Being a minority

Published : Sep 26, 2008 00:00 IST

An iftaar feast outside the Jama Masjid in Delhi on September 2, the first day of the month of Ramzan.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

An iftaar feast outside the Jama Masjid in Delhi on September 2, the first day of the month of Ramzan.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Members of minority communities face harassment and discrimination in many States, though not raw violence as in Orissa.

Madhya Pradesh By Purnima S. Tripathi in Gwalior and Indore

MINORITY communities in Madhya Pradesh, both Muslim and Christian, have found themselves the target of sporadic attacks during the almost five years of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule, with the State generally turning a blind eye to their plight. The latest attacks, coming in the wake of the violence in Orissa, have been directed against Christians in Gwalior. Christians have traditionally been safe in the city though in Jhabua, Jabalpur and Bhopal the community has, off and on, come under attack.

On the morning of August 29, when Christian educational institutions all over the country observed a bandh to protest against the killings in Orissa, churches and prestigious Christian missionary schools in the heart of Gwalior St. Pauls, Carmel Convent, St. Teresa School, and St. Paul EL School and Church were stoned by mobs that also damaged the gates and desecrated crosses and shouted slogans such as Missionaries Bharat chhodo (Missionaries leave India). The next day, newspapers carried photographs of the attacks. Yet, no arrests were made and no action was taken. Some of the miscreants were reportedly identified as members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal.

At St. Pauls School, the mob erected a cross with bricks and wrote abuses on it, said principal Fr. Joyel Sebastian. He believed that it was lucky that the school was not functioning that day and the gates were closed. Otherwise, he said, the mob, which shouted slogans like Burn the missionaries robes, might have caused substantial damage. The attack on Carmel Convent, where the nuns locked themselves in, was equally vicious and perhaps all the more scary because the violence in Orissa had forced some Carmel Convent nuns to run into the forest for safety. Sister Superior Divya said: They say Isayio Bharat chhodo. Where will we go? We are Indians, born and brought up here. Where can we go?

The schools that came under attack have among their students children of the citys creamy layer, including senior bureaucrats and politicians. The principal of St. Pauls School, where the majority of the 3,650 students are Hindus, was dismayed by the response of their parents: I was expecting that 150-160 parents would call me to boost my morale, but no such thing happened.

Muslims do not seem to feel any safer in the State, either. Ibrahim Quereshi, former Chairman of the State Minority Commission, who served the commission continuously from 1994 to 2005, gave some shocking figures. Under the present government, he said, 42 Muslims had been killed in 135 major incidents in over 23 districts, 5,000 fake cases had been registered against Muslims, and 1,500 houses and commercial establishments belonging to Muslims had been burnt. In three places last year, Quereshi said, mosques were burnt and the Quran was thrown into the fire. Once again, the perpetrators went scot-free and Muslims found cases registered against them.

However, being numerically stronger than the Christians, Muslims have sometimes hit back with counter-violence, a trend that community leaders do not fully deny. Qazi Ishrat Ali, the Shahr Qazi of Indore, a communally sensitive area, admitted that the endless attacks were poisoning the minds of young people, who have started disregarding the advice of their elders to remain calm.

Karnataka By Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed in Bangalore

ON August 30, a group of around 70 people, accompanied by the police and a BJP corporator, reportedly stormed into St. Aloysius College in Mangalore and started shouting slogans against the institute and Christian missionaries. We had closed our college the previous day in accordance with the call given by the Catholic Church in India to close all Catholic institutions expressing solidarity with the Christian community in Orissa. Now they wanted us to shut the college because they wanted it, said Fr. Francis Serrao, Rector of the college.

This was not an isolated incident. Intimidation of Christians has grown considerably in the State over the past few months. The relations between the Christian and Hindu communities in the State have historically been peaceful, but the second Quit India call given by the VHP in 1996 was instrumental in changing attitudes towards Christians, said Sajan George, editor of Persecution Update, a monthly magazine documenting attacks against Christians throughout India. Reported cases of violence against Christians have been increasing over the past few years. In the few months since the BJP came to power, Sajan George said, there have been around 36 cases of attacks against Christians in Karnataka.

