By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Eight cadres of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) fled from the Bhopal Central Jail in Madhya Pradesh (MP) at around 2 to 3am in the morning of October 31, 2016, after killing a security guard, Head Constable Ramashankar, by slitting his throat with steel plate and glass after overpowering him. The escapees were identified as Mohammad Aqeel Khilji aka Abdullah, Sheikh Mehboob aka Guddu aka Malik, Amazad Khan aka Pappu aka Daud aka Umer, Zakir Hussain Sadiq aka Vicky Don aka Vinay Kumar, Mohammad Salik aka Sallu, Mohammad Khalid Ahmad, Mujeeb Sheikh aka Akram aka Wasim aka Nawed aka Nitin aka Faizan aka Chintoo aka Yusuf, and Abdul Majid.
Just hours later, between 10.30and 11.30am, all the eight escapees were killed in an encounter by the Security Forces (SFs) near Manikheda Pathar at Eintkhedi village on the outskirts of Bhopal. News media, opposition political parties and civil society organisations have raised questions about the genuineness of the encounter after the leak of a succession of videos showing stages of the alleged encounter. Suspicions were compounded by contradictory positions adopted by different Government agencies and officials. With mounting media furor, a judicial probe into the jailbreak and subsequent encounter was then ordered by MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in the night of November 3, 2016.
In the meantime, Sanjeev Shami, the head of MP’s Anti-Terror Squad (ATS), which led the encounter, asserted that the escapees’ killing was necessary because of the danger they posed. He added, without giving further details, that “the police has the right to use excessive force in some situations.”
Significantly, three of those killed in the Bhopal encounter –Zakir Hussain Sadiq, Sheikh Mehboob, and Amazad Khan–were among seven escapees from the Tantya Bheel Jail in MP’s Khandwa District on October 1, 2013. Each of them then carried a reward of INR one million, announced by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), before their re-arrest from Rourkela in Odisha on February 16, 2016.
Applying a similar modus operandi, six SIMI cadres and another jail inmate had escaped from the Tantya Bheel Jail on October 1, 2013, after injuring two policemen. The escapees were identified as Abu Fazal aka Doctor, Zakir Hussain Sadiq aka Vicky Don aka Vinay Kumar, Sheikh Mehboob aka Guddu aka Malik, Amazad Khan aka Pappu aka Daud aka Umer, Mohammed Aijazuddeen, Mohammed Aslam aka Bilal, all SIMI cadres; and Abid Mirza Beg, the other jail inmate. While Abid Mirza Beg was arrested from Sarvodaya Colony in Khandwa within four hours of the jailbreak, Abu Fazal was arrested from Barwani District in MP on December 23, 2013. Mohammed Aijazuddeen and Mohammed Aslam aka Bilal were killed in an encounter with the Police near Janakipuram in the Nalgonda District of Telangana, on April 4, 2015. One Police Constable was also killed while another Policeman was injured during the encounter. Zakir Hussain Sadiq, Sheikh Mehboob, and Amazad Khan were rearrested from Rourkela in Odisha on February 16, 2016.
After their escape from Khandwa jail and prior to their arrest these three – Zakir Hussain Sadiq, Sheikh Mehboob, and Amazad Khan – along with other escapees from the Khandwa Jail (prior to their respective arrest or killing) were found involved in several acts of terror reported from across the country. The most prominent among these incidents included:
July 10, 2014: Five people, including a Policeman, were injured in a low intensity bomb blast near Dagdusheth Halwai Ganapati temple in Pune in Maharashtra. The bomb was placed on a motorcycle in the parking area of Faraskhana and Vishrambaug Police Stations, located about 200 metres from the temple.
May 1, 2014: One passenger, identified as Swathi, died and another nine were injured in a bomb blast in the Guwahati-Bangalore Express train stationed at the Chennai Central Station in Chennai (Tamil Nadu).
They were also found involved in several cases of dacoity and bank robberies in different parts of MP, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana. In one such operation, the group had looted a State Bank of India branch in Karimnagar District in Telangana on February 1, 2014, and had decamped with INR 4.6 million.
