Muslims under the police scanner in India

Posted in India | 19-Aug-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

Women shout anti-India slogans after a suspected militant was killed in a shootout in Srinagar August 9, 2006.

NEW DELHI: This is not the best of times as a Muslim in India. Post the Mumbai blasts and under severe pressure to deliver, the Indian security forces have been keeping a hawk eye on the Muslim population. This follows intelligence reports that certain elements within the community have been influenced by jihadi terrorism and had a hand in the serial train attacks in Mumbai last month that killed over 200 people and injured 300 more. However, in their zeal, the security exercise seems to have gone overboard, which is only going to turn sentiments more inimical and cynical.

Reports talk about undue and uncalled for harassment of Muslims, who number close to 150 million in India, the largest single country population after Indonesia. The problem has been exacerbated by the confluence of the Mumbai blasts to the run up of India’s Independence Day celebrations on August 15, when security forces are on a very high alert to prevent any disruption due to terrorist attacks.

While the police have their task cut out, targeting honorable citizens in a manner that is humiliating can cause negative reverberations in a community that is already under siege. It is never the right way.

Earlier this month, the police reportedly ``barged’’ into the hotel room of prominent human rights activist Asma Jehangir's in New Delhi without a warrant on the plea of drills that were part of pre-Independence Day security measures. They went through the closet cupboards and her bags.

Jehangir, who was very upset by the incident, was part of a Pakistani delegation to discuss human rights violations in South Asian countries.

Other members were also checked.

In order to assuage feelings and in a rare courtesy Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who knows Jehangir personally, called her and apologized for the incident.

However, the Jehangir episode does not happen to be an isolated incident.

The Asian Age has reported this week that the Mumbai police, acting under a directive from the Maharashtra government, have been investigating prominent Muslims in the city who have been registered as frequent travelers abroad.

Among those who received a knock from the police include well-known Bollywood dance choreographer Hameed Khan, who was asked to present himself at the local police station. Others, as per the report, whom the police have questioned, include a senior vice president of a multinational company and a commercial pilot.

According to prominent film director Mahesh Bhatt, with whom Hameed has been

working: ``I am heartbroken. I cannot believe that this is happening here as well, and we must realize before it is too late that this Islam-phobia that we are importing from the West, this terrible virus that has entered the Indian bloodstream, will destroy this country.’’

Mumbai police commissioner A N Roy has confirmed a large number of arrests (mostly Muslims), but has refused to give an exact figure. The Mumbai police remain clueless about the identity of those who carried out the seven blasts in Mumbai on July 11, 2006.

Their only contention is that the perpetrators traveled abroad. According to reports, among those arrested in the Mumbai bombings are a doctor of traditional Islamic medicine and a self-taught software engineer who the police said had landed a job with the US-based Oracle. Six more are suspected of being trained at terrorist camps in Pakistan.

A social activist in Mumbai has been quoted as saying: ``The arrests have not led the authorities to solve the Mumbai blasts, but that has not stopped them from rounding up any and every one whose only crime might be that he did not grease the hands of the beat policeman.’’

Disturbed by the allegations, this week a delegation of 18 Muslim Members of Parliament met Manmohan and urged that innocent Muslims should not be harassed. In their submissions, they said:

``In the aftermath of the blasts, ministers from Maharashtra and other states, politicians, government officials, police and the media have sought to communalize the issue and give religious color to the criminal terrorist act as "Islamic terrorism." They sought to blame the entire Muslim community as supporters and collaborators of anti-national elements and tried to portray the areas inhabited by Muslims as havens of "Islamic terrorists."

Such 'over-action' by the police created ill will, suspicion, distrust and communal disharmony between Hindus and Muslims of the city. We are pained by the violation of basic civil and human rights of hundreds of Muslims in and around Mumbai by the police in the name of investigation.’’

Manmohan is reported to have shared their concerns and, according to the members, said that if Muslims were being harassed in the manner conveyed, it was ``a very serious matter.’’ He reportedly said that ``the hands of the terrorists would be strengthened if innocent Muslims were humiliated.’’ He said he would take up the matter with home minister Shivraj Patil.

Elsewhere, in Roorkee (in the state of Uttar Pradesh), 13 foreign Muslims, who were allegedly staying illegally in a mosque, have been asked to leave the country. However, police found no evidence of any kind of suspicious activity in the mosque where these foreigners were staying. The foreigners had stayed New Delhi before.

It is indeed a surprise that the police are reportedly investigating Muslim travelers to all parts of the world. Generally, it has been found that most terror circles in India have links with Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and the middle east, especially Dubai and Saudi Arabia. In this context, such a broad based investigation seems to be mixed up logic.

However, even if security agencies know what common people don’t and have a cause to look into the affairs of international travelers, the manner in which such an exercise is implemented and the harassment caused is unexplainable.

Will such investigations prevent future attacks and save lives or result in more fringe elements and fence sitters, taking the plunge and thus making the situation worse? It is a tough call.

Most agree that the scourge of terrorism has moved beyond an India-Pakistan or a Kashmir issue that can be tackled at a country-to-country level.

In March this year India witnessed the massive protest rallies during the visit of US President George W Bush. It was perhaps the first instance of pan-Islamic sentiments so strongly expressed by the Muslims in India.

Muslims came out in large numbers to vent their anger against US policies in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and cannot be too happy with the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

India has been worried about attempts to radicalize Indian Muslims.

``That is still true (most Indian Muslims are out of the extremist fold) to a very, very large extent,’’ India's national security adviser, M. K.

Narayanan, recently said in a television interview. ``But what has happened is that a very, very manifest attempt to recruit Indian Muslims is now being done.’’ These efforts, he said, are increasingly directed at educated Indian Muslims and, more troubling, at elements within the military.

In news that has set the alarm bells ringing, three Indian soldiers are reported have admitted to links with the dreaded Lashkar-e-Toiba that India accuses of orchestrating most terror attacks. It is the first time 16 years since insurgency erupted in Indian Kashmir that evidence has emerged of militants having infiltrated the Indian army.

There are other disturbing reports from Indian Kashmir that even Hindu youth might be indulging in hit and run terrorist attacks on tourists and civilians due to easy money. However, it is a misnomer to think that terrorism in India due to disgruntled Muslims elements. Jihadi terror in India pales in comparison to the militant activities of Naxalites who rampage states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. In northeast India, the most prominent terrorist grouping in Assam ULFA is Hindu.

Ironically, over the last couple of years, Bush has repeatedly praised Indian Muslims for not being lured by the Al-Qaeda, despite Muslim youth across the world falling prey to radical Islamists. The reason, Bush said, is the success of India as a democracy that empowers the Muslim population to vote leaders of their choice as well as being recipients of political favors.

For the record, A P J Abdul Kalam (President of India), Azim Premji (head of Wipro, one of the biggest software companies), Shah Rukh Khan (foremost Bollywood actor) and Irfan Pathan (cricketer and pin-up) are Muslims.

However, terrorists now feed on an angst that envelops and binds them, wherever they might be placed. Their aim is to disrupt peace and the tenets that belong to a civil society. Only a worldwide crackdown and thrashing out of issues that face the global community can bring solutions.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist)