Mumbai probe eyes local Muslim group

India's Muslim community has a moderate reputation, but pockets of alienation exist in growing ghettos.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the investigation into last week's bomb blasts gathers pace, authorities are probing a link between Pakistan-based Lashkar-i Tayyaba (LeT), the main suspect, and a banned Islamic organization in India called the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

Tests confirmed Monday that the bombers used the powerful military explosive RDX, a weapon used before by the LeT. Indian investigators say they suspect that LeT provided the bombs, the funding, the target, and the know-how to SIMI, which in turn provided the people on the ground. Authorities have rounded up nearly 300 local men from Muslim suburbs like Mumbra – including 11 detained Monday near the Bangladesh border.

This thread of the investigation has Indians facing the uncomfortable possibility that international jihad may have found a receptive ear within pockets of a huge religious minority. Already, some politicians are calling for tougher antiterrorism measures. But Muslim leaders here express concern that a harsh police crackdown and tough rhetoric from politicians would only serve to alienate a community with a strong reputation for moderation.

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"India's Muslims don't countenance the killing of innocent civilians, and Muslim leaders have come out in the open and condemned these attacks. The terrorists want communal riots. They want to divide us," says Abdul Rauf Khan, an imam in Mumbra.

After bomb attacks in Mumbai three years ago, India's stringent antiterrorism law – the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) – had been used with particular force against Muslims, resulting in arbitrary arrests, harsh interrogations, and detention without charge. POTA was repealed in 2004, and so far police tactics over the past week haven't been as sweeping. Many of the hundreds interrogated were let go in a few hours; only a few remain in detention.

Given the charged debate over POTA's repeal, Indian politicians may be loathe to reinstate it. But the controversial chief minister of Gujarat state traveled to Mumbai to publicly challenge Delhi to do just that – or allow state governments to pass their own versions.

"If we are allowed to enact such an antiterrorism act, Gujarat will be the first state to do so, and I will be the first chief minister who will show this country how terrorism is curbed and how to hang terrorists," Chief Minister Narendra Modi told an assembly Monday.

The timing and message of Mr. Modi's visit is seen as provocative by those who view him as complicit in communal riots that gripped Gujarat in 2002, leaving some 1,000 dead, mainly Muslims.

"It's a difficult time for Muslims in India after every terrorist attack," says Sayeed Khan, the founder of a nongovernmental organization MY India, an acronym for Muslim Youth of India – a name chosen to demonstrate that India's Muslims were Indian, and not Pakistanis, as alleged by some.

In times such as these, Mr. Khan says, people talk about Muslims disparagingly – and view them with suspicion.

"The terrorists are Muslims, and we're Muslims, too. That's our only fault," says Mohamed Tariq Qazi, a 27-year-old call center employee who was called in for questioning after the blasts.

In 2003, Mr. Qazi was arrested following a set of bombings. He had been mistaken for a SIMI activist because of his work with the Students Islamic Organization (SIO), part of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a moderate religious social organization working for Muslim uplift and at one time associated with SIMI. "The word 'Islamic' in my organization's name makes all the difference."

"They [Mumbai's police] came in large numbers at 1:30 a.m., in pitch darkness, and arrested me," he recalls. "My neighbors thought I was a terrorist."

More Muslims live in India than in most Muslim-majority nations, and they've long been upheld as a moderate community, showing little passion for jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan – or even Kashmir. Not one of India's 150 million Muslims, thus far, has been found associated with Al Qaeda.

Although Muslims in secular, democratic India have access to greater rights and freedoms than in most Muslim countries, statistics paint a picture of a marginalized community. According to one study, the income of the average Muslim is 11 percent less than the national average. There's a dearth of Muslim police, government officials, and soldiers – only 29,000 Muslims make up the 1.1 million-strong Indian army.

Outbreaks of communal violence in recent years have caused some Muslims to relocate to Muslim-majority areas.

Mumbra, a suburb 25 miles from Mumbai, saw an influx of Muslims after Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1992 and blasts in 1993. Mumbra's squalid quarters, dubbed derisively as "mini Pakistan," are notorious havens for criminals – and, police allege, terrorists.

In conversations with young men at SIO meetings, Mr. Qazi has observed a hardening aggression, and impatience with perceived mistreatment and prejudice. Tough questioning and long detentions of Muslim locals by police are often viewed as state harassment – and breed anti-state notions, he says.

Locals note that police have approached this week's investigation sensitively. A senior Mumbai police official says detentions are necessary to crack the local nexus of militants to prevent future strikes. Terrorists, he says, easily permeate Muslim-dominated areas, and thus combing operations are necessary. "Only if we interrogate locals can we zero in on the main accused."

The sluggish pace of bringing to court those responsible for the Gujarat riots also rankles Muslims here.

"The wounds of the Gujarat riots have still not healed. There's barely been any justice," says Sayeed Khan. "It might be easy to brainwash the youth by welling up memories of the Gujarat killings. Those wounds are still fresh."

One theory on why last week's bombs were planted in first-class train compartments ties into this frustration over Gujarat. Commuters in those compartments are usually traders from Mumbai's diamond industry – most of them Gujarati Hindus. Nearly 50 Gujaratis are believed dead in the bombings.

To ensure that youths don't easily fall for the violent preaching of fundamentalists, Mr. Khan, the imam, emphasizes the need to give Muslim youths better education opportunities.

"Our madrassahs need to be reformed," Khan says. "There's a need to teach subjects taught in regular school, like science, besides [memorization of] the Koran ... to bring Muslim men into mainstream society."

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