Harvest of hate

Print edition : March 24, 2006

The site of the bomb explosion at the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi on March 8. - RAJESH KUMAR SINGH/AP

For Hindu fundamentalist politicians and their Islamist doppelgangers, the jehad has offered an opportunity to make political gains from violence.

ALL that remains, now the dead are cremated and the television cameras have begun to disappear, are the detritus of the terror: the fragments of metal and chemical residue laid out on forensic analysts' tables in New Delhi; the video images of the bomber who targeted the Sankat Mochan temple which were captured by a wedding photographer in the last moments of his life; sketches of suspects that will be posted on railway station walls.

In weeks or months to come, when those who executed the outrage are arrested or killed, the grief of the families of those who died at Varanasi will likely be briefly revisited - and then displaced by the next hideous bombing that takes lives elsewhere in India. Perhaps the most tragic truth about Varanasi is this: what happened was neither exceptional nor unexpected, just an exclamation mark in the long jehad against India.

Anxious to reassure Uttar Pradesh residents that another terror strike is not imminent - and to stem an opportunistic Hindu fundamentalist mobilisation that seeks capital from fear - State authorities have been proclaiming rapid investigative progress. In fact, investigative work on the carnage in Varanasi is still at an early stage. Experts have established that low-grade ammonium nitrate-based explosive was packed inside pressure cookers to fabricate devices used by Lashkar-e-Taiba cells operating outside of Jammu and Kashmir - but little else. Put simply, available evidence illustrates a bleak truth: one of dozens of cells carried out the strikes.

What we do know about the perpetrators of the Varanasi bombings is who did not do it. Less than 12 hours after the explosions at the Sankat Mochan temple and the railway station in Varanasi, police raids led to the elimination of two of the Lashkar-e-Taiba's top operatives, Mohammad Salim bin-Aziz and Ghulam Yazdani. The elimination of 43-year-old bin-Aziz in a pre-dawn raid in Lucknow's Gosainganj area was of particular significance: it marked the end of the 20-year terror career of one of the most wanted, and most enigmatic pan-India operative of the Lashkar.

On the run from the police in Ujjain and Ratlam where he was wanted on organised crime and murder charges, bin-Aziz was recruited by a cleric at the Deoband seminary in 1989. The Ratlam resident trained at Rawalpindi in Pakistan, and was assigned command of a Harkat ul-Ansar unit which operated in the Anantnag area from 1991. Two years later, the terrorist - perhaps the only Indian citizen from outside of Jammu and Kashmir ever to command a jehadi combat group in the State - disappeared.

Bin-Aziz resurfaced in 2001 leading a Lashkar combat unit in Rajouri. In mid-2003 he was pulled out of Jammu and Kashmir and ordered to help develop new Lashkar cells across India. Last summer, bin-Aziz played a central role in organising an abortive attack on cadets at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun. Two Pakistani members of the Lashkar's assault team, Mohammad Sadiq and Mohammad Shahnawaz, were later killed by the Delhi Police along with Pervez Ahmad, a resident of Bihar.

The police in Handwara began tracking bin-Aziz after he contacted a Lashkar unit active in the frontier district late last year, attempting to arrange large-scale supplies of weapons and explosives to a terror cell based out of Kanpur. The Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group was able to infiltrate a mole who led them to the terrorist's Lucknow safe house. However, the fact that bin-Aziz was searching for explosives suggests his cells did not have what was needed to execute the Varanasi strikes.

Like bin-Aziz, Ghulam Yazdani was among the Lashkar's most valuable assets in India. A resident of Hyderabad's Toli Chowki area, Yazdani was among 14 Hyderabad residents who were recruited to train in Pakistan after the communal pogrom in Gujarat the previous year. While recruits who possessed passports travelled to Pakistan through a scheduled flight from Kolkata to Bangkok, the others travelled through Dhaka after crossing the India-Bangladesh border on foot.

In 2003, Yazdani - who also used the alias Naved Gul - returned to India to execute the assassination of former Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya. Pandya was killed in reprisal for his role in the communal pogrom that had ripped apart the State. Soon after, Yazdani again travelled across the India-Bangladesh border to Dhaka, from where he began recruiting cadre from the ranks of the Harkat ul-Jihad Islami's Bangladesh wing.

In February, the Delhi Police arrested two of Yazdani's Bangladeshi recruits, the twin brothers Anishul Murshlin and Muhibul Muttakin. Yazdani, the twins confirmed, had executed at least two major strikes in India, including the bombing of a Delhi-Patna train near Jaunpur. Yazdani had also organised an attack on the Andhra Pradesh Police Special Task Force's offices in October. Murshlin and Muttakin said that a third bomb recovered in Hyderabad last year was intended for use in Bangalore.

Yazdani may, then, have had some role in last year's attack on the Indian Institute of Science - but no evidence exists that he or bin-Aziz had anything to do with the Varanasi bombings. Someone else did, perhaps a new cell that is still unknown.

Is Uttar Pradesh, as some breathless media commentary has claimed, emerging as a major terrorist hub? That such questions are being asked at all illustrates the spectacularly amnesiac nature of Indian public discourse on terrorism. Journalists shocked by Varanasi seem to have obliterated from their memory the April 27, 1996, bombing of a bus in Roorkee by the Harkat ul-Ansar, which claimed 16 lives. Only passing mention was made of the Yazdani cell's train bombing in Jaunpur, in which 12 people were killed and 52 injured.

