What is in a name? If you live in Bhatkal, a small port town in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka: everything. For the residents of this town, it simply means being linked to the top three terrorists in India -- Riyaz, Iqbal and Yasin Bhatkal. Vicky Nanjappa reports from Bhatkal.
Things have gone from bad to worse for the residents of this town ever since the deadly 13/7 serial blasts in Mumbai, which once again brought back the small town into limelight.
Bhatkal residents had always found it hard to cope with the name of their town being associated with every terrorist activity in India. The first of the setbacks happened when Riyaz's name emerged for the first time.
There was a great deal of police presence in the small town, not to mention the continued surveillance by intelligence agencies. However, in all these years, the biggest hit that the town of Bhatkal took was in the aftermath of the 13/7 blasts last year.
So what is the biggest change that one gets to see in Bhatkal? While people are averse to getting their daughters married to a Bhatkal resident, the bigger worry is the job market, which has taken a big hit since last year.
The real names of these Indian Mujahideen operatives are Riyaz Shahbandri, Iqbal Shahbandri and Yasin Siddibapa. Yet, each one of them is known by the last name -- Bhatkal -- in the media and in the police circles.
The police have intentionally decided to address them by the name of their town as it makes it easier to keep a record on them. However, this has proved to be a problem for the residents.
Take the instance of Sharrif, a resident of the town. He says that he has a job in a Gulf country, and each time he lands at any airport, the scrutiny is extremely high because his passport has Bhatkal as his hometown on it.
"Others manage to get away with their security check in no time, but for us Bhatkal residents, it is an endless wait. They actually have separate inquiry wings for this at the airports to not cause inconvenience to others. We find it very embarrassing," he says.
Another person requesting anonymity tells rediff.com, "The first question I was asked at an airport was how I was related to Riyaz. I was dumbfounded. I made the mistake of saying that I had heard of his name, following which; I was questioned for nearly an hour."
A resident employed in a Gulf country says that before 13/7, others sympathised with Bhatkal residents. The idea that the IM terrorists hailed from Bhatkal had not sunk in completely for a long time in the job market. However, post 13/7, Bhatkal's name was all over the media, and the fact the operatives from this town were linked to another module from Dharabanga in Bihar only made matters worse.
Bhatkal residents say that nearly 40 per cent of the population was employed in the Gulf countries. However, today, many have come back to Bhatkal as their contracts were not renewed; people aspiring for jobs abroad also had to return empty handed.
Many employers in their defence say that the moment there is an incident in India, Bhatkal's name comes up. "And when the scrutiny begins, the name of the company also gets dragged in," says an employer.
Bhatkal is a small town and people know each other well. The fact that someone had known a person allegedly linked with the IM many years ago, is reason enough for suspicion.
Employers do not want to risk their reputation and hence, often reject Bhatkal residents. Others say that not only the Gulf countries, Bhatkal residents are finding it tough to get jobs in Bengaluru, Pune, and Mangalore since the past one year.
"People aspiring to go abroad find that it's not easy to get a passport anymore. The verification process for a Bhatkal resident has gone up ten fold, and the wait is never ending," says a resident.
The name Bhatkal has also been a cause of mistaken identity many a time. At one time, the police were desperate to nab IM operative Iqbal Bhatkal. However, the investigation led to another man with the same name (Iqbal). His family was harassed no end, the police realised it at the end of their investigation that the person they had been harassing was just a Qazi (a scholar).
People say that post 13/7 the sense of privacy in the town has gone.
"The parents of Riyaz and Iqbal live here. They are innocent and cannot be blamed for what their sons did. But the people are even scared to go ahead and help them, because of the fear of police harrassment. Other businesses in Bhatkal have also taken a beating.
"There was this place famous for the Bhatkal biriyani which could easily called as one of the dishes you must taste before you die. All the buses passing by Bhatkal made a stopover for the biryani. But now that too has has stopped," says another resident.
"Only a handful from this town committed those horrific crimes. We are not against the police for keeping a watch. But we want to request them to stop using Bhatkal as a suffix to these persons. This would help the rest of us," says a resident.