Bibi Zohra squatted on the uneven floor of the house, her darned sari draped over her head, looking up with wide, bewildered eyes. She had worn this distraught expression on her face for the past three months, ever since the Pusad police arrested her son for assaulting three constables with a knife. The youth – 20-year-old Abdul Malik – carried out the attack on the morning of Bakri Eid in September, allegedly as an expression of his rage at Maharashtra’s ban on beef introduced in March.
“But my boy was not even fond of meat,” said Bibi Zohra. “ He always preferred vegetarian food at home. Why would he be angry about the beef ban?”
Muslim neighbourhoods in Pusad were decked up for Eid-e-Milad last week.
For Abdul Malik’s family, this is just one of the many perplexing questions about their son’s arrest on September 25. Many more remain unanswered. Why, for instance, did a stray case of assault get passed on to the state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad less than a week after Malik’s arrest? How did it snowball into a case of “anti-national” terror activities allegedly being planned by a group of “radicalised” youth in Pusad? And why did some media reports – like this one in the Times of India on December 8 – describe the arrest of Malik and two other youths as the “crippling” of a “terror module-in-the-making” linked to the Middle East-based terrorist organisation Islamic State?
The answers to these questions may not become apparent till Malik’s case makes it to a courtroom, but in the past few months, the Maharashtra police has been recording a string of similar so-called terror cases involving Muslim youth. On December 17, a 16-year-old Pune girl was arrested for allegedly being in contact with several Islamic State recruiters from various countries for the past four months.
Last week, the state ATS announced that four Muslim men in their 20s, who had been missing from Mumbai’s Malwani suburb since October, had possibly left the country to join the IS. Of the four, the ATS managed to track down Wajid Shaikh, but let him off after interrogation. Then on December 24, Noor Sheikh – the fourth missing youth – returned home on his own and has been questioned about the whereabouts of the other two members of his group.
The latest to hit the headlines was the arrest of three Hyderabadi men at Nagpur airport on December 26. The trio – Umar Farooqui, Zamir Farooqui and Abdul Wasim – were allegedly on their way to join IS and were handed over to the Telangana police.
Are all these cases connected to each other? Could Abdul Malik’s beef ban attack genuinely be linked to a larger Islamist terror conspiracy – particularly to Islamic State? In the narrow lanes of Maharashtra’s nondescript town of Pusad, the answers are difficult to find.
‘Not connected to IS’
Manish Patil, the head inspector at the ATS’s Akola unit that is handling Malik’s case, is keen to make two things clear. For one, the arrest of Malik and two other Pusad youth is completely unconnected to the arrests of the three Hyderabadi youths at Nagpur airport on Saturday.
And contrary to media reports, the case also has nothing to do with IS. “The ATS has never mentioned that Malik or the other youth had any connections with the Islamic State,” said Patil.
But Patil also believes that this is no ordinary case of assaulting uniformed men.
On the morning of Bakri Eid on September 25, constables from the Special Reserve Police force in Nagpur had been stationed outside mosques all over Pusad, one of the largest towns in Vidarbha region’s Yavatmal district. There was nothing unusual about the additional public security measures – during the past decade, Pusad has developed a reputation for becoming increasingly communally sensitive and ghettoised, with riots and skirmishes breaking out between Hindus and Muslims at least once a year.
That morning, Malik finished praying at one of the local mosques, stepped up to a group of uniformed constables in Shivaji Chowk and attacked three of them with a knife. While stabbing them, he allegedly shouted, “Tumhari government beef ban karti hai, toh yeh lo” (your government bans beef, so take this). The constables suffered minor injuries and Malik was promptly arrested and booked for attempt to murder under section 307 of the Indian Penal Code.
According to ATS officials, things took a different turn during further interrogation. “Malik admitted to the police that he wanted to do jihad,” said Patil, whose team took over Malik’s case from the Pusad police within three days. “He said he had heard audio clips of Pakistani militant preacher Maulana Masood Azhar, who encouraged attacks on government representatives like the police.”
Two more accused
Malik’s testimony over the next month led to two more arrests from Pusad, says Patil. On October 22, the ATS arrested 24-year-old Shoaib Khan, an alleged sympathiser of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India who the police claim was brainwashing Malik on social media. The alleged mastermind behind the conspiracy, however, is said to be Maulana Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, a 26-year-old priest and teacher at a Pusad madrasa who was arrested on November 1.
“This plot has been cooking since 2011,” said Patil. “The Maulana used to provoke a group of young boys towards jihad and there was a plan to send two of them to the Afghan border for training.”
All three accused have now been booked under various sections of the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that deals with cases of terrorism, making it very difficult for them to be eligible for bail. They are currently serving as under-trials at Nagpur Central Jail. For now, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court has granted the Akola ATS time till January 20 to file its charge-sheet in the case of these three arrested young men.
The Rahman home
In a shabbily-built wooden shanty in Rahmat Nagar, another Muslim ghetto in Pusad, Sumaiyya Rahman was struggling to console her bawling 2-year-old son. “He’s been falling sick regularly ever since his father was taken away by the police,” said Sumaiyya, the young wife of the priest Mujeeb-ur-Rahman. Before the arrest, the couple used to live on the premises of the mosque where Mujeeb served as a Maulana, but since November Sumaiyya has moved back to her parents’ house, occasionally visiting Mujeeb’s parents and four brothers in Rahmat Nagar.
