The Simulia madrassa, on the outskirts of Bardhaman town in West Bengal, allegedly had links with Gulshana Bibi and Amina Bibi, the women arrested after the October 2 blast in the town.
The NIA alleges the madrassa trained poor Muslim women in jihad.
The madrassa had an unwritten convention: The women trained there would be married only to men who were on the same 'mission.'
Indrani Roy/Rediff.com and photographer Dipak Chakraborty report from Mongolkot, Bardhaman.
There was something strange about the mud house with its thatched roof and small compartments-cum-rooms that stood amid vast stretches of paddy fields.
Once the motorable road ended, we had to walk along the aal, a narrow piece of land between paddy fields to reach the main door.
The main gate was locked, but the backyard had a metal door latched from the inside.
Entry was denied as an assistant sub inspector and six constables belonging to the West Bengal police guarded the mud house.
"We have been staying here for the past few days," the plainclothes police officer told Rediff.com after verifying our credentials over and over again.
"You can take photographs from outside, but from a distance," he added in a stern voice.
We were at the Simulia madrassa in Bardhaman's Mongolkot, about 35 km from the town.
The madrassa allegedly had links with Gulshana Bibi and Amina Bibi, the two women who were arrested for their alleged involvement in the October 2 blast at a two-storey house in Bardhaman's Khagragarh.
According to sleuths, members of the terror outfit Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a wing of the Harkat-ul Jihadi Islami-Bangladesh, were involved in the explosion.
The National Investigation Agency, led by Deputy Superintendent of Police Vijayendra Singh, is investigating the case.
The NIA is assisted by National Security Guard commandos, the West Bengal police and its Criminal Investigation Department.
Subsequent inquiry and cross-examination of three suspected terrorists held by the police on the day of the explosion and others arrested later exposed the Simulia madrassa's alleged link to the incident.
After questioning Gulshana Bibi and Amina Bibi, the investigators discovered that the Simulia madrassa only admitted women at an early age.
Women at the madrassa were experts in handling all sorts of arms, police sources told Rediff.com
The madrassa had 'recruiters' who would bring in new students from districts other than Bardhaman and hand them over to 'trainers' (the students had no clue about their identities).
As many as 30 to 40 young girls lived at the Simulia madrassa till October 2, the day of the explosion, after which neither the landowner nor the students could be traced.
The madrassa land belongs to Borhan Sheikh. His family refused to speak to us despite persistent efforts.
The madrassa had an unwritten convention: The women trained there would be married only to men who were on the same 'mission,' police sources said.
Soon after marriage, the couple would either set out on an 'assignment' or await instructions, the sources added.
Investigations revealed that terror networks operating in West Bengal use couple modules and rent houses across the state to carry out subversive activities.
According to sources, jihadis united in such a marriage hardly had any emotional attachment. Theirs was a marriage of convenience.
When the police broke open the house at Khagragarh after the explosion on October 2, they were stunned to find two men lying in a pool of blood and their 'wives' washing away the blood.
While scanning the Simulia madrassa, NIA investigators discovered a secret tunnel behind a heap of steel trunks in a corner.
The tunnel opened into an adjacent pond.
To ensure that no bombs or improvised explosive devices were hidden in the pond, the NIA hired local residents to scour the pond.
The investigators believe the tunnel was used by terrorists for clandestine visits to the madrassa.
The investigators also seized bows and arrows, air guns, punching bags filled with sand and a phone book, believed to be of one Yousuf Sheikh, the madrassa's mentor.
The phone book contains contact numbers of women who were trained at the Simulia madrassa, sources told Rediff.com
Yousuf Sheikh is yet to be traced.
After interrogating the arrested women, investigators discovered that Sheikh received arms training in Uttar Pradesh for about four years before he came to the Simulia madrassa.
The NIA also seized Arabic and Urdu literature that the 'students' were asked to read.
The investigators also discovered an abandoned orange Tata Nano close to the madrassa, with the registration number WB 58F-6943.
The car's registration number belonged to a two-wheeler and dated back to 2006. The first batch of Nano cars hit the roads in 2008.
The Nano car had an 'army' sticker to hoodwink the police, sources told Rediff.com
The investigators picked up the car's owner, a resident of Beldanga in Murshidabad.
The Nano was used to carry arms and ammunition and also to transport people, sources said.
The car and its passengers fooled the police mainly because of the 'army' sticker, they added.
Keeping in mind that the Panagarh military base is nearby, police pickets granted the vehicle safe passage.
Two school students who live in a house close to the madrassa said they had seen the Nano car parked close to their home.
"It would be gone by the evening and would be back the next morning or afternoon," they told Rediff.com
Asked if they had any friends at the madrassa, they said, "The girls who studied there hardly ventured out and even if they did, they were in burqa and would not speak to anyone."
The Simulia madrassa has paddy fields all around, a pond (linked to the tunnel) towards the back and a bus stand close by.
While the terrorists could have used the tunnel and the paddy fields to access the madrassa at night, they could have availed of the Nano and state transport buses to move to any other part of the state, especially villages in Murshidabad bordering Bangladesh, sources told Rediff.com
The NIA's investigation has uncovered intricate links between the Simulia madrassa and some madrassas in Birbhum and Murshidabad districts.
The NIA has conducted raids at suspicious madrassas across Bengal.
"They had no links with the village, all the people there were outsiders. They wouldn't talk to us," says a man who lives near the Simulia madrassa.
"Often poor villagers send their daughters to unrecognised madrassas like this one which take care of their lodging and boarding in lieu of Rs 500, Rs 700 per month," the man told Rediff.com
According to sources, there are more than 3,500 unrecognised madrassas in Bengal. Bardhaman itself has 600.
Of these 600, only 32 are aided, sponsored or recognised by the state government.
"Didn't you ever see anything suspicious" we asked another man whose home has a clear view of the madrassa.
"Nothing seemed suspicious," he said. "The madrassa belonged to a different world, it seemed. Life has changed after the Khagragarh incident. We are often questioned by the police."
"All of us who stay close to this place live in fear. Perhaps, we should have been more alert," he said.
The NIA is not ruling out a possible link between the Bardhaman explosion and the May 1 blasts aboard a train at the Chennai Central railway station, which had killed a young IT professional and injured 14 others.
The Assam police, which arrested six people for probable links to the Bardhaman blast, is on the lookout for 30 suspects.