On 2 October, people in Khagragarh, a locality in Burdwan town, were busy enjoying the festive spirit of Durga Puja, which transforms the whole of West Bengal into a giant carnival. It was Ashtami, the day when the goddess slayed the demon. Celebrations were at its peak as people made a beeline for the Puja pandals across the state.
At around noon, locals came rushing out of their houses upon hearing a loud blast. Soon, they saw smoke billowing from two pink windows on the second floor of an unpainted building tucked in a narrow lane in Khagragarh, just past the Burdwan Fire Station.
Fearing that an LPG cylinder had exploded, local residents rushed up the stairs past a locked room that had served as a Trinamool Congress office during panchayat polls. When they banged on the door, it was opened just wide enough for a woman to answer back that everything was ok and they could leave. But those who were standing downstairs saw blood seeping out of the drainpipes.
At this, the crowd demanded entry into the apartment and two women pulled out handguns and threatened them with dire consequences. Some firemen arrived soon as the fire station is located barely 200 metres away and they too were threatened. Witnesses said they appeared to be country-made weapons.
“There was a smell of burnt gunpowder on the stairs and then we could also smell burning paper and clothes,” said a man who had tried to break into the house. Some claimed to have seen a pile of paper being burned inside.
Following an alert, the Burdwan Sadar Police Station quickly despatched its men to probe the matter.
The stand-off went on for a while with expletives and threats exchanged with the two women holding off the authorities and residents, but no bullets were fired by either party.
Finally, after about 45 minutes of melodrama, the police broke in, overpowered the women and found three men and two children inside. One appeared dead, while two others who seemed injured were taken to a local hospital. One of them died in the hospital and the other is recuperating from his injuries, while under arrest. The women were arrested and a magistrate remanded them to 12 days police custody for the investigation.
Those who entered the house immediately after the fracas said that it had three rooms. Two of these had beds and one had machines and other material stored inside. The final details are sketchy and there are several claims regarding what was supposedly in the rooms, including live bombs in crates and bomb-making paraphernalia; a lathe machine; arms and ammunition; a sewing machine, cloth and other tailoring material; and what the police and media claim to be “jihadi literature in Arabic and Urdu”. This literature was supposedly sought to be destroyed by burning. The police later claimed that the women were allegedly burning two cell phones that contained “jihadi indoctrination videos”, including footage of the 9/11 terror attacks.
A bomb disposal squad summoned from Kolkata later defused the bombs. There were also several documents that have given the police clues about others linked to the enterprise, supposed plans to make rocket launchers and bombs, maps with some locations highlighted in Bengal. There are also claims of a sackful of cash lying around.
Khagragarh is primarily a residential neighbourhood in Burdwan, around 110 km from Kolkata. On paper, it is a rural area adjoining the town. In reality, it is an extension of the town itself and is just a kilometre or two northwest of the University of Burdwan. Thus, a large part of the local economy survives on the students who rent houses here.
The demography of Khagragarh is 90 percent Muslims, mostly migrants from other places in the state. Locals don’t recall any communal riots happening here even during the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.
It is a typical locality that can be found anywhere in small-town India. Apart from the hustle and bustle of students and locals, it is mostly quiet. In the afternoon, shopkeepers down their shutters and head home for a siesta.
Few months ago, Shakil Ahmad, who claimed to be a resident of Karimpur village in Nadia district, and Abdul Hakim Sheikh (alias Hasan Sahab), said to be a resident of Deocha Bauripada, which falls under the Mohammad Bazaar Police Station limits in Birbhum district, approached Hassan Choudhary to rent a second-floor apartment in Khagragarh.
Choudhary, a Trinamool supporter, is a retired government servant and owns two houses. In one, he lives with his son, a doctor. He rents out the other. On the ground floor, one room is occasionally used by Trinamool members, and the other portion serves as a clinic for his son’s homeopathic practice.
Choudhary reached an agreement to rent out the second-storey apartment for around Rs 4,700, though the actual terms of this arrangement is not known. There are rumours that he had taken Rs 20,000- 40,000 as an advance but the veracity of these claims has not yet been established.
Ahmad reportedly had a tailoring business making burqas and had another flat at Beldanga, which is about 60 km from the closest checkpoint on the Indo- Bangaldesh border.
Ahmad and Sheikh moved into the Khagragarh apartment with their wives Gulsuna Bibi and Amina Bibi, respectively, and a child each. The men are in their early 30s while the women are said to be in their late 20s. Police sources say that Gulsuna is from Barbakpur village in Nadia district, while Amina is from a village in Birbhum.
Neighbours said the two families kept to themselves. The women would venture out only in burqas and never talked to their neighbours. Local reports say one of the women had once reacted angrily when a neighbour raised an alarm after one of the children strayed dangerously close to the edge of the terrace. They had two vehicles — a motorcycle and an M-80 scooter. The scooter was used to carry loads mostly big cloth bags or sacks. The families never shopped for groceries or anything else locally.
