Zabiuddin Ansari’s story holds up a mirror to a society made dysfunctional by communal fissures

Late on the night of 26/11, over a voice-over-internet line that linked the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)’s control room in Karachi to its assault team in Mumbai, Zabiuddin Ansari read out the words that had sent 10 men across the Arabian Sea to kill 164 people in a city they had never seen.

“We want all the Muslims in Indian prisons to be released,” Mr. Ansari said. “Muslim states should be handed back to Muslims. The army should be withdrawn from Kashmir, and Kashmiris given their rights. The land on which the Babri Masjid stood should be handed over to Muslims, and the mosque should be rebuilt.” He condemned India’s “two-track policy” on Muslims: “the government pats us on the back, but its administration hits us on the head.”

For many Indians, he is the face of a malevolent and mindless evil. His manifesto, however, holds up a mirror to a society made dysfunctional by communal fissures. Mr. Ansari might have been nurtured by the LeT, and patronised by Pakistan’s intelligence services — but he was just one of dozens of young men from his milieu who made the decision to join the jihadist movement, for reasons entirely made in India.

From talk to terror

In 1993, a stocky teenager made his way from the small mountain hamlet of Hanslot, near Thana Mandi in Poonch, to the great seminary of Dar-ul-Uloom Falah-e-Darain at Tarkeshwar, in Gujarat. Muhammad Aslam Sardana — “Aslam Kashmiri” to his friends — had been packed off by his family in the hope that a rigorous religious education would still his rebelliousness. The mountain pastures around Thana Mandi had begun to become training grounds for Kashmiri jihadists, and Mr. Sardana’s parents did not want their son to end up in an unmarked grave.

For the next nine years, his teachers kept his nose to the Koran; he earned the clerical titles Hafiz and Qari. The clerics at Tarkeshwar encouraged little else: even a surreptitious visit to a movie theatre outside the seminary’s high walls could earn severe punishments.

But the Dar-ul-Uloom’s walls, though, couldn’t block out the searing political winds that were sweeping through India in the early 1990s. The Babri Masjid had been demolished in 1992, and the murderous nationwide communal violence that followed radicalised thousands of young men. Mr. Sardana, his contemporaries recall, used to tell contemporaries that jihad, not clerical study, was necessary to help Islam in India survive. He spoke of contacts with the Lashkar, and sometimes promised to take volunteers to train in Poonch.

Muhammad Amir Sheikh, the son of a watch-repairman from Maharashtra’s Beed town, was one of the few impressed by Mr. Sardana’s message. Ever since he turned four years old, in 1981, Mr Sheikh had studied at a madrasa, just like his two brothers. He met with Mr. Sardana in 1995-1996, during a six-month stint at the Dar-ul-Uloom that was ended by illness. Mr. Sardana’s radicalism appeared to have an abiding influence on him.

Back home in Aurangabad, Mr. Sheikh began to earn a living running the “Tawakkal Tawa Spot,” a popular, if improbably named, street-side Chinese restaurant. He also became increasingly involved with the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). “Islam is our nation,” he declaimed at its 1999 convention in Aurangabad, “not India.”

The Aurangabad jihadists

In 2001, a series of events conspired to give those words weight. Following the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Afghanistan’s Islamist regime, SIMI took out processions hailing Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar as a hero of the faith. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) capitalised on the opportunity, and burned copies of the Koran. Riots broke out across the country, the most widespread violence since December 1992. Mr. Sheikh was arrested on charges on rioting in Aurangabad; he remains listed in police records as a fugitive in the case.

Then, in 2002, India’s worst anti-Muslim pogrom in decades began in Gujarat. The lives of ten of thousands of Muslims changed for ever. The lives of the small group of SIMI volunteers Mr. Sheikh had gathered would also be transfigured.

Mr. Sardana and Mr. Sheikh met for the first time in years after the riots, at an annual convocation for the Dar-ul-Uloom’s students. The conversation turned, once again, to the prospect of finding volunteers to train with the Lashkar in Poonch. Mr. Sheikh, by his account to Maharashtra Police investigators, pleaded ill-health and family responsibilities. In 2005, though, he brought Mr. Sardana to Aurangabad, to meet with a small group of SIMI radicals he thought might be interested in signing up for jihad training.

Three of the six young students — Mirza Fahd Beig, Nisar Ansari and Asad Ansari — who investigators believe met with Mr. Sardana on that visit, left for Poonch. Beig was killed by the Indian Army soon after, in an encounter at Hil Kaka. For years, his family insisted that he was working as an electrician in Dubai; their hope has only waned. The other two men are presumed to have made it to Pakistan; no one, though, knows for certain.

For months after, the Aurangabad group was torn by dissension. The deaths lead some to charge Mr. Sheikh with being a police informer, even a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent. Mr. Sheikh himself seemed to begin to have doubts about the project. In August 2005, he travelled to Poonch to meet with Mr. Sardana’s Lashkar contacts. Faced with pressure to travel to Pakistan, he again cried off, saying his marriage was imminent. His travelling companion, Bilal Abdul Razak, was rejected by the Lashkar; the professional calligrapher’s thick spectacles made him unfit for soldiering.

Leadership of the group, following these failures, was taken up by Zabiuddin Ansari. The son of an insurance agent, and the only brother of four sisters, Mr. Ansari had grown up in modest circumstances. He graduated as an electrician from the Indian Technical Institute (ITI) in Beed, and worked briefly before joining a graduate course at the Government Degree College in Aurangabad. There, he gravitated towards a splinter group of SIMI radicals, his anger fuelled like those of so many others by the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Investigators believe Mr. Ansari, along with his close friend Fayyaz Zulfikar “Kagazi,” travelled to Kathmandu in the autumn of 2005, and met with senior Lashkar commanders to take their plans forward.

On the afternoon of May 9, 2006, those plans became public: based on information provided by the Intelligence Bureau, Maharashtra Police pulled over a truck carrying 16 assault rifles, 4,000 rounds of ammunition and 43 kilograms of plastic explosive, packed inside computer cases. Fahd Sheikh, who was in the vehicle, was held; a string of arrests followed. Mr. Ansari, who had been following in another car, escaped. For his part, Mr. Zulfikar had caught an Iran Air flight to Tehran that morning, and has not been sighted since.

What NIA says

Now, National Investigation Agency (NIA) sources say, Mr. Ansari has been filling them in on what happened between then and the night of 26/11: a journey by train to Kolkata; a land-crossing into Bangladesh; a Pakistani passport that led him through Bangkok to Karachi; six months in a Lashkar training camp near Muzaffarabad.

Mr. Ansari remained in touch with Mr. Sardana until 2009, when the Poonch resident was held by the Delhi Police. Intelligence sources say an intercepted call between the two men first led them to conclude that the Maharashtra-accented voice in the Mumbai control room was Mr. Ansari’s.

This, we know: Mr. Ansari isn’t the only young man to have made the choices he did after 2002. Irfan Moinuddin Attar, from Kolhapur, died in a shoot-out on the outskirts of southern Kashmir’s Tral town in May 2006. Gujarat’s Ayub Damarwala lies in an unmarked grave somewhere south of the Pir Panjal range. Dozens of others, unknown to Mr. Sardana and Mr. Ansari, joined the urban terrorist networks that came to be known as the Indian Mujahideen.

Zabiuddin Ansari, a bit-actor in 26/11, was no different from these young men. Indians need to reflect, though, on the politics of hate that gave him a part on the stage in those nights of maximum terror.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

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