Muslims in the State also feel discriminated against in their day-to-day lives. A senior government official spoke to Frontline of how there was discrimination in government appointments to various board and committees. Muslims are usually shunted off to insignificant departments where they cannot really do anything useful. A senior police officer commented on the low representation of Muslims in the police service.

There are several neighbourhoods in Bangalore where Muslims find it difficult to buy or rent houses, which forces them to live in Muslim-majority areas. It is very difficult for a Muslim to find a house to live in areas like Hanumanthnagar or Basvangudi, said M.A. Siraj, a Bangalore-based journalist working for the BBC World Service. Faheemunnisa, secretary of the Tippu Education Society, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for the welfare of child workers, said there was a great disparity in the way development projects were implemented. Many Muslim-dominated areas, such as D.J. Halli, did not get sufficient development funds, she said. Another welfare organisation complained that the State intelligence department kept a close tab on its relief activities and questioned its employees as if they were criminals.

Muslims feel that they are the first targets of police suspicion whenever something goes wrong. In the recent low-key bomb blasts that took place in Bangalore, a young Muslim who was associated with the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) several years ago was interrogated. He was let off later as there was no evidence to link him to the blasts.

Members of Christian organisations have commented on police indifference to the plight of Christians who are under attack by the majority community and, in some cases, even complicity with the perpetrators. According to a report prepared by the All India Christian Council (AICC) documenting religious violence and discrimination in Karnataka from January 2006 to August 2008, the police sometimes openly sided with members of Hindutva organisations. According to the report, in July 2008, a case was registered against a pastor in Ankoal in Karwar district after 20 men barged into his house and disrupted his Sunday worship.

In another case, 20 to 25 Bajrang Dal activists disrupted a prayer meeting at the home of Ramakrishna, a Christian, at Turuvekere in Tumkur district. Several copies of the Bible were shredded and burnt, but the local police chose to attack the Christian victims, physically and verbally. Karnataka Home Minister Dr. V.S. Acharya, however, claimed that his police were completely unbiased.

The response of Primary and Secondary Education Minister Vishweshwara Hegde Kageri to the recent peaceful protest by Christian schools and colleges has also caused a deep sense of insecurity in the Christian community in the State. The Minister directed the issue of notices to the protesting schools, asking them to explain why action should not be taken against them for keeping the institutions closed on August 29. The response from the State has been very negative and the Education Department has threatened that it will withdraw recognition to our schools, said the Archbishop of Bangalore, Bernard Moras.

Dr. Acharya, speaking to Frontline, said that more than 90 per cent of the schools that were part of the protest received grant-in-aid from the State government and were expected to take prior permission before shutting their schools. That is why, he said, a show-cause notice had been issued.

Rajasthan By T.K. Rajalakshmi in Jaipur

WHILE Orissa was still coming to terms with the communal violence in Kandhamal district, a small group of Christian organisations took out a candlelight rally in Jaipur, appealing to all to take cognisance of the mayhem. The organisations were in a way highlighting their own insecurity, especially in the light of the increasing attacks on minorities in the State over the past few years.

Around the same time, in another part of the city, Muslim organisations and leaders under the aegis of the Rajasthan Muslim Forum were huddled in a meeting to seek a way to avoid a communal clash at Jambwa Ramgarh on the outskirts of Jaipur. An alleged incident of eve-teasing on August 29 had caused tempers to flare up and some members of the minority community had their property damaged. The police booked several youngsters, all of them from the minority community. No action was taken over the circulation of incendiary pamphlets referring to the August 29 incident and exhorting Hindus to rise in protest. No organisation claimed responsibility for the pamphlets, which was signed Samast Hindu Samaaj (the entire Hindu society).