The blast killed Ahmad on the spot, while Sheikh suffered an injury to his right leg and was arrested later. He is still recuperating from his injuries in the hospital. Shobhon Mondal (of East Medinipur district), who was present in the house during the blast succumbed to his injuries later. The women are in the custody of the Burdwan Police.
The state government, which handed over the probe to its crime investigation department, has come under fire for not handing over the case to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the country’s counter-terror law enforcement agency.
The CPM has used this issue to start statewide protests. As the landlord is a Trinamool supporter and a portion of the house had been used for party purposes during panchayat polls, Opposition parties are targeting the Trinamool.
Until now, details of the probe have emerged mostly through selective leaks to the media. There is also a multiplicity and contradiction of information due to the lack of coordination between various agencies.
After the blast, the area was cordoned off but neighbours, firemen and inept police officers violated the crime scene.
On 3 October, the police swung into action looking for leads to nab as many people as possible from cell phone call records and documents such as voter id cards that were found at the crime scene.
The two women were produced before a magistrate and remanded to police custody.
A bomb disposal squad visited the crime scene and defused some live explosives. It is said that the bombs were ieds made from pipes. It is unlikely that RDX was used because it could have triggered a larger and more devastating blast.
On 4 October, the police reopened the crime scene and allowed state teams to gather evidence. An Intelligence Bureau (IB) team stationed in Kolkata was not allowed to enter the scene, because the state government wanted to wait for the Central Forensic Science Laboratory staff to conduct their investigation. The IB did not take it well and leaked this news, leading to criticism of the state administration. The IB was later allowed into the crime scene as well as allowed to be present during the interrogation of the two arrested women. The NIA team reportedly received the same treatment until the local police got clearance from the police headquarters in Kolkata.
The police have started to round up anyone whom the two people had called. On 6 October, the police arrested Hafez Mollah from his residence in Khar Duttapada in Nadia district (bordering Burdwan). The next day, they arrested Sheikh, who was recuperating from his injuries.
After initial investigation, the CID team are looking for two people — Kausar, a Bangladeshi national, and Abul Kalam Sheikh, who hails from Mongolkote village, located 35 km north of Burdwan. It is suspected that they are members of Bangladesh-based terror outfit Jamaat-ul Mujahideen.
The police claim that Abul Kalam Sheikh ran away from home eight years ago, become a maulvi and later joined the terror outfit. They say that he had married a woman in Purbostholi and settled there. But when TEHELKA visited his native village in Mangalkote block of Burdwan district, his family and neighbours had a different story to tell.
Abul’s mother and younger brother, a minor, were at home, while the eldest, Salam, was hiding from the police.
On 3 October, cops in civvies barged into the house while Sheikh’s mother was reading the Quran. “They said Kalam was calling them and so I asked to speak with my son because I have not spoken with him for years,” she says.
Then they seized a motorcycle and cycle belonging to Salam and several documents. They also took away several of Abul’s male relatives for questioning and detained them late into the night. “They took our mortgage documents, loan papers, voter ID cards, title deeds and in the process vandalised our house,” Abul’s mother laments.
The family survives on agriculture. The police saw pipes for irrigation kept in the courtyard and enquired as to why they were storing pipes in the house. Similar questions were asked about why they had so many drums of water.
Salam had not yet returned home from the field that evening and he decided to stay elsewhere for the time being. Abul’s mother claimed that a policeman had said they want to haul Salam in for questioning and said she is afraid for his safety. Another son, who is an embroider in Sorahat, has been advised to stay away as well.
The family said that eight years ago, Abul had left after an argument with Salam over working in the fields. Abul was not willing to be obedient to the elder Salam and would work only when he wanted to and did not want to take orders. It led to a fight and the next time they saw him was around six years ago when he had to get his voter’s id card made. Abul had not come back when his father passed away because nobody knew how to get in touch with him.
The only news anyone had of Abul was from neighbours. A neighbour, Ijazul Sheikh, works as a bus conductor and said that he had seen Abul several times in Burdwan town. “A few years ago, I saw him sifting paper and plastic from garbage. We spoke for a while. He grew his beard long as per Islamic tradition but he was not a maulvi,” says Ijazul.
According to villagers, Abul had never been to a madrasa but studied until Class IX at the local government school. They said he did not have any major religious inclinations.
“A month or two ago, I saw him plying a cyclerickshaw in the town and he smiled and waved at me. I refuse to believe that he could have done any such thing,” adds Ijazul.
There are fears that the terror incident in Burdwan will result in the persecution of innocent, poor Muslim youth.
Gourishankar Banerjee, an academician at the University of Burdwan, is writing a book on jihad, global terrorism and Islamophobia. He has been tracking the phenomenon around the world and had not found any symptoms in his own backyard, but fears that it might happen now.
“This area was a symbol of communal harmony and we never saw communal riots in contemporary history even when the rest of the country was burning,” he says. “The fear-mongering that follows such incidents usually triggers off polarisation and it has begun. Already people, including scholars, are afraid of sitting and discussing the incident and the responses that must follow. Bengal had stayed away from this, but now political forces will demonise the community using this incident as a trigger.”