Praveen Swami

The militant outfit’s commander started life in a Mumbai slum

NEW DELHI: Ever since Mumbai police investigators arrested Sadiq Israr Sheikh on his way to work in September, Indians have followed the unfolding story of the man charged with co-founding the Indian Mujahideen — the authors of a terror campaign that claimed hundreds of lives since it began in 2005.

But one part of his story has gone untold: in a grim variation on Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire’s rags-to-riches story, Sheikh’s journey to become a top jihad commander began in a Mumbai slum.

Born in 1978, Sheikh’s life began at a time when his family’s fortunes had started looking up. Like many working-class migrants in Mumbai, Sheikh’s Azamgarh-origin parents had been compelled to make a suburban Mumbai slum their home. But two years before Sheikh was born, the slum was relocated to make way for the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and its inhabitants moved to a sprawling project known as Cheeta Camp.

Over the next few years, many families in Cheeta Camp fought their way into the ranks of Mumbai’s middle-class: the neighbourhood today, a mosaic of Hindus and Muslims from many different regions of India, is home to many professionals and entrepreneurs.

As a small child, Sheikh was compelled by family circumstances to move to Azamgarh with his mother. He studied there until the fifth grade, before returning to Mumbai to finish high school. He started work as an air-conditioning mechanic.

It was around this time the Mumbai police investigators say, that Sheikh joined the Students Islamic Movement of India as an Ikhwan — or ‘brother.’ He remained in the organisation until 1999.

It is likely that his experiences of the anti-Muslim pogrom that tore Mumbai apart in 1993 shaped his world view — although, it is important to note, Cheeta Camp itself was unaffected by the violence. Even today, the Sheikh family lives surrounded by Hindu neighbours, most of whom are sceptical of claims that he was involved in the 2006 bombings.

Birth of the Indian Mujahideen

If the police investigation is accurate, it was probably during his three years in SIMI that Sheikh met the men who are alleged to have helped him found the Indian Mujahideen.

Like Sheikh, Altaf Subhan Qureshi was the son of working-class migrants from north India. However, Qureshi received elite education — first at the Antonio D’Souza High School and then at the Bharatiya Vidyapeeth. In 1996, he began working as a software engineer, specialising in network solutions. Qureshi had joined SIMI around the same time. Later, he edited the SIMI-affiliated journal Islamic Voice.

Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri, too, was the son of migrants. His father, Ismail Shahbandri, had moved from coastal Karnataka to set up a leather-tanning works in Mumbai’s Kurla area — a business that paid for the now-fugitive Indian Mujahideen operative’s education in English-medium schools and the Saboo Siddiqui Engineering College

All three men, the investigators believe, were present at SIMI’s 1999 conference in Kanpur. Sheikh Yasin, the head of the Palestinian Hamas and the Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islamic chief Qazi Husain Ahmad, were among those who delivered speeches on telephone. Seven-year-old Gulrez Siddiqui was reported to have been trotted out in front of the estimated 20,000-strong crowd to read out this couplet: “Islam ka ghazi, butshikan, Mera sher, Osama bin Laden” (Warrior of Islam, destroyer of idols/My lion, Osama bin Laden).”

In 2001, the year SIMI was proscribed by the Government of India, the three men began their jihadist journeys. Qureshi submitted a letter of resignation to his employers, saying he intended to “devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters.” He is alleged to have trained with the Lashkar in Pakistan soon after. Shahbandri, in turn, joined the ranks of mafioso Amir Raza Khan, who had set up a jihadist group called the Asif Raza Commando Force.

For his part, Sheikh is alleged to have travelled to Hyderabad. He stayed, the police say, at the Jamiat-ul-Sheikh Mawdudi, a seminary named after South Asia’s leading Islamist ideologue. It was here, they say, that Sheikh made contact with the Lashkar, before travelling to its training camps in Pakistan with Sheikh’s assistance. They believe the first of those trips was made in 2001, when Sheikh was working at a Dubai electronics store owned by Khan.

After the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, the police believe, the three men set about putting their Lashkar training to use. But in the wake of the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, Sheikh is believed to have told the police, he began distancing himself from the Indian Mujahideen. He acquired a computer hardware repair qualification, and began working at the Mumbai-based CMS Computer Maintenance Institute in the city’s Marol area. Sheikh is thought to have claimed he played only a minor role in the post-2006 attacks.

Asad Sheikh disputes the police account. “My brother,” he says, “never trained in Pakistan, or killed anyone. Our family is being defamed.”

In the weeks to come, courts in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and New Delhi — all States hit by Indian Mujahideen-related bombings — will put these competing claims to the test.

Corrections and Clarifications

In a report "Indian Mujahideen chief Sadiq Sheikh's Slumdog story" (March6, 2009), the ninth paragraph had a reference to Altaf Subhan Qureshihaving edited the SIMI-affiliated journal Islamic Voice. It should have beenIslamic Movement. (The Bangalore-based Islamic Voice is edited, publishedand printed by A.W. Sadathullah Khan.)