Muslims in Rajasthan have found themselves at the receiving end after the May 13 bomb blasts in Jaipur. Some doctors and medical students were picked up for questioning by the Special Operations Group of the Special Investigating Team (SIT) and later let off for want of evidence. Abrar Ali, 27, a final-year MBBS student at the Sawai Man Singh Medical College, was picked up from his hostel room on August 16. He was released after the police failed to establish his links with Sajid Mansoori, who the Gujarat Police claim is one of the masterminds behind the Jaipur blasts. Over the six days that he spent in the custody of the SIT, he was grilled about Sajids alleged visit to his room and movements in the city a day before the blasts.

But that was not all. The vernacular media labelled him Dr Death and Dr Terror and even gave elaborate descriptions of how he used bandages to make the bombs. Abrar is now seriously contemplating writing to the Press Council of India for the defamatory statements that were made against him. A good student all through his life, Abrar is the first in his family, which lives in Kota, to have studied as far as he has. The media hurt me a lot. I dont know what my family is going through, he said.

If Muslim doctors had to deal with a suspicious administration, Bengali-speaking Muslims who have lived in Jaipur for several decades found the police swooping on them in the urban slums, under orders from the Home Ministry, looking for Bangladeshis. Members of the minority community living in areas such as Jagatpura and Bagrana on the Jaipur-Agra highway had voter identity cards and ration cards. A few of them had pattas for their land as well. The drive to identify Bangladeshi migrants has been on for some time, but the process received an impetus after the May blasts. At Manoharpura Bid, a colony in Jagatpura, Hameeda, a domestic worker, was in a state of near-hysteria. Her rickshaw-puller husband, Hannan Matabar, had been sent a notice by the local police demanding documents to show that he was an Indian. Four others had received such notices.

With the help of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Matabar got proof of residence from the Sutia gram panchayat in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal. Even that was not enough evidence for the police. Everyone is terrified. Where will we go? We have lived here for the last 25 years, Hameeda said.

Tea shop vendor Mohammad Badal also got a notice from the Additional Police Commissioner informing him that there was proof that he was not an Indian. His 75-year-old mother, Razia, laughed at the suggestion: I am a Hindustani, my husband is, but my son isnt! How is it possible? Originally from Cooch Behar in West Bengal, Razia is determined to fight it out.

Engineer Mohammad Salim is the State president of the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind. A postgraduate from Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, he is on the faculty of the Department of Electronics and Communications, GNIT University. His organisation has listed out 29 instances of communal violence targeting minorities during the previous Congress regime and nearly 48 instances under the present BJP-led government

The feeling of insecurity cuts across most minority groups, especially those who do not have a political voice. Christians, who constitute less than 1 per cent of the population in Rajasthan, feel insecure, too. The Kota-based Emmanuel Mission was singled out for persecution in 2006. Not only were its premises and staff attacked, its FCRA accounts were frozen, thus making it impossible for it to run its orphanage well. The mission had to cut down on all its charitable activities, including the running of schools. Its main administrators, M.A. Thomas Samuel Thomas and his son, were told by the government to take prior permission before leaving the country. The missions registration was also suspended. The matter is now in court.

The administrator of a mission school at Jotwara on the outskirts of Jaipur told Frontline that attendance had dropped after the school was attacked in 2006. Nearly 95 per cent of the children studying in Emmanuel Mission schools across the State are from the majority community. The administrator said that barring the Left parties and Amra Ram, the lone Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator in the Assembly, none had stood up for the mission.

Raymond Coelho, president of the Rajasthan Christian Fellowship, told Frontline that minority community members in the villages were more insecure than those living in the cities. There is a feeling of constant insecurity, in terms of ones life, in the practice of ones religion or gathering in groups for prayer, he said.

