Patel was foot-soldier in battle stretching from Babri demolition and bombings in Mumbai to today's jihadists
For 17 years, police in half a dozen countries had hunted for Mohammad Hanif Umerji Patel, wanted in India for a 1993 bombing in Surat, which left 12 people injured and an eight-year-old girl dead.
Last month, authorities in the United Kingdom caught up with him in a neighbourhood grocer's shop in Bolton, 16 km from Manchester. Known to his friends as “Tiger Patel,” the fugitive will now face extradition proceedings. Seventeen men have so far been handed down sentences ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment for their role in the bombing.
Despite his fearsome nickname, Patel was something of a bit player in a still-unfinished communal war: a war involving Hindu-chauvinist groups, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, and the organised crime networks, which funded the birth of the modern jihadist movement in India.
In December 1992, Hindutva groups tore down the Babri Masjid. Hundreds died in the violence that followed — many at the hands of police who often sided with Hindutva groups.
In the midst of the rioting, a small group of Surat Muslims appealed to Ahmedabad ganglord Sheikh Abdul Latif for help. The former State Minister and Fisheries Board chairman Mohammad Surti, his son Farooq Surti, local Congress politician Iqbal Wadiwala, Husain Ghadiyali, Salim Chawal and Patel himself said they needed small arms to protect Surat's battered Muslims.
Having started out as a small-time bootlegger and gangster, Latif rose to the ranks of the State's most powerful figures by ruthlessly eliminating his rivals and making his resources available to the local Congress party. In 1987, then in jail facing trial on murder charges, he won elections from five Ahmedabad municipal wards. Later, he became a key lieutenant of Mumbai-born, Karachi-based Mafioso Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.
Latif, as it turned out, had just received a consignment of 57 Kalashnikov assault rifles, some 15,000 rounds of ammunition and several dozen grenades from Dawood Ibrahim, for just this purpose.
In February 1993, under intense pressure from both Pakistan's ISI and his clients in Mumbai's Muslim ghettos, the Karachi ganglord allowed his networks to stage reprisal attacks. From a confessional statement made by Dawood Ibrahim's lieutenant Usman Gani Merchant, we have some idea of what was discussed at the meeting where the decision was to be taken: “revenge was to be taken,” he recalled.
On March 12, 1993, Dawood Ibrahim's operatives set off 13 improvised explosive devices in Mumbai, killing more than 250 people — the largest terrorist attack in India's history, known as the Black Friday bombings. The explosives, grenades and assault rifles used in the revenge operation were provided by the ISI, which hoped to set off a communal war in India.
Fallout in Gujarat
Back in Ahmedabad, a Latif aide called Rasool Khan ‘Party', his nickname derived from a slang for businessman, handed Mohammad Surti and his associates relatively modest assets — two Kalashnikov assault rifles and 10 grenades. Patel was among the group which used the grenades to bomb Surat's railway station and a crowded marketplace. Latif's aides carried out eight similar grenade attacks in Ahmedabad, which claimed the lives of 10 people.
Investigators later raided Latif's safe houses in Ahmedabad's Dariapur area. The ganglord fled to Karachi after arranging for the dumping of his remaining cache of 30 assault rifles and grenades in Jharnea, Madhya Pradesh. The weapons were alleged — but never proved — to have been transported there by Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who was killed in a fake police encounter staged in 2005 by the Gujarat police.
In 1995, Latif returned to India after falling out with Dawood Ibrahim, and was killed in a controversial firefight. Meanwhile, Rasool Khan ‘Party' hid himself in Hyderabad, where he made contact with the controversial Islamist cleric Maulana Mohammad Naseeruddin. Following the murderous 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, Rasool Khan is alleged to have funded the travel of recruits raised by Naseeruddin to jihad training camps in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Maulana Naseeruddin is now serving time for his role in the assassination of the former Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya — an operation carried out by the cleric's recruits to avenge the politician's role in organising the anti-Muslim violence. Rasool Khan and Ahmedabad cleric Maulana Patangia, who helped to raise several jihadists along with Naseeruddin, are also said to be in Pakistan.
For his part, Patel jumped bail and made his way to the United Kingdom. His associates, Surti's son Farooq Surti, Salim Lala and Farooq Gajnabi, are also believed to be fugitives overseas.