Kolkata: All India Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has now…
Burdwan, Ajit Sahi, (OutlookIndia): Dead men tell no tales. But those they leave behind can, and do. In the case of Karim Sheikh, the tale his family has to tell blasts a cannonball through investigators’ claims about the provenance of an explosion in a house in Burdwan town of West Bengal on October 2. Indeed, the family’s claims, made to Outlook in videographed interviews, threaten to upend the narrative—of Bangladesh-based Islamic terrorism waiting to rip apart West Bengal—offered by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the centre’s terror investigator. The family’s testimony puts a big question mark over the integrity of the NIA’s probe.
In the NIA’s telling, Karim was one of the five people inside an apartment in Khagragarh, a low-income, largely Muslim locality of Burdwan town, 110 km northwest of Calcutta, when a bomb went off in it shortly before noon on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. When the local police arrived and broke into the room of the explosion, they found a man blown to pieces, a youth critically wounded, and another man badly injured. The youth would die at the hospital within three hours of reaching there. A month and ten days later, the NIA said his name was Karim Sheikh.
On November 12, a Burdwan police officer named Gautam Halder wrote to the government hospital, where the youth’s body had lain at the morgue since the post-mortem on October 3, that the “deceased has been identified as Karim Sk s/o Jamshed” and that the “dead body has been identified by Jamshed Sk” and, therefore, “the dead body of Karim Sk may kindly be handed over to Jamshed….” Later that day, a grief-stricken Jamshed, a roadside vegetable seller in a small town named Kirnahar 60 km north of Burdwan, brought his dead son home and buried him.
But there’s a hitch: Jamshed says he did not identify the body as his son’s. “The body had rotted,” Jamshed told Outlook this week. “Nobody in the village could recognise it.” Incredibly, Jamshed says he told the NIA officials he couldn’t identify the body. So why did he accept it?
Jamshed says NIA officials pushed him into accepting it. According to him, his son Karim left home two months before the blast to find work as a construction labourer in Kerala. He had not called or written home since. “NIA officials came to my house and showed me a picture of my dead son on a cellphone,” Jamshed says. When he said he could not identify the body from the photo on the cellphone, they coerced him into doing their bidding. They say the grainy photo on the cellphone showed the head and upper torso of a youth, upwards from a little below the nipples. The youth in the photo did not appear to have any wounds. But, say Jamshed and his nephew Amirul, who accompanied him to the morgue, the body that was handed over to them had its chest and face partly blown, as from an explosion. In addition to this major discrepancy, what bothered them was they could not have in any way identified the body they were shown, blast-marked as it seemed.
Indeed, the post-mortem report, too, says the body had “(1) multiple abraded bruises of size varying from 0.2” x 0.2” to 1.4” x 1” over rt. side of face, (2) lacerated wound 3” x 1” x bone (stitched) over right frontal area of head, (3) abrasion 3” x 1.5”
Several questions arise: Why did the NIA write that Jamshed had identified the body when he hadn’t? Why did the NIA show Jamshed a cellphone picture and not hard copies by an official police photographer? What is the legal validity of a cellphone picture? Why was Jamshed shown only one picture? And if Jamshed did not identify the body, why did the NIA not call for a DNA test?
From Burdwan To Bangladesh
Of course, the body might well be Karim’s. But the need to prove that conclusively is especially crucial, given the dangerous levels politics over the issue has escalated to since the explosion. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has accused West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee of letting Islamic extremism grow roots. Hysterical news media, especially in the state, has been running in a loop news of a slew of arrests. Police in Bangladesh, too, have made arrests in that country.
An embattled Mamata has shot back, with her confidant Derek O’Brien, a Rajya Sabha MP from her Trinamool Congress (TMC), upping the ante this week, accusing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of being behind the explosion. The TMC says the RSS wants to polarise West Bengal’s Hindus and one-quarter Muslims. O’Brien stunningly also accused National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, a key Modi lieutenant who’s closely monitoring the NIA probe, of organising the blast on the RSS’s behalf.