Andhra Pradesh By N. Rahul in Hyderabad

AS Kandhamal burnt, a peoples tribunal sat in Hyderabad to hear cases of atrocities committed against minorities in the name of fighting terror. Sponsored by civil society organisations, the tribunal recorded testimonies of 40 victims of atrocities across the country, including a woman whose three sons continue to be held under provisions of the now repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in connection with the Godhra carnage in 2002. The jury included noted Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, retired Justices S.N. Bhargava (Rajasthan) and Sardar Ali Khan (Andhra Pradesh), and senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan.

Hyderabad was chosen as the venue for the first of a series of such tribunals in view of the high number of illegal arrests of Muslims in Andhra Pradesh. In its interim observations after the depositions, the jury said that it had found a large number of innocent young Muslims victimised by the police on the suspicion of involvement in terrorist acts. The numbers were alarming in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, it said. In most cases, the persons picked up were not shown as arrested for days and their families were not informed about their detention. They were tortured in police custody and often forced to confess and sign blank papers.

The testimonies showed widespread communalisation of the police across the country. The courts routinely permitted police remand and did not grant bail on the strength of police claims that the persons detained were required for further investigation. The courts did not examine whether there was any evidence against them. The media, too, publicised the allegations levelled by the police.

If Christians in Andhra Pradesh felt secure under their Christian Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, that security took a blow when a priest, Father Thomas Pandippally of Yellareddy town in Nizamabad district, was murdered on the night of August 16 on his way home from a prayer meeting in Burugidda village, 25 km from Yellareddy. His battered and bruised body was found on the roadside the next day.

Zafar Javeed, general secretary of the Federation of Andhra Pradesh Minority Educational Institutions, thought the Kandhamal and Yellareddy incidents sent out warning signals to Muslims, too. The federation represents 240 professional colleges run by Christian, Muslim, Sikh and linguistic minority groups. Javeed added that it was the harassment after every terror attack that made Muslims feel insecure. Madrassas, he said, were perceived as breeding grounds for terrorism. He insisted that the arrest of Abul Bashir, a product of a Hyderabad madrassa, in connection with the Ahmedabad blasts should not be allowed to prejudice perceptions about such institutions.

Former Minister Basheeruddin Babu Khan said that it was not just after the Kandhamal incidents that Muslims felt insecure. The police, he said, targeted Muslims every time there was a bomb blast.

Harcharan Singh Josh, Member, National Commission for Minorities, agreed that young Muslims were unnecessarily harassed by the police. He recalled that the police released 100 young men in Hyderabad at the intervention of the commission in March and April. Of the 125 youth who were detained in connection with the blasts, the police ended up producing only 25 of them in court, and that too, on frivolous charges that he was sure would not stand up to scrutiny.

Echoing the sentiments of victims of atrocities, the peoples tribunal suggested that India should forthwith sign the International Criminal Court Treaty known as the Rome Statute, accepted by most countries. Special sensitisation programmes should be organised for the judiciary and the police regarding human rights, the tribunal said.

Maharashtra By Anupama Katakam in Mumbai

ALTHOUGH she came under fire for her blunt and, perhaps, politically incorrect comment, Shabana Azmi was not far off the mark when she said Muslims in Mumbai found it difficult to find a house. Claiming Muslims faced discrimination, she said on television: If Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar could not find a house what are we talking about?

Mumbai is said to be a melting pot of cultures. Yet, the irony is that people belonging to a certain culture and religion today find it difficult to live and find employment in the city. Ayesha Patel, an advertising executive, said: Shabana Azmi was absolutely bang on. I searched very hard for a place to buy two years ago. We would reach the final stage of negotiations, but when they found out I was Muslim, the whole deal would fall through. Some would say it subtly, others would be blatant.

She eventually found a flat in a building where most of her neighbours are Catholic Christians. Those two years were the worst ever for me, she said of her years of house-hunting. It really revealed a side of India that, as an Indian brought up on secular and democratic values, one cannot imagine.

