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Alienation of Mumbai Muslims

From CNN correspondent Ram Ramgopal

Muslims pray in a mosque in the Bhendi Bazzar, Mumbai.
Muslims pray in a mosque in the Bhendi Bazzar, Mumbai.

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MUMBAI, India -- As a teeming city with its mind firmly set on the business of making money, Mumbai is a microcosm of greater India.

Like the country itself, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) has a majority Hindu population, with Muslims making up a substantial minority.

In one of the largest Muslim districts in Mumbai, the streets are packed with people and businesses. Here Muslims find comfort in numbers. It's a thriving community and a central part of business and trade in India's commercial capital.

But events of the past few months have left a sense of unease among the city's residents -- both Muslims and Hindus alike.

Since last December a series of explosions has rocked the city, with bombs placed in public transport vehicles: on buses, trains, taxis.

The most deadly were in August, when near simultaneous taxi bombs exploded in two places, killing 53 people.

The police say the bombings are the handiwork of Islamic terrorists. They have arrested several people, including a family -- father, mother and teenage daughter -- they say, carried out one of the August bombings.

To the police's greater surprise, the profile of others under investigation is also very different from what they have seen before. The suspects are educated professionals, some are well traveled and according to the police, motivated not by money, but by ideology.

"None of the accused have a criminal, previous criminal record. Two, none of them has done it for money. Three, most of them are very well-educated," Rakesh Maria, the Joint Commissioner of Mumbai Police, told CNN.

Among the accused are educated youngsters like Nasir Mulla's son, Aatif, who was arrested and charged under India's strict terrorism laws with supplying arms to extremists.

The 27-year-old has an MBA and had worked as an executive with a pharmaceutical firm before he was arrested in April from this village, about 60 km northeast of Mumbai.

Father Nasir Mulla is the patriarch of a prosperous family business: for five generations the Mulla's family has dominated the timber trade here.

Now he finds himself having to defend his son from accusations of terrorism.

"I can only laugh at these policeman's stories. Now you must have heard they arrest some people, some innocent youth and within an hour they declare that these are the culprits and we have caught them and we have solved the cases. How can, in an hour, they can solve the cases without interrogation?" said Nasir.

Many residents in this village of 7,000 say they try to live by the true principles of Islam. For instance, homes that have television watch only state-owned channels, staying away from what they call the "corrupting channels" on cable.

The villagers say their fundamentalist beliefs make them easy targets of the authorities but they deny any of those arrested could have participated in the violence.

The police have another version: villages like this, they say, had organized Muslim activist groups, including the Students' Islamic Movement of India, a group that the Indian government has now banned for its alleged violent ways. And they say the leaders have gone underground:

"Small cells, small modules, independent of each other but well coordinated, maintaining full secrecy. This is the type of terrorism we are facing," said Rakesh.


Mumbai is no stranger to terrorism, but before the recent outbreak of attacks, the last significant one was a decade ago, in 1993, when 13 bombs went off across the city within a space of two hours. Two hundred fifty seven people were killed. The apparent perpetrators: the local Muslim underworld that was avenging the death of Muslims in riots following the demolition by Hindus of a 16th century mosque.

This time around, many police officers say, the motive for the Mumbai bombings appears to be another painful incident from last year: religious riots, between Muslims and Hindus, in the neighboring state of Gujarat. Hundreds of people, the majority of them Muslims, were killed in the violence.

The police say another group behind most of the recent attacks in Mumbai is the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force. And some Indian authorities believe there are links with more distant places. They say Muslims in Mumbai are being recruited by separatist terrorist groups from Kashmir, a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan.

The purpose, according to police is to engineer a religious divide that bleeds India dry.

So, is the Indian Muslim so alienated from the mainstream as to take up arms? Or is it a small minority whose sense of grievance is being given a religious twist?

Dr. Zahir Kazi is a community activist and a successful radiologist. He's seen past religious riots and the recent explosions. He believes the average Muslim is worried about what's happening and thinks both Hindus and Muslims should combat the threat of terrorism together.

"Both the events I condemned. One is the mob violence and other is the bomb violence. One is reaction, the other is action, whatever you may call it." Said Dr Zahir.

Business hurting

One man already seeing the effect the bombings have had on his business is Mohsin Rizvi.

Rizvi is a motorcycle mechanic who works in the shadow of a freeway in central Mumbai.

His business is hurting, he says, because people are nervous about the future and are spending less.

"It has affected everyone. Because I don't get any one kind of client. There are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, everyone. They want their bikes fixed cheap. You can't, but I have to do it, to stay in business."

Fifty-six years ago, upon independence from Great Britain, India was partitioned into two states, with Pakistan being created as a Muslim homeland.

India remained secular, and many Muslims whose forefathers opted to stay here, say another partition is not desirable.

"We would like to have a united India and we are for it because once united, we're all united, the country's strong, we are all strong."

Numbering an estimated 150 million, there are more Muslims here than in Islamic Pakistan and every other country in the world barring Indonesia. So what happens in the microcosm of Mumbai could hold lessons for the rest of India.

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