Mud and bamboo structure where ‘training’ was allegedly received. Those running it are now absconding. (Express photo by Subham Dutta) – See more at:
Nine dilapidated rooms made of mud and bamboo, with peeling walls and a thatched roof, arranged in a rectangular shape. This is Simulia madrasa — the focus of a National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe, an alleged training ground for women “jihadis”, and the so-called nerve centre of a terror network linked to the Burdwan blast in West Bengal.
The Simulia cluster of five villages from which the madrasa derives its name, located around 35 km from Burdwan, is surprised at the charges. The villagers, mostly Muslim, say they saw no sign of such activities.
Findings of the probe so far, in fact, point to Simulia madrasa being a radical Islamic centre than a training ground for “jehadis”, with not one gun or any explosive being found. What is also clear is that it drew its girl students from outside the Simulia area. Barring one family, nobody from the villages here sent their girls there to study. Since the Burdwan blast though, Borhan Sheikh and Yousuf Sheikh, who helped set up the madrasa, are absconding.
The two had also bought land to set up another madrasa in Simulia, about half a kilometre away. Work on it has been halted.
According to the NIA, the Simulia madrasa was the centre for arms training for women cadres linked to the Jamaat-ul-Mujaheedin Bangladesh, with at least 25 of them receiving training there.
While most of these women, it claims, have gone underground, it is on the testimony of the two in custody, Razia and Alima, that the whole case rests. The wives of two Burdwan blast accused and victims, the two have reportedly told police that they had spent some time at Simulia madrasa where they received radical Islamic teachings and also physical and arms training. The two also said that most of the recruits at the madrasa were from Murshidabad, Nadia and some parts of Burdwan.
Rosula Biwi’s land borders the madrasa spread over 6,300 sq ft of land. The family survives on a nursery that her two daughters have grown on the plot. Looking for explosives, the NIA had drained the pond on Rosula’s land but found nothing.
Says Rosula, “Even if a cycle tyre bursts here, people get to know. Being next-door neighbours, won’t we get to know if there was shooting practice at the madrasa?”
About 20 yards away, lives Sakina Biwi. As her grandson and grand-daughters Salma, Naseema and Habiba crowd around her, she explains why the family didn’t send the girls to the madrasa. “It is a purdah madrasa (where women have to wear a veil). We did not want to put our kids there to learn religious scripts.”
The girls go instead to the government school at Krishnabati, about 2 km away.
However, she doesn’t believe the charges levelled at the madrasa. “There was a veil of secrecy about it but don’t you think we would be the first to know if a single gunshot was fired inside?” says Sakina.
Roquea Biwi and her daughter Shamima moved into their new two-storey pucca house on the other side of the Simulia madrasa just two months ago. They said they never noticed any suspicious activity, let alone a shooting range.
The imam of the Simulia Uttarpara Mosque, Sanaullah aka Bokul, sent his 13-year-old daughter to the madrasa, the only one who appears to have done so here, but only for a couple of weeks.
He says he sent his daughter to learn religious teachings but regretted it almost immediately. “No proper lesson was imparted there. Also, they wanted to charge Rs 1,000 per month, which I had no means to pay,” he says.
A resident of Simulia, Borhan Sheikh, had donated the land for the madrasa around 2009 and helped run it along with Yousuf. His wife Fatehma taught at the madrasa. All three are now absconding.
Borhan’s 70-year-old mother Asura Biwi breaks down recalling how afraid the family was when police came searching for him following the blast. In nervousness, she says, she couldn’t speak when asked for her sons’ names. “They slapped me saying I was acting.”
Borhan used to run a carpentry unit in Mangalkot market. Asura Biwi says he gave land for the Simulia madrasa “as it is perhaps one of the most pious things a Muslim can do”.
Others in the village vouch that Borhan was a devout Muslim who said namaz five times a day and led a simple lifestyle. Dalim Sheikh, the local panchayat member and Trinamool Congress worker, recalls seeing Borhan and Yousuf occasionally at the local market in Mangalkot about 2 km away. “But the women at the madrasa always wore a burqa and hardly came out,” says Dalim.
These women were mostly from poor families in Murshidabad, Nadia and some parts of Burdwan whose parents couldn’t afford a better education. The madrasa with residential facilities gave them religious education as well as took care of their basic needs.
Even the 10-odd policemen at the camp set up inside the Simulia madrasa since the NIA took over investigations have doubts about it being a terror centre. Take the charge of students receiving shooting practice, they say. “The small area and the neighbouring settlements would have been major impediments,” says one of the policemen.
Narrating the sequence of events, top police sources say that a day after the blast at Burdwan’s Khagragarh, the Simulia madrasa put up a notice saying it was closing for Eid. Soon after, the Sheikhs went missing. On October 9, the name of the madrasa came up during interrogation of Razia and Alima, the wives of the Burdwan blast accused. But even before police could reach the place, some mediapersons entered the madrasa. They found nothing.
According to a senior police official, this is what the NIA has seized so far: a long white fibre wire (probably used for drying clothes); SIM cards; mobile phones; phone books (but with no Bangladeshi number, despite alleged “Bangladeshi links”); a voter ID card; literature from the Internet; notebooks with writings such as Muslims are downtrodden, one must “qurban (sacrifice)” one’s life for Islam, and that Muslims must fight oppression (all of it termed “jehadi”); a Nano car; IED-making procedures from the Net; about 12 airgun pellets; knee caps; one roller shoe; and Bengali books of Bangladeshi publications.
“It might be the airgun pellets that led to the suspicion of there being shooting practice at Simulia madrasa,” says a senior police official involved in the probe.
Razia and Alima reportedly told police that students were taught how to “uncock a gun”. “But no supportive evidence has been found, particularly any gun. Not even a grain of explosive was seized from the madrasa,” the official adds.
Oct 2: Burdwan blast
Oct 3: After an Eid holiday notice, Simulia madrasa closes
Oct 3: Borhan, Yousuf and the women studying at the madrasa go underground
Oct 9: Razia and Alima, wives of Burdwan blast accused and victims, tell police of their links to Simulia madrasa
Oct 11: NIA takes over the case
Oct 13 to 17: NIA searches, declares madrasa a centre for terror network