When Ayesha Patel questioned brokers or owners about why they would not sell to a Muslim, she was given a host of reasons. Among the less offensive were: They are meat eaters. The smell offends vegetarians in the building. During Eid, goats are brought to the compound for slaughter. [Muslim] families are too large, and this puts a strain on the buildings resources.

Earlier, the bias against Muslims was confined mainly to the middle class. Now it has filtered into more affluent localities, said Shivram Thakkar, a real estate broker. A Supreme Court judgment in 2005 upheld the right of cooperative societies to restrict membership to their particular communities. Now, one comes across little groups Catholics want to live together, a group of Jains may want a block of flats to belong to only Jains.

Mumbai has vegetarian buildings, another trend sanctified by the Supreme Court. When flats in a building are available only to vegetarians, it often becomes a way of excluding Muslims and Christians. When this correspondent said her family was vegetarian Christian, a building society said it would consider her request for a flat. Of course, there are Catholic societies in Bandra that will allow only Christians, and Bohri (a Muslim sect) buildings that are open to only Bohris. Such intolerance was not there in the past, Thakkar said.

Indeed, Mumbai was not so insular before 1992-93 and was known as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country. With a growing migrant population, it continues to have diverse cultures coexisting. Yet, many old-timers and experts who observe the citys evolution believe it changed after the communal riots of 1992-93 that followed the Babri Masjid demolition, and the subsequent serial bomb blasts. After the riots, Muslims living in Hindu-majority neighbourhoods moved to localities where they could be close to other Muslims, and Hindus did the same thing. The entire suburb of Mumbra was created after the riots. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, hundreds of Muslims fled to this locality.

In recent years, Mumbai has seen the growth of community-dominated localities. Areas such as Dongri, Nagpada in South Mumbai, Navpada, Behrampada near Bandra, Andheri-East and Jogeshwari East in the northern suburbs are virtual ghettos.

When there have been so many attempts in the recent past to destabilise communal peace, it is better for us to live among our own, said Sayeed Khan, a social worker and businessman from Nagpada. Nagpada is now a mixed neighbourhood housing both the rich and the poor. There are many traders and businessmen living in this traditionally Muslim neighbourhood, said Aziz Makki. After 1993, Nagpada lost its predominantly wealthy profile as poorer Muslims poured in from across the city.

According to the 2001 Census, Hindus constitute 68 per cent of Mumbais population; Muslims 17 per cent; Christians 4 per cent; Buddhists 4 per cent; Parsis, Jains, Sikhs and Jews together 6 per cent. What makes Muslims, the second largest religious group in the city and traditionally an essential part of the citys social fabric, the most targeted, discriminated against and victimised community today? Politics, said Asghar Ali Engineer, a well-known scholar and activist. The rise of the saffron brigade is singularly responsible for this polarisation.

An interesting study on the access to information technology within the mohallas of Mumbai, conducted by Rehana Gadhially and Farida Khan from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, is an example of how the Muslim community is marginalised. The study says: In the bustling city of Mumbai, Muslim sects such as the Aga Khanis, Ishana Asharis, the Bohras, Memons, Konkani, etc, populate the area from Crawford Market to Byculla Station. This heterogeneity is compounded by diversity in education, class and language. Yet in this stretch of seven bus stops there are no world-class computer training institutions such as APTECH, NIIT, or SSI.

This kind of exclusion, Rehana Gadhially said, could actually jeopardise the place of Muslims in world development. She told Frontline that when the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) set up IT classes and gave out diplomas, there were hundreds of youngsters, girls and even housewives who flocked to these centres. Under the pretext of learning Urdu, they were able to get an IT diploma, which everyone knows secures a good job. Unfortunately, this diploma would never have the value an NIIT diploma carries. Firoze Mithiborewala, who works with Muslim youth, says that it has actually been the IT and media sectors that have given Muslims a fair chance to succeed. Unfortunately, even in corporate set-ups, Muslims often find that they are the ones facing questions whenever there is an inquiry related to terror attacks or other crimes, said Mithiborewala.

