannada, began their political career.
Despite his popularity, Chittaranjan lost two elections. But the situation changed in 1993 when stones were thrown at the chariot procession from the famous Hanuman temple in the heart of Bhatkal.
As a result, in 1993, the city experienced community violence for over nine months. About 19 people were killed in riots – ten Muslims and nine Hindus. Many residential areas were attacked during these riots, and clerics were trained on religious grounds as a result.
A Muslim community leader and practicing physician in Bhatkal said that even during this period, Chittaranjan stood for harmony between the two communities together. “I remember he came to see us and told us that we had to end the violence. Even the community trusted him and he played a huge role in bringing the situation under control, ”said the chief, who declined to be named.
However, with his assassination in 1996, communal discord in Bhatkal reached new heights. Hegde emerged as the new face of the RSS-BJP in the city, and two months later elected MP for Uttara Kannada. Unlike his guru, Hegde believed in political polarization, the community leader said.
As the Hindutva wave gathered momentum in the Uttara Kannada district, resistance grew within the Muslim community. “Since the mid-1980s, many Muslim men from Bhatkal have moved to the Gulf countries, and over the years the community has grown richer,” said a senior state intelligence official.
As the Hindutva movement gained ground and power in Bhatkal, young employees in the Gulf countries became the backbone of resistance against the movement.
The Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bhatkal quickly saw an influence from international actors, who attempted to support the resistance against the rise of the Hindutva.
From this resistance emerged Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri and Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa, commonly known as Riyaz Bhatkal and Yasin Bhatkal. “When their name began to be associated with terrorism, the town of Bhatkal itself became a place of interest for intelligence agencies,” the officer said.
As the suspicion of terror associated with Bhatkal’s name has become a handicap for its residents, an old tradition in the town has made life even more difficult for them. Decades before Partition, Muslim families in the Nawayath community had commercial ties with Karachi and other parts of Pakistan. Over the years, marriage alliances between Karachi and Bhatkal have become commonplace. Even after the partition, this practice continued and many women who married men from Bhatkal were granted Indian citizenship.
As soon as the name of the city began to be associated with terror, the citizenship approval of many Pakistani brides became difficult. Ten years ago, the government even started deporting some of the “Karachi wives to Bhatkal,” a Karnataka police official said.
The Pakistani wife of suspected terrorist Syed Ismail Afaq, jailed for providing explosive material that the Indian Mujahedin (IM) used in bomb strikes across India, was deported on October 7, 2019.
There are around 70 citizenship applications from Bhatkal alone, according to Karnataka police, and for families, the wait for citizenship is difficult. Javeed (name changed), whose wife is Pakistani, says that due to visa restrictions, traveling within the country is difficult.
“We have to get permission from the police if we are to travel. We went to several offices and several police checks were carried out, but his citizenship application has not yet been processed, ”he said.
Although southern India has not seen a major terrorist attack since 2014, intelligence agencies continue to closely monitor this small town. Many believe that Chittaranjan’s murder was a ploy to change the political narrative of a city that was once known for communal harmony.