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Updated: February 17, 2010 08:19 IST

In city scarred by terror, family confronts its demons

Praveen Swami
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Mohsin Ismail Chowdhury.
The Hindu Mohsin Ismail Chowdhury.

Ever since Saturday evening, when an improvised explosive device packed with ammonium nitrate, fuel oil and RDX ripped through the German Bakery, killing 10 people and injuring 60, Pune residents have been glued to their television sets.

In one small apartment at Manisha Complex, inside the city’s Kondwa Khurd area, the television was turned off that night — and hasn’t been turned on again.

Four-year-old kindergarten student Musaad Chowdhury and his six-year-old brother Bahaad Chowdhury, who made it into the first grade last year, would learn — if the television set was turned on — that their father has emerged as one of India’s best-known face of evil. That is news their mother, Nasreen Chowdhury, believes the children do not need to learn.

Mohsin Ismail Chowdhury, an alleged Indian Mujahideen operative who disappeared from the apartment a year and half ago, has been represented in the media as the likely perpetrator of the German Bakery bombing. Linked to a terror cell which carried out bombings in Maharashtra and Gujarat two years ago, Mohsin has had no contact with his family or children.

Police are less convinced. While the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s networks are indeed emerging as the principal suspects for Saturday’s attacks, most investigators believe Mohsin was at most a bit-player in the Indian Mujahideen. Maharashtra police sources say they do not believe Mohsin was in Pune at the time of the attacks, although they are keen to apprehend him.

Mohsin’s story, though, casts light on the subterranean life of jihadist groups in a city that long thought it was insulated, by its prosperity and pluralism, from the violence that scars India.

Jihadist journey

Little is known about just how he came into contact with the Indian Mujahideen. The eldest of four brothers, Mohsin dropped out of school after the tenth grade and started work to support his family. He worked as an office assistant at Panchsheel Real Estate in Pune. He also set up a small used-car business along with his brother, Akbar Chowdhury, who made a living driving a rental-car the family saved up to purchase.

The sacrifices of the two older brothers helped open the door into a middle-class life for their siblings. Mohammad Tahsin Chowdhury, the third brother, graduated from university, and now works at the Halina Institute of Management in Pune’s Bhavanipeth area as a laboratory assistant. Mohammad Yasin Chowdhury, the youngest brother, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, and how works an International Business Machines call centre in Pune’s Saswad area.

No-one is certain just how Mohsin first came into contact with the Indian Mujahideen. The family has no known Islamist leanings: “we believe in the Quran, and we pray on Fridays,” says Yasin Chowdhury, “but we have no interest in any religious organisation.”

Khondwa’s political climate may have had something to do with Mohsin’s radicalisation. In the wake of the 1992-1993 riots in Mumbai, large numbers of Muslims left that city and moved to the safety of the Muslim-majority Khondwa pocket. Pune had no history of communal violence, but the migrants brought with them stories of horror — and laid the grounds for organisations such as the Students Islamic Movement of India to build local networks.

In 2002, many Khondwa families were personally hit by the violence in Gujarat, again fuelling resentment and anger.

Police say that Mohsin was likely recruited by Iqbal Shabandari — a Mumbai resident who, having started out as a fervent proselytiser for the largely-apolitical Tablighi Jamaat, became an Islamist ideologue who recruited several Pune men into the Indian Mujahideen. Iqbal Shahbandari’s brother Riyaz Ismail Shahbandari — also known as Riyaz Bhatkal, for the Mangalore-area village his family hails from — was a one-time Students Islamic Movement of India activist who is now the Indian Mujahideen’s top military commander.

Living in a rented apartment off Ashoka Mews in Khondwa, not far from the Chowdhury home, the brothers presided over networks that were to carry out multiple nationwide bombings.

In May, 2008, Riyaz Bhatkal is alleged to have tapped Mansoor Peerbhoy — a computer expert at Yahoo — to produce a manifesto for the media, explaining the motives that underlay its imminent bombings in Surat and Ahmedabad. Peerbhoy made at least four trips to Mumbai searching for unsecured wireless networks from where the manifestos could safely be mailed. Each time, he travelled in Akbar Chowdhury’s car, along with other Indian Mujahideen members.

Early on the morning of July 26, 2008, the police say, Mohsin and Akbar Chowdhury were part of a group which drove from Pune to Mumbai. The e-mail claiming responsibility for the July 26 attack — carried out on a Saturday, just as at Pune — was despatched at exactly 6.40 p.m.

Both the Shahbandri brothers disappeared from Pune weeks later. Peerbhoy was arrested along with several other Indian Mujahideen members, including Akbar Chowdhury. Mohsin left home after the arrests, saying he was going to enquire about when the police might release his brother.

He has not been seen by the family since. “He loved his children,” says Yasin Chowdhury, “I’m surprised he has never ever called, not even to talk just once to them.”

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