Gujarat By Lyla Bavadam in Ahmedabad

ANTAGONISM between Hindus and Muslims in Ahmedabad is almost as old as the city itself. One of the earliest documented riots took place in 1714. The spirit of commerce, however, ensured that trade between the communities took precedence over animosities. This changed after the 2002 riots. Muslims in the city say that the discrimination they faced earlier was subtle and in no way comparable to the open antagonism they now deal with in day-to-day life.

In the largely Muslim area of Khanpur, Babubhai, who owns a car rental business, finds the old camaraderie missing. His fleet of 12 cars was burnt in the riots. He sold what remained of them as scrap and built up his business again, this time with six vehicles. Its not as easy as it was earlier. There are two hotels near my office and the reception clerks would always call me if anyone wanted to hire a car. Now they dont. A relationship of 20 years was broken in those weeks of rioting.

Babubhai believes this sort of discrimination was always there, but he saw less of it earlier because of his name which is not typically identifiable as Muslim. Hanif, the Muslim driver of the rickshaw hired for the day by this correspondent, was reticent. He gave his surname but then requested that it should not be printed. His goal was to go to London and do something with computers. Towards this end, he learnt typing and had started attending classes to learn the basics of computer programming. He never finished his training because, he said, the tutor would humiliate him every day. I would be late at times, and he would mock me saying, Muslims can only drive rickshaws and do not have the brains of Hindus. While his academic plans seem to be on hold, his desire to leave Gujarat, if not the country, is still a driving force. He is now trying for a drivers job in the Gulf.

But leaving is not an option for the majority of Muslims. Those who stayed on after 2002 say they feel more secure in Muslim areas such as Juhapura. From being a nondescript suburb, Juhapura now houses about 400,000 Muslims from all income levels ranging from retired judges to rickshaw drivers. Though it is a suburb of the city, the area has poor roads and is not connected by public transport. It was only last month that a nationalised bank opened a branch here.

This kind of neglect by the state, said Fr. Cedric Prakash said, was part of a typical plan of ghettoisation. The idea is to neglect the community. Since the community needs to survive, it begins its own systems. Then the state accuses it of being isolated and different, and the cycle of discrimination and persecution continues.

Fr. Cedric, a human rights activist and director of Prashant, a centre for human rights, justice and peace, says discrimination is a relatively new experience for Christians in Gujarat and that it started with the BJPs coming to power in 1998. Two extreme acts marked the beginning of the trend. One was the forced exhumation of the body of a Methodist, Samuel Christian, in July 1998 after the VHP claimed he had been buried in a disputed burial ground. The other was the destruction of a church in Naroda, Ahmedabad, also in 1998. Since then a slow fire intimidation, as Fr. Cedric calls it, has been practised.

Immediately after the Godhra incident, Christians were warned not to pray openly; churches conducted services softly with the windows and doors shut so as not to offend local Hindus. Priests, nuns and lay Christians have been abused, threatened and manhandled. In the first week of September, stones and firecrackers were hurled at Christian schools.

When Christians are asked why they are being discriminated against in Gujarat, the general reply is that they are the victims of a political strategy. Christians living in Gujarat, especially Gujarati Christians (that is, local converts), say that they have always lived in harmony with Hindus. Simon Parmar, a Gujarati Christian and former editor of a Christian community pamphlet, said: As Christians we were always seen as different but not in the way that Muslims were. People were more accepting. In fact, it used to be a great thing for people to send their children to Christian-run schools and by virtue of that all Christians were respected. While the desire for such education remains, there has been a change in the attitude towards the people who run the institutions. Parmar said, They want to take advantage of our schools, but they do not want to help us when we need support.

Fr. Cedric confirmed that education in Christian-run institutions continued to be highly valued and the urban elite benefit from it. The grandchildren of Keshubhai Patel [of the BJP] go to our schools. But, he says, there is an inconsistency in the attitude of the elite. Our mandate is to provide education not just to the elite but also to the poor, the marginalised and Dalits. This, the elite does not want. They say we are taking advantage of, and converting, illiterate people. They raise the bogey of conversion. This is nothing but a political strategy.