It is in this context that the youth’s identity has the potential to tilt politics in West Bengal, besides, of course, becoming the difference between sectarian catastrophe and amity. The first reports of the explosion had said the youth had identified himself as Swapan Mandal, which would mean he was a Hindu. But police subsequently said the youth had also called himself Suvan or Subhan Mandal, suggesting he might have been a Muslim. Of course, Karim Sheikh was decidedly Muslim. Clearly, given this ambiguity, the NIA should have made sure that his identity was established beyond doubt.
Inexplicably, while police and the NIA questioned the apartment’s landlord, Mohammad Hassan Choudhury, for 13 days after the explosion, they failed to ask him to identify the dead. The NIA says the other man to die in the explosion was Shakeel Ahmed. The landlord’s testimony could be crucial. He’d rented out the house to Shakeel four months earlier. And, as he lives right in front of the building, ran into him frequently. The ground floor of the building where the blast happened has a garage and a shop rented to a dealer in car seats and covers. Next to it is a clinic run by Choudhury’s homoeopath son; this, some reports say, also housed a TMC office of sorts (Choudhury apparently being a part-time TMC man)—the party vehemently denies this. Police have shuttered the shop and locked the staircase leading upstairs. The clinic continues to function.
After building the first-floor apartment in 2010, Choudhury had rented it to some students and then to a security guard. It fell vacant in December. In May-end, Shakeel and a man who called himself Kausar Ali came to meet Choudhury to rent the apartment. “Shakeel was fair, had a beard and dressed smartly in pants and a T-shirt,” Choudhury recalls. Kausar was cleanshaven and wore a half-sleeved shirt with pants. They said they manufactured burqas and nighties in Murshidabad, about 140 km north of Burdwan, and wanted to expand the business.
A rent of Rs 4,200 a month was settled. “I set only two conditions,” says Choudhury. “Bring your family and sign an agreement.” On June 2, Kausar, his wife and Shakeel moved in. Choudhury would run into the two men in the lane outside and chit-chat. “Both had motorcycles and would go off every day.” About 15 days later, Shakeel told Choudhury that Kausar and his wife had left. Shortly, Shakeel brought his wife and three small children. “Shakeel’s wife always wore a burqa and hardly ever stepped out,” says Choudhury. Muslim women in the locality don’t observe purdah. Sometimes, her older children played in the lane. Mostly, though, they created a hell-raising racket inside. Choudhury never felt welcome to visit them. “It was a mistake,” he says, “that I didn’t visit.”
In August, Choudhury began seeing a new man leave the house every day around 8 am. At times this man—who Choudhury presumes is Abdul Hakim, the blast survivor—would greet him before cycling away. “He was young and had a black beard,” says Choudhury. Around September 15, he saw a burqa-clad woman, presumably Hakim’s wife, ride pillion with him. “I would ask Shakeel about Hakim but he never gave a clear answer.” Ten days or so before the blast, Choudhury began seeing a youth leave the house every day around 7 am. This, he now assumes, must have been Swapan/Suvan/ Subhan/Karim. Shakeel appears to have been a devout Muslim. He once admonished Choudhury for not always wearing the skullcap as he should, having performed the Haj. The last time Choudhury ran into Shakeel was on September 30. “I told him he must sign the agreement or vacate the house,” Choudhury says. “I asked him to pay the rent before Bakr Id, on October 6.”
When the blast took place on October 2, Choudhury was about to shower. He heard the bang and ran out. With others from the neighbourhood, he rushed up the staircase to the apartment. Police would shortly find two women in another room. They were later identified as wives of Shakeel and Hakim. After they were brought out of the room, Choudhury says he spoke with Razia, Shakeel’s wife—the first ever time in four months he had done so—and asked her what had happened. “She said she knew nothing as the men would always lock them up,” he says.
While not showing him the bodies or taking him to identify the survivor, the NIA asked Choudhury to identify the two women, though he had never seen their faces. Choudhury also described Kausar Ali, the man who rented the house with Shakeel, for an investigators’ sketch. Indeed, the NIA hasn’t even asked Hakim’s father, who sells clothes on his bicycle in his village in the neighbouring Birbhum district 120 km north, to identify him. “Hakim left home three years ago and worked a cycle rickshaw in Burdwan,” his father, Shah Jamal, told Outlookat his home. Hakim had last visited him in March.
