Kerala’s Missing 21: A Complex Web of Conversion & Radicalisation
“Nimisha was a simple girl who used to love wearing salwar kameez,” says Bindu, as she explains the events which shook her family and have sent shock waves across Kerala.
“When she came to tell us in November 2015 that she was in love with a man named Isa from Palakkad, she came in a burqa. My daughter is missing now, and newspapers say she has joined the Islamic State. Will the police help us?” she asks, as her voice quivers with helplessness.
Twenty-five-year-old Nimisha, a fourth year BDS student at a college in Kasaragod, converted to Islam last year. She is one of 21 people from Kerala who have gone missing, and there is a palpable fear that all of them, including a few couples and children, could have joined ISIS.
While 17 people were reported to have gone missing earlier, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday informed the state assembly that the number is in fact 21.
The News Minute has spoken to five of the eight families involved to weave all the stories together and establish the connections between those who have gone missing. Who are these people? How did they know each other? And how did they get ‘radicalised’?
Who Is Missing?
Hafeesuddhin and Marvan Ismail, from Thrikarippur in Kasaragod
It all started with a message that a man named Hakeem who lives in Kasaragod got from his son 23-year-old Hafeesuddhin Theke Koleth on Eid. The message sent via the Telegram app said that he was now in a Sharia country and all was well. The message itself and Hafeesuddhin’s demeanour during the last few weeks towards his family led Hakeem to suspect that his son may have joined ISIS.
“I know my son. He does not follow Islam like I do, he is far more radical. I have seen him changing over the last two years, which is why I won’t hesitate to say that he could have joined a group like ISIS. My son was a simpleton, but I cannot deny that he had changed,” Hakeem told The News Minute.
Hakeem approached Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, and that was when the story began to unravel.
Hafeesuddhin and his friend Marvan Ismail had left their houses in May 2016, they had told their families that they were off to Kozhikode for a class on Islam. They have been missing ever since.
Brothers Ijaz and Shihaz and their wives Rihaila and Ajmala, from Thrikarippur.
Around the same time Hafeesuddhin and Marvan went missing, Hakeem’s neighbours Ijaz and Shihaz too left their homes.
Ijaz was a doctor married to Rihaila and had a two-year-old child. His brother Shihaz was married to Ajmala.
The five of them left for Sri Lanka in May, stating that they are going for an Islamic course. They have not returned yet.
Ashfaq and wife Shamsia, from Thrikarippur
A cousin of Ijaz and Shihaz, Ashfaq, was a businessman in Mumbai.
Main motivator Abdul Rashid Abdulla, his wife Ayesha and child, from Thrikarippur
The families of Ijaz and Hafeesuddhin confirmed that 29-year-old Abdul Rashid Abdulla, their neighbour and a teacher at the Peace International School, was the man who motivated them to leave the country. Rashid seems to have been the sharp evangelist, who lured people from other religions into Islam, and radicalised other Muslims.
His wife Ayesha, was a Christian before marriage, and completed her Engineering degree from Ernakulam and MBA from Bangalore.
Initially, it was believed that the ‘radicalisation’ was confined to a few Muslim families living in a single panchayat.
But here’s when things get tangled. Soon enough, parents from Palakkad, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthpuram came out declaring that their children had also gone missing in May.
Brothers Bexen and Bestin and their wives Nimisha and Merrin
Thirty-two-year-old Bexen from Yakkara in Palakkad was an MBA graduate, but was unemployed. His brother, 24-year-old Bestin, had worked in Peace International School, Kochi for a while and then quit.
Last year, the two started growing their beards and wearing shorter pants. When their parents enquired, the brothers revealed that they had converted to Islam. Bexen had become Isa and Bestin was called Eshia.
In December 2015, Bestin (Eshia) went away to Sri Lanka with his wife Mirriam.
Twenty-two-year-old Mirriam, Bestin’s wife was born as Merrin in Kochi. Her father owned a medical shop in Kochi. In May 2015, Merrin left for Mumbai after getting placed with IBM. She returned home in September 2015 as Mirriam, and told her parents that she had converted to Islam.
Merrin and Bestin were friends in high school and they had an affair. But they fell apart after Bestin started eulogising Islam. Merrin told me that Bestin (Eshia) came to Mumbai and convinced her that Islam was the best religion in the world and she had to convert. He used to take her to a friend’s (Ashfaq) house. The friend and his wife were instrumental in convincing my daughter.Mini, Merrin’s Mother
Merrin (Mirriam) and Bestin (Eshia) got married sometime last year.
“He brought Mirriam home. We could not do anything other than accept her,” said Elsi, Bestin’s mother.
But the story does not end here.
‘It all Happened in a Flash’
In Thiruvananthapuram, K Bindu lives next to the famous Attukal temple, and her family, for years, has been part of the temple management. While her son is an NSG commando, her daughter Nimisha was a student of dental sciences at the Century Dental College in Poinachy. This is the same college in which Rashid’s wife had studied a few years ago.
Someone in the college runs a Seva group that takes students to other districts to help cancer patients and others. She had many Muslim friends and they would even come and stay over. Why would I ever suspect that something was going on? This Seva group was nothing but a way to brainwash kids. In November last year, my daughter came home. She was in a burqa and said her name was Fathima. She told me that she was marrying Isa (Bexen).Bindu, Nimisha’s Mother
It all happened in a flash. Nimisha (Fathima) and Bexen (Isa) went to live with his parents in Palakkad. By then, Bexen’s brother Bestin too was living in the same house with his wife.
Rashid’s connection emerges here too. “We did not know this girl Nimisha at all. Rashid used to come home frequently and our sons used to go with him to Kasaragod. One day he told Bexen (Isa) that he had found a Muslim bride for him. In November, they both got married,” says Bexen’s father Vincent.
Bindu had, in May, met a pregnant Nimisha (Fathima), who assured her that she was leading a happy life with her husband and his family in Palakkad.
Belief in the ‘Purity’ of Sharia Law
While their stories indicate strongly that they could have been radicalised in a systematic way and led out of the country to live under Sharia law, Kerala police have cautioned against any speculation. What the family do state clearly is that these men and women were led to believe in the ‘purity’ of the Sharia law and convinced to get back to their ‘roots’.
(In the case of Bexen, Bestin and their wives, there is no confirmation on whether they have left India. The three families concerned have got no such intimation)
DGP Loknath Behra told TNM, “They may come back to Kerala; we cannot assume that they have joined any organisation. The conversion angle will be looked into. It is not right to brand them as having joined any organisation till an investigation proves that”.