A Central government official who is a Christian and lives in Ahmedabad (he did not want to be identified further) said: The average Hindu Gujarati has nothing against Christians, but right-wing parties want to create a divide and use it to their advantage. So they say that the Christian vote is tilted towards the Congress, and they try and build a connection between Sonia Gandhi and the Christians and the Congress. It is an idea that is being put into the minds of the people so that parties gain political mileage.

Discrimination in the search for jobs and homes, or at the workplace at the time of promotions, has only recently become an issue for Christians in Ahmedabad. Christians employed by the State government have now started complaining that their promotions are slow and that they get posted in obscure places. Christians looking for houses say Hindu landlords shy away from giving them homes once they hear their Christian names.

Forming only 0.53 per cent of the population of the State, the Christian community is, Fr. Cedric pointed out, too small to be ghettoised. The tendency for such ghettoisation is evident in the way many Christians have moved away from Narayanpura, which is now almost completely a Hindu area.

In an effort at reconciliation, activists have tried to beat the insidious tactics of right-wing groups by being upfront in their protests. On September 2, the Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights organised a silent peace rally to protest against the killing of the VHPs Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and the subsequent attacks on Christians in Orissa. About 20,000 people marched in the rally.

Tamil Nadu By S. Viswanathan in Chennai

TAMIL NADU has a history of peaceful coexistence of different communities. Yet, the malaise of discrimination practised on the ground has not completely spared the State. Stories of neglect, apathy and abuse lurk beneath the surface, and even the best-intentioned government policies are more often than not defeated by people entrusted with the task of implementing them.

Noted Tamil poet Kavikko Abdul Rahman said bureaucrats tried to nullify, in all possible ways, the good effects of the schemes launched by the States secular government for the welfare of the Muslim community. He regretted that the Sachar Committee Report, which brought to light the plight of the minority community all over the country, had not evoked any response from the Union government. He said that there had been all-round discrimination against the minority community. Discrimination took many forms, ranging from blocking or delaying bank aid to Muslims to denying them access to the benefits of government schemes.

Speaking to Frontline, he said: Why should our people be treated like aliens, as if they are all of foreign origin? We are in no way responsible for the creation of Pakistan. We opted to live here as sons of the soil, sharing the same language and the same heritage. Was it wrong? He said that the most humiliating of the abuses against Muslims was being asked, Why dont you go to your homeland, Pakistan?

The Chairman of the State Wakf Board and general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, S. Hyder Ali, said even benefits such as maternity assistance to Muslim women were sometimes denied in places such as Thondi in Ramanathapuram. He spoke of the tendency of officials to dilute the assistance to Muslim women under a century-old government scheme.

In 1892, the colonial government founded the Muslim Womens Association in Chennai with the District Collector as its Chairman and with several others representing the community. The intention was to provide development assistance to Muslim women in Chennai out of a fund created with donations from the community and a matching grant from the government. Recently, the State government extended the scheme to all districts. He said that when it came up for discussion at the departmental level, bureaucrats wanted a ceiling to be fixed for the communitys contribution with a view to limiting the governments matching grant. When we took it up with the Chief Minister, he promised to correct the situation, but nothing seems to have been done so far, Hyder Ali said.

The birth of the Hindu Munnani, a Hindutva organisation and now a powerful constituent of the Sangh Parivar, in the early 1980s is seen as the starting point of the spread of a hate culture. Among its activities was the reorienting of Vinayaka Chaturthi in Chennai in a provocative way to suit its agenda of reviving Hindu glory. It also intervened in the mass conversion of Dalits, victims of oppression by caste-Hindu landlords in the southern districts, to Islam. All this is seen as the beginning of a long confrontation.

