Barely a week after the Kerala police filed two first information reports stating that said 10 people from two unrelated families in Kasargod district had gone missing, raising fears that they might have joined the Islamic State terrorist outfit, the authorities clarified that these people were in Yemen to pursue religious education.

“We contacted them in Yemen,” district superintendent of police A Srinivas told on Saturday. “We verified their current location. They co-operated well with the investigation team. There is nothing suspicious about their activities.”

The police had filed the first report on June 27. It said that 35-year-old MP Mohammed Sabad had gone missing with his two wives Nasira and Raihananth, both aged 25, and their children Musab, 6 , Marjanah, 3, and Muqbil, 11 months old.

News of the police case came as a shock to Sabad’s family in Mogral village in Kumbala gram panchayat. They said that Sabad, who had been running a perfume shop in Dubai for the last four years, had travelled to Yemen to pursue religious studies.

When friends informed Sabad about the FIR, he clarified in an audio message that he is studying at a religious school run by Sheikh Abu Bilal in Hadhramaut, an eastern province of Yemen. “We will come back after completing our studies,” he is reported to have said in the audio message.

Sabad told his friends that four members of another family from Kasargod – Ansar, 35, his wife Zeenath, 26, and two children Anas, 6, and Issa, 3 – had also arrived in Yemen in the third week of June. Ansar is from Bekur in Mangalpady gram panchayat while Zeenath is from Kollampady village in Kasargod municipality.

After hearing this, the police filed the second report.

Relatives of Ansar and Zeenath told this correspondent that they had travelled to Yemen from Kochi on June 20. Police officials said they are yet to confirm details of this journey.

“We are still collecting details,” said Srinivas. The district superintendent of police conceded that it wasn’t criminal for Indians to travel to Yemen. “The government of India has not banned citizens from travelling to Yemen,” he said. “So it is not a crime to travel there.”

2018 vs 2016 incidents

Reports of the disappearance of the families led many to draw quick parallels with the in July 2016 incident involving 21 men, women and children from Kerala who are believed to have joined the Islamic State. Seventeen of them were from Padanna, a coastal village about 50 km south of Kasargod town. Among the missing people were several doctors, engineers and management professionals. Three of them are believed to have died while fighting for the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s Nagarhar province last year.

But there are notable differences in the two cases. Though the people who left Padanna in 2016 had kept their itineraries a well-guarded secret, both Sabad and Ansar set off for Yemen after informing their relatives. They have since been in regular contact with relatives and friends back home. In the 2016 case, except a few messages, no one knew what happened to the people who had left Kerala.

Sabad’s father MP Ashraf, 62, said on Friday that his son and family are doing well. “I spoke to him for 30 minutes today. His studies are going well,” he said.

Ansar’s sister, Tahira, said she speaks with her brother and sister-in-law every day. “They left with the full blessings of our family,” she said. “They are living happily in Yemen.”

Zeenath’s mother, Ayesha, wondered how a stint abroad for education became a major talking point all over India. “We haven’t filed any complaint with the police,” she said. “We want to know who is behind this.”

District Police Superintendent Srinivas said the first information report with regard to Sabad’s family was registered based on a complaint filed by his father-in-law Abdul Hameed. But Hameed denied this. He said police called him on June 27 and asked him for a few details about Sabad. “After the conversation, they told me to sign a document which I did,” he said.

With both families denying that they had filed missing person complaints, what will be the fate of the police investigation?

Srinivas refused to provide a clear answer. “FIR doesn’t mean that there is a case against them,” he said. “But I cannot say at this moment whether we will pursue the case or dump it.”

Aiming to clear the air, Sabad himself contacted top police officials on June 27 and provided them with details of his journey. He even responded to this correspondent’s queries over the WhatsApp messaging service. “We have nothing to hide,” he said. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”

But the controversy has taken a toll on Sabad’s father. Sitting in the porch of his house, Sabad’s father Ashraf wept, saying some media outlets had portrayed his son as a terrorist. “It has spread all over the world,” he said. “But I know that he is innocent.”

A view of the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School where Sabad studied till Class 10. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

‘Chose Yemen because it is cheap’

Sabad is the oldest of Ashraf’s five children, and his only son. Sabad said he first planned to go to Saudi Arabia to study the Quran and Hadith (the sayings of Prophet Mohammed) but changed his mind because of the high cost of living. “In comparison Yemen is cheap,” he said. “We could reduce our expenses further by getting a students’ visa.”

Asked why he did not consider religious education centres in India, Sabad said Islamic religious institutions at home did not promote education. “They are more into mudslinging and raising allegations against each other,” he said. “Leaders of these organisations will do everything for publicity. I am fed up with their politics.”

He said that he was deeply opposed to the Islamic State. “No Muslim can approve of their activities,” Sabad said. “Scholars here [in Yemen] too have castigated them.”

Among other things, Sabad has been accused of facilitating the journeys of people like Ansar from Kerala to Yemen. Sabad denied this. He said that he knew Ansar from before but did not play a role in his decision to travel to Yemen. “I knew Ansar when I worked in Kasargod, but I haven’t contacted him after I went to Dubai four years ago,” he said. “I have not urged Ansar or any others to come to Yemen. No one should be pressed to study Islam.”

Sabad said both of them are now students at Sheikh Abu Bilal’s school. “Our wives are attending women-only religious classes,” he said.

A fashionable youngster

People in Mogral, a Muslim-majority village known for its love for football and Mapila Pattu, or the traditional Muslim folk songs, said Sabad’s passion for Islamic studies began 10 years ago.

“Before that he drove buses owned by his father,” said Ibrahim, a football player. “He wore trendy outfits and ornaments. He was the ‘fashion model’ in our village. Religious education transformed him. He began to sport a long beard and lost interest in fashion trends.”

Sabad’s friends say he is a man of positive energy. “He has an uncanny knack to inspire people,” said his neighbour and childhood friend MM Haris. “I used to consult him whenever I was in trouble.” Haris said that after reports of the first information report against Sabad emerged, he spoke to his friend and circulated the audio clip on social media to prove his innocence. “Media sensationalised the issue and reported that he might join the Islamic State,” said Haris. “I wanted to prove that the reports were fake.”

Many people in Sabad’s village blamed the media for blowing the matter out of proportion. “Sabad has every right to go to Yemen,” said Ummer, a village resident. “But media reports projected it as a sin. People all over the country now view Mogral residents with suspicion.”

‘We are happy’

Family members of Ansar and Zeenath in Kollampady in Kasargod municipality do not seem to be as upset about the media reaction as Sabad’s family and friends.

“They went for studies,” said Zeenath’s father, Abdul Kareem, 62. “They set off from this house. We all went to see them off at the Kasargod railway station on June 20.” He said that Ansar had worked as a restaurant manager in Thiruvananthapuram and had been wanting to go abroad for religious studies for some time. “He saved money to fulfil his ambition,” Kareem said.

His wife Ayesha said she speaks to her daughter every day. “I am feeling happy for her,” she said. “Zeenath will come back after completing her studies.”