Mujeeb-ur-Rahman's family in their wooden shanty in Pusad.
For the Rahman family, the terror charges against Mujeeb are too outrageous to believe. “My husband is a helpful, empathic man who has only taught people the basics of religion in his sermons,” said Sumaiyya. “In fact, the day after Abdul Malik attacked the constables, Mujeeb and other Maulanas in Pusad gave sermons denouncing such acts as un-Islamic.”
Mujeeb’s father, a local building contractor with a meagre income, draws himself into the conversation. “They say my son has been brainwashing people for more than a year” said Shaikh Mehboob Rahman. "Then how come only this one lone man carried out a single attack after all this while?"
At the Nagpur High Court, Mujeeb’s lawyer Mir Nagman Ali points out that there is nothing new about Muslim youth being arrested on false charges and then being acquitted after spending years in prison. “In most SIMI cases too, arrested youth waste several years in jail and are finally acquitted,” said Ali. “How many convictions does one see in such cases? Very few. Often, the police just tries to harass youth from a particular community.”
Last weekend, Telangana’s police chief Anurag Sharma made a similar observation at a conference of Director Generals of Police held in Bhuj. Sharma claimed that the random arrests of Muslim youth after every terror attack – compounded by the socio-economic exclusion of the community – is in fact leading to greater radicalisation among young Muslims.
Mujeeb’s mother Kaniza Parveen, meanwhile, is only concerned about her son’s health in Nagpur Central Jail. Mujeeb, she says, has been suffering from ulcerative colitis for the past three years, and he is forbidden to have any milk products. “We went there to meet him a few times and his health has been very poor,” she said. “He keeps crying a lot, telling us he is innocent.”
Shoaib Khan: double arrest
The family of Shoaib Khan, the second accused and Malik’s alleged friend, has also rejected the Maharashtra police’s theory about their son. Shoaib is the son of an irrigation department daily-wage labourer from Balapur in Maharashtra’s Hingoli district, and he came to live with his maternal uncle in Pusad only because he couldn’t get a job in his hometown after his first stint in jail last year.
Shoaib Khan's uncle and father in Pusad.
According to his father, Shoaib and his friend Mudassir were travelling to Hyderabad in October 2014 to shop for a friend’s wedding, when they were arrested all of a sudden at Hyderabad station and slapped with terror charges. According to the ATS, Shoaib and Mudassir were the two boys that Maulana Mujeeb-ur-Rahman intended to send to Afghanistan for jihadi training. “They were intercepted at Hyderabad station and the police found incriminating evidence on them,” said Patil of the Akola ATS unit.
The duo spent ten months in a Hyderabad jail before they were granted bail to return home and Shoaib – a Class XII dropout self-taught in computers – moved to Pusad so he could look for a job in anonymity. “But Shoaib was arrested again barely two months later, on the charges under the UAPA for which the Hyderabad court had already granted bail,” said Owais Mirza, Shoaib’s cousin from Pusad. “Tell me, if the charges were true and so grave, would any court grant him bail in the first place?”
Shoaib’s only fault, according to his father Rehman Khan, was that he liked to visit religious websites and listen to sermons from different clerics all over the world. “But as far as I know, simply visiting a website cannot be considered a crime, unless it is followed by an action,” said Khan. “People in Balapur have started looking at our family with suspicion. My son is being targeted only because he is young and Muslim.”
‘Our daughter quit college’
Back in Masjidwar, Abdul Malik’s family is also struggling to comprehend their son’s arrest. “They say he used WhatsApp to send a message against the beef ban just before he attacked the policemen,” said Rubina Parveen, Malik’s 16-year-old sister. “But he never owned a smartphone. The only phone he ever had was this old one, with no WhatsApp on it.”
Abdul Malik's mother holds up the phone that her son used.
Patil, however, dismisses the family’s claims as ignorant. “Parents don’t often know what their sons are up to. Malik himself told us that he used to own several phones, discarding them one after another,” said Patil.
Another aspect of the case that has left Malik’s parents dumbfounded is his alleged association with Maulana Mujeeb-ur-Rahman. “That Maulana comes from a different jamaat – a different sect of Sunnis that doesn’t believe in going to dargahs,” said Bibi Zohra. “We would never go to each other’s mosques.”
This, too, Patil has an explanation for. “Yes, both Malik and Mujeeb belong to different Sunni schools of thought, but they had both turned towards the Tablighi ideology in Islam, which is more extremist,” he said.
These words are alien to Malik’s parents, who are busy coping with the emotional and economic loss of their son. As a daily-wage mason, Malik’s father Abdul Razak barely brings home Rs 150 a day, while his mother makes a meagre Rs 300 a month as a domestic worker. Malik, who worked as a helper at a local chemist shop, was the only member who brought home a substantial salary of Rs 3,000 a month, a sum that has stopped flowing in ever since his arrest in September.
“Our daughter has now quit college because there is no money for the fees,” said Bibi Zohra. “We cannot afford a lawyer to fight his case, so we can only trust in Allah to set things right.”