Questions like `why now' and `why Varanasi' are fundamentally misplaced. Data obtained by Frontline make it clear that Uttar Pradesh has not only now become a target for Islamist terror. Like most Indian States, it has seen sustained levels of jehadi violence for the past several years. Since 2001, Uttar Pradesh has seen the interdiction of at least 22 cells linked to Pakistan-based jehadi groups, in operations which led to the elimination of 10 terrorists, mainly Pakistani nationals, and 34 arrests.

Levels of terrorist activity in Uttar Pradesh, the data show, have risen steadily since 2001. In April that year, the Uttar Pradesh Police killed three Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists in Lucknow, after the Intelligence Bureau detected the first of what would be a series of terrorist attempts to target the makeshift temple that now stands on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Operatives of the Lashkar, Hizbul Mujahideen and Harkat were arrested later that year, while three terrorists were killed in a shootout at Bijnore. Arrests of jehadi cadre became more frequent from 2003, a year in which intelligence-led operations led to the uncovering of four cells of the Jaish alone. Last summer, further signs of an offensive became evident. In May 2005, the police arrested Lashkar operatives Sadat Rashid and Masood Alam, who were attempting to recruit seminary students in Bihar and Jharkhand. Last July, Lashkar recruiters Mohammad Hanif and Yamin Ahmad were arrested on the basis of information provided by the Assam Police.

Despite these arrests, terrorist strikes continued apace. On July 5 six Jaish fidayeen (suicide attackers) were shot dead as they attempted to storm the makeshift temple in Ayodhya, an act calculated to spark communal violence. Investigators soon discovered that the attack had been facilitated by cells run by new recruits from Deoband, Saharanpur and Delhi. Just two weeks later came the bombing of the Delhi-Patna Shramjeevi Express near Jaunpur, making clear that other terror cells with lethal capabilities remained operational.

On February 1, less than six weeks before the Varanasi bombings, Kolkata Police Commissioner Prasun Mukherjee told journalists that his force had arrested a Lashkar operative who had planned to execute strikes across urban centres in north and east India. Kolkata resident Tariq Akhtar, Mukherjee said, had stored 16 electronic detonators and a laptop containing bomb-making manuals in a safe house in Jamshedpur. A third cell member had travelled north to study reconnaissance on targets. Looking back, Mukherjee's press conference has a special resonance: the third cell member, Zubeid Ahmad, was arrested from Varanasi.

Nalagonda, Almatti, Bangalore, Chintamani, Mumbai, New Delhi: from these cities, 14 members of nine Islamist terror cells were arrested between January 3 and February 27 this year. Records obtained by Frontline make clear that the threat from jehadi groups across India is growing, even as levels of violence in their core theatre of operations, Jammu and Kashmir, have fallen. In all of 2005, for example, fewer Pakistan-linked cells - excluding spies - were detected than in just the first eight weeks of this year. Not counting the Jammu and Kashmir-based squad that executed the serial bombings in Delhi, only eight jihadi cells were discovered. In 2004, the level was even lower - just six.

If nothing else, the figures demolish claims by the Bharatiya Janata Party that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been soft on terrorism. In reality, the origins and course of the long jehad has not a little to do with the BJP's own practice of politics. In 1985, incensed by successive communal pogroms, Andhra Pradesh resident Azam Ghauri and Uttar Pradesh's Abdul Karim `Tunda' set up a vigilante organisation that provided the Lashkar with an operational apparatus outside of Jammu and Kashmir.

Led by Ghauri and Karim, a Mumbai-based doctor named Jalees Ansari helped set off a series of 43 explosions in Mumbai and Hyderabad and seven separate explosions on trains on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the Babri Masjid's demolition - the first Lashkar strike.

In Hyderabad, meanwhile, the Lashkar succeeded in tapping the resources of mafia organisations communalised by the pogroms unleashed by Hindu fanatics in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

With local networks in place, top jehadi commanders were able to operate outside Jammu and Kashmir with ease. In 1998, for example, Lashkar operative Abdul Sattar, a resident of Pakistan's Faisalabad district, was able to use his contacts to set up a terror base in the town of Khurja. In August 1999, the police discovered an 11-member Lashkar unit led by Pakistan national Amir Khan, which operated out of Bhiwandi in Maharashtra. Khan, they discovered, was planning to marry a local woman to strengthen his cover.

Similarly, top Lashkar activist Mohammad Salim Junaid, a resident of Kala Gujran village in Pakistan's Jhelum district, made deep links in the local community using local recruits. Junaid had begun his career with the Lashkar-e-Taiba in 1991 as a foot soldier for the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. He rose rapidly through the organisation's hierarchy as a protege of Azam Cheema who was in charge of the trans-border movements of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Junaid had married a Hyderabadi woman and set up a spare-parts export enterprise.

What happened in Varanasi, then, has little to do with the politics of the UPA or recent global Islamist mobilisations. It was driven by the irreducible hatred Pakistani Islamists have for India; a hatred born in the fires that led to the Partition of India, and fed by the fires that have raged after independence.

Most Indian jehad recruits have not personally experienced communal violence, but the fact is that pogroms have vested Islamist terrorism with the aura of just vengeance.

Former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's assertion that the Varanasi bombings were the consequence of "competitive minority appeasement" illustrates just why the terrorism war is nowhere near being won by India: for politicians like him, and to his doppelgangers on the Islamist side of the ideological fence, jehad is in fact a god-sent opportunity to reap a harvest of hate.

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