The peace at the Hubballi railway station was shattered a few days ago on October 24 when an unclaimed package in the unreserved compartment of a train travelling from Vijayawada to Amaravati exploded leaving a vendor injured. The cops and Railway Protection Force (RPF) officials were relieved that the blast was a minor one with a probe now on to ascertain if it was actually an act of terror. But the incident has brought up a troubling question-are terror outfits increasingly taking root in the form of sleeper cells in the heart of north Karnataka considering that Hubballi is the nerve centre of the Mumbai-Karnataka region and not far from the commercial hub of the country, Mumbai? There have been terror-related incidents in other parts of the state too-like the arrest of a Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorist from a most unlikely place like Ramanagara. And memories of the 2008 Bengaluru serial blasts in which a series of nine bombs exploded leaving one person dead and 20 injured, continue to haunt Bengalureans whenever there are rumours of a likely terror attack. Shyam Sundar Vattam examines how sleeper cells which remain dormant eluding the vigilant eyes of the police and get activated whenever a terror attack is being planned, pose a real threat to the state’s peaceful ambience.
Endowed with a good road and railway network, the twin cities of Hubballi-Dharwad in North Karnataka have over the years become a safe haven for elements who work relentlessly at the instance of anti-national forces to disturb the social fabric of the state.
Over a decade ago, a church on the Gadag road in Hubballi witnessed a blast that caused severe damage to the structure. Luckily, no one was hurt in the incident. Initially, the police had suspected the hand of right-wing activists behind the blast. However, they were shocked to learn about the involvement of an organization (now banned by the Union government) which had allegedly employed local youth to carry out the blast albeit of low intensity.
The interrogation of members of the banned organization exposed their sinister designs to destroy public utilities like roads, bridges, railway tracks, besides engineering blasts in places of worship to create social unrest. Even the Hubballi cops were shocked to know about their network. And what was more worrying was that the nabbed suspects were only part of sleeper cells with the investigating agencies unable to reach the actual masterminds behind the terror network.
According to a dossier then prepared by the police commissionerate of Hubballi and Dharwad, the suspected terrorists were trained in the handling of weapons and were reportedly imparted firing practice in the dense forests of Kalghatgi village on the Hubballi-Ankola highway. Even sleuths from the Union home ministry had visited the spot as part of the investigation.
Keeping the cops on their toes, there was a second incident with a blast rocking the hall of the Hubballi court situated adjacent to the police station. This time, the intensity of the explosion was so strong that it ripped off the wooden doors, windows, benches and witness boxes in the courtroom. The blast was reportedly carried out with the help of a mobile phone sim card a day before a terror suspect was supposed to be produced in the court.
But why Hubballi? As they probed deeper, the investigating agencies realised that the sudden saffron surge in the north Karnataka region after the controversial flag hoisting at the Idgah Maidan in the district, had created a sense of insecurity among a section of people. Taking advantage of this, some organizations had spread venom among gullible youth instigating them to disturb communal harmony in the region. Their objective was to blame right-wing organizations for these incidents and create animosity between different communities.
“The sleeper cells are still active in many districts in North Karnataka and it is very difficult to trace them. These are people functioning at the sixth or seventh level in the organisational matrix of a terror outfit and none of them have even seen the kingpin. Most of the time, they strike at their target and escape before the police arrive at the spot. The influence of dreaded terrorist Yasin Bhatkal is very much visible among some terror prone youth in this region,” said a top cop who had served as police commissioner of Hubballi- Dharwad.
According to him, the growing influence of terror organisations needs a special investigation by experts since the local police personnel are not trained to handle such cases. Besides, they cannot fully devote their time to terror related probes as they have to concentrate on other activities like maintenance of law and order, prevention of crime rate and investigation into petty cases. The perfect organization to do a detailed study is the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which has handled such high profile cases as the terror network sometimes goes beyond the confines of a state or country and only the NIA has the resources and authority to go in search of the kingpin in such cases.
According to this source, poverty, illiteracy and brainwashing by terror outfits are some of the reasons why anti-national elements are able to set up sleeper cells in remote villages of the region. Many of them are not even fully aware of the implications of their acts and are carried away by provocative speeches. “They will be left to fend for themselves if they fall into the police net. We feel sorry when we see their families struggling to arrange funds to engage a good advocate to get bail for the accused. Those who put them on such jobs simply vanish once they are caught,” he added.
The biggest challenge before the governments both at the Centre and in the state is to locate the sleeper cells which may create problems in the coming days. But tracing them is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Only a concerted effort over a period of time and proper co-ordination between different security agencies will be able to bring these elements to book, the officer summed up....