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India awakens to its other pariahs: Muslims

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But even a year ago, says political scientist Mr. Bhargava, "this was unthinkable."

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Indeed, Muslims have long been largely absent from India's political discourse. After Muslim Pakistan split from India in 1947, "within the Muslim community there was a sense of guilt, and this sense of guilt prevented them from standing up and taking their part in democracy," says Mazher Hussain of the Confederation of Volunteer Associations in Hyderabad, which works to promote inter-community dialogue.

Compounded over the years, the result has been a government in which virtually no one is looking out for the interests of Muslims. And in a country where so much of politics is patronage, this means Muslims have largely been left out, either actively or unintentionally.

"Over time, Muslims have withdrawn," says Abusaleh Shariff, secretary of the Sachar Committee. "They don't apply because their life experiences are negative."

Self-made Muslims

The Sachar report notes that disproportionate numbers of Muslims have responded by going into business for themselves. Mohammad Anees is one of them, and he has done well. He and his brothers run two restaurants in the serpentine alleyways of Old Delhi, where buildings rise in canyon walls of cracking plaster and power lines spread overhead like sinuous spiders.

Mr. Anees's cramped second-floor office bears the trappings of some success: fresh paint, a computer, a flat-screen monitor, and a broadband modem. But he worries about Muslims merely going it alone.

After partition, Muslims won the right to devise their own educational system. But that system is now failing, Anees says, and with few government schools in Muslim-dominated areas to fall back on, Muslims are failing with it.

The primary school at the local mosque has declined notably, he says. Twenty years ago, it was his school, and Anees's conversation is evidence of the high quality of his education. He speaks English effortlessly, weaving snatches of history and current events into any topic.

Yet today, he will not send his children there. "Every year, the results are going down," he says, peering through his rectangular glasses with a scholarly air.

So he pays 900 rupees per child a month – 30 times what the mosque school costs – to send his two elementary-age children to a school on the opposite side of town.

Many families within the walled Old City, which is heavily Muslim, don't have that kind of money. Other children are rejected, as the demand for places in Indian schools vastly exceeds supply.

In some respects, there are signs of progress. Community leaders say the sense of guilt associated with partition has passed. "During the past 10 years, there has been a big change," says Sayyed Khadir, a Muslim activist in Hyderabad. The young generation "is in the competition" for jobs, he says.

The young generation itself offers another observation. "We do not think, 'He is a Muslim, he is a Sikh,' " says Habeeb al-Aidroos, one of the seven friends and cousins who has come along with Mohsin for the interview in a Hyderabad hotel. "We think that we are together."

At times, that can be difficult. As the only one of the eight men who shows his faith in his appearance, with a long beard and skull cap, Mr. Aidroos speaks of prejudice most strongly. "They think that Muslims are terrorists," he says.

To some degree, this has been the perception since partition, when Indian Muslims were cast as traitors and Pakistani sympathizers. Terrorist campaigns to free India's Muslim-majority Kashmir only increased tensions. Yet it has been recent developments – the rise of a more aggressive Hindu nationalism and the war on terror – that weigh most on Muslims.

Standing along a residential side street in Hyderabad, dressed in the skull cap and knee-length white shirt typical of many devout Indian Muslims, Zubair says people sometimes call him "Osama bin Laden." It's a joke, says Zubair, who runs a taxi service and uses only one name, but it is an unwelcome one.

"If you go on branding [Muslims], they will one day become what they are branded to be," he says, calmly but with evident concern.

The strength of Indian Muslims in resisting the call of global terrorism is their Indian character, he and others say. Indian Muslims have marinated in the country's multicultural masala for centuries and have become part of the recipe, adapting its tongues, traditions – and tolerance. And though Muslims and Hindus have long rioted, murdered, and waged war against each other, they remain – at their core – indelibly bound by a love of their home.

"We are Muslims, but we are Indian Muslims," says Zubair. "Even though I have lost most of my stake, I still feel that my future lies in India."