These efforts to sow the seeds of discord have not succeeded significantly. Even the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and the riots it triggered in other parts of the country did not spur any violent response from the States Muslims. However, 80 per cent of the States Muslims live in poverty and prolonged neglect and discrimination has caused despair and dejection in them. All this makes fertile ground for the strengthening of fundamentalist elements.

Yet, Tamil Nadu has a long tradition of communal harmony. The Madras Presidency remained peaceful when communal violence rocked northern India at the time of Partition. The southern State has never experienced a major communal conflagration.

One of the historical reasons often mentioned for this is that Tamil Nadu did not see any significant Muslim invasion. The visit of Malik Kafur, the army chief of Sultan Alauddin Khilji, to Madurai in the early 14th century to bail King Sundara Pandian out of a crisis, as instructed by Khilji in response to a request from the Pandya ruler, did nothing to harm this harmony though some historians mention the generals destruction of temples on his way. There are historical references to his gesture of presenting puja materials to a Hindu mutt in Madurai. Two centuries later, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is also credited with having made a similar donation to the mutt. He is also stated to have provided a site for the Tamil Saivite savant Kumaragurubarar to build a mutt in Delhi. During British rule, too, there was no significant change in the cordial relations among the different religious communities.

There were no major communal animosities for over three decades after Independence. Much of this is attributed to the impact of the Self-Respect Movement, which later evolved into the Dravidian Movement, based on rationalist and egalitarian ideals.

West Bengal By Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata

WEST BENGAL, for all its shortcomings, has one golden thread running through its history and tradition a respect for secular principles in political and social life. A senior civil servant (now retired) from Uttar Pradesh, while talking to Frontline recently, was surprised to learn that Assembly and parliamentary elections in West Bengal are fought on ideological rather than caste or communal lines.

Apart from this, any study about the status of minorities in West Bengal, especially Muslims, has to be considered in a historical perspective. One has to remember that unlike in Punjab, there was no bloodbath leading to an exchange of populations at the dawn of Independence. Mahatma Gandhis one-man boundary force worked a miracle on the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) that day as Hindus and Muslims embraced each other in the joy of their newfound freedom.

Jawaharlal Nehrus sagacity led to the Nehru-Liaquat Ali agreement for the protection of minorities on both sides of the border. However, the Muslim community in undivided Bengal had a limited middle-class base for historical reasons. The better educated and relatively well-to-do among the small Muslim middle class gravitated towards East Pakistan in the hope of better economic prospects; they and their descendants in due course became the pillars of the new state of Bangladesh. It is no wonder that the Sachar Committee has found that the lot of those Muslims left behind in West Bengal is not very satisfactory.

The State government has made serious efforts to improve their economic conditions and maintain communal harmony. It has to be remembered that there has not been a single major communal riot in West Bengal in the three decades of Left Front rule.

During the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, peace prevailed in Kolkata. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 did not precipitate any major disturbance. It is generally believed that this is owing not simply to the efficiency of the police and administration. The Left Front constituents have maintained a strict vigil at the grassroots and any disturbance that can take a communal colour has been immediately addressed by the civil society under the panchayati raj.

Apart from Muslims, other minorities, notably Sikhs and Christians, have also never faced any problem of a communal nature.

Tayyab Ahmad Khan, who retired as the Director General of Police in 2004, said: I would not only say West Bengal is a secular State, I would even venture to suggest that it is the most secular State in the country. It is not just the government it is the people themselves who are responsible for the situation. You see, at the urban elite level, secularism exists everywhere. But the kind of secularism that exists at the level of the general population is, I feel, unique in West Bengal.

Stephen Naskar, 34, is an itinerant vegetable vendor. His family has been Roman Catholic for four generations. He said: I live in Keshtopur in north Kolkata, where the population is mostly Hindu. During our Bada din [Christmas] I distribute cakes among my neighbours, and during Durga Puja, they invite me and my family to participate in the festivities. There are two Muslim families in my neighbourhood, and they have no problems either.

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