Perhaps the most startling testimony is of a man named Parvez Khan, who claims to be a police informer and lives in Khagragarh less than half a kilometre from the crime scene. He claims he was the first to enter the blast scene with local police officers and had taken the wounded Swapan/ Subhan/ Karim to the hospital. “It was to me he first said his name was Swapan Mandal and then Subhan Mandal,” says Khan. “He gave the name of his village as Nairodigi.”
Once at the hospital, Khan tied the feet and hands of Swapan/ Subhan/ Karim to the bed posts on the doctors’ instructions. “His face was covered in blood, his right eye was blown off completely and there was a gaping wound in his chest,” says Khan. Shown the photograph the NIA had showed Jamshed, Khan said the body in the picture did not have the wounds he had seen on the body. Willing to give his testimony, he claims the police have actually told him to lie low. Khan also insists the critically wounded man was uncircumcised. Karim had been circumcised as a child.
Interestingly, the NIA identified Karim’s body only after it arrested a man named Amjad Sheikh, nicknamed Kajol, on November 10. The NIA said Kajol identified the body as that of his first cousin (father’s sister’s son) Karim, and confessed that he had been responsible for involving Karim in bomb-making. The NIA claims Kajol is a top functionary of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, a terror organisation in Bangladesh. The NIA had even announced an award of Rs 10 lakh for his arrest.
But Kajol’s father, Shukur Sheikh, a small grocer in Kirnahar, doubts his son could be an Islamic jehadi. “My son was active in SFI,” he says. The Students Federation of India is the students body of the CPI(M), a fact that according to his father precluded such a possibility. “My son only had Hindu friends, most of them were from the SFI,” Shukur says. Kajol had done his BA at Shambhunath College in Birbhum district, and was the cultural secretary of the left students’ union in 2007-08. An invitation card announcing a welcome ceremony for freshers in 2008 names him thus.
After failing a test for a government teacher’s post, Kajol moved to Calcutta four years ago and found work sticking labels on bottles at a drug company, says Shukur. (According to news reports quoting unnamed NIA sources, Kajol supplied the chemicals for the bomb-making.) Two years ago, Kajol had married. His wife and daughter stay in the village.
Shukur says around October 14-15, NIA officials visited him at his shop to ask him about his son. Kajol’s name had begun appearing as a suspect. Shukur says that, fearing for his life, Kajol had absconded from his work in Calcutta. “The NIA officials repeatedly told me they needed Kajol for questioning and would not arrest him,” Shukur says. Kajol came down to meet his father on the night of November 9. The next morning Shukur took him to the NIA, who promptly arrested him.
Yet another resident of Kirnahar who dreads the NIA call is Sirajur Rehman, a 60-year-old leather trader, who is being asked about his eldest son, Mustafizur Rehman. “I have told them he left for Chennai with his wife and child in August and hasn’t contacted us since,” he says. Mustafizur’s wife is the sister-in-law of one Yusuf, who the NIA claims trained Muslim girls in terrorism in his madrassa at a village named Shimulia, 40 km north of Burdwan. It is being claimed that the two women found at the house of the explosion had been trained there. A visit to Shimulia village revealed the said madrassa to be a structure about 50 feet by 20 feet, of mud walls and roofed with baked tiles. Neighbours said it only taught young girls who resided there. At the time of the explosion, the madrassa was closed for Id vacation. Yusuf’s brother, who lives in a nearby village, said Yusuf had come home for Id but his whereabouts now were not known. The police now occupy the madrassa. Two policemen who were inside refused to talk to this correspondent or let him in. Efforts to meet police officers as well as those of the NIA who are camping in Burdwan proved fruitless. None of them would talk.
Twists And Strange Turns
The lapses in identification that throw a question mark over the National Investigation Agency’s probe of the Burdwan blast
Mohammad Hassan Chaudhary
Amjad Sheikh alias Kajol
(L-R) TMC leader Mukul Roy; BJP chief Amit Shah
|Questions For Mamata||Questions For BJP|
By Ajit Sahi in Burdwan and Birbhum