The six escapees from Khandwa were among eight SIMI/IM (Indian Mujahideen) suspects arrested by the MP Police ATS from Jabalpur and Bhopal on June 5, 2011, in connection with the November 29, 2009, triple murder of MP ATS trooper Sitaram Yadav, lawyer Sanjay Pal and bank officer Ravi Shankar Pare in Khandwa. They were also reportedly involved in the June 2011 killing of another ATS trooper, Bharat Singh Raghuvanshi, in MP’s Ratlam District; as well as the August 23, 2010, INR 25 million gold robbery in Bhopal, MP. Other banks in Itarsi city, Hoshangabad District, and the Dewas District of MP, had also been looted by them.
The five SIMI cadres – other than Zakir Hussain Sadiq, Sheikh Mehboob, and Amazad Khan – killed during October 31, 2016, encounter were also a major threat. Most prominently, Mujeeb Sheikh was facing charges for the July 26, 2008, serial blasts in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), which killed 55 and injured 145. Mohammad Aqeel Khilji was reportedly planning to assassinate prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders. While Mujeeb was arrested from Jabalpur on June 5, 2011, Khilji, was arrested on March 27, 2012 from Aurangabad District of Maharashtra.
According to reports, Abu Fazal was the mastermind of both the jailbreaks (Khandwa and Bhopal) and all the 11 SIMI cadres involved in these two incidents were part of the ‘Fazal group’ which had a larger plan of action, including freeing SIMI ‘chief’ Safdar Nagori from Sabarmati Central Jail (Ahmadabad), where he is incarcerated since his arrest from Indore in MP on March 27, 2008. They had also planned to take American tourists hostage and use them as a bargaining chip to free Aafia Siddiqui. Siddiqui,a Pakistani scientist, was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 and was flown to the United States, where she was sentenced to 86 years in prison for the attempted murder of two US soldiers.
SIMI was formed at Aligarh in the State of Uttar Pradesh on April 25, 1977, and became progressively involved in terrorism through the 1990s, turned into a major threat thereafter, carrying out several attacks, mostly in alliance with the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) between 2000 and 2008, across India. It lost its prowess after the SFs launched a massive crackdown post the September 13, 2008, Delhi serial blasts, which resulted in 24 deaths. Its attempt to revive after the Khandwa jailbreak was also thwarted by the SFs with the neutralization of the group. According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since March 11, 2000, 705 SIMI cadres have been arrested in 124 incidents across India (data till November 6, 2016).
There is no information in the open source regarding how many of these 705 arrested cadres are still in jail. Reports indicate that at least 30 SIMI cadres were inside Bhopal Central Jail prior to the October 31 incident. Several reports confirm that the security at Bhopal Central Jail was compromised. Former Madhya Pradesh Inspector General (Prisons), G. K. Agarwal, in a letter dated June 26, 2014, had written to the then State Chief Secretary, Anthony Desa, marking copies to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the Intelligence Bureau, to state, “At present, SIMI activists from other prisons have been kept in the Bhopal Central Jail. But given the structure of the jail building, its vulnerable points, illogical security arrangement and deplorable condition of staff, it would be wrong to presume that everything is OK if no major incident takes place. God is helping but it would a mistake to presume that he will continue to offer help.’’ There is no report to suggest that any corrective measures were taken thereafter. More worryingly, reports now indicate that CCTV cameras at the Jail were not fully functional and the escapees knew this.
Presently, global jihadi formations such as al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are reportedly attempting to make inroads in India, forging ties with ‘home grown terror networks’ to serve their (al Qaeda’s and IS’) respective agendas. This would include efforts to revive ‘home grown terror networks’ who have lost influence and capabilities due to successful SF operations over the last several years (especially since 2008). Under this challenging and continuously evolving security environment, lapses such as the October 31 incident, can prove extraordinarily expensive for national security. It is imperative consequently, that respective States and the Central Government safeguard their vital assets – including penitentiaries where arrested terrorist cadres are housed – lest the dangers of terrorism escalate after a fairly extended downtrend.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management