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Resisting change

Print edition : Jan 27, 2006 T+T-
Abu Salem, allegedly involved in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, was recently repatriated by Portugal.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Abu Salem, allegedly involved in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, was recently repatriated by Portugal.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

WHEN Atif Mulla marries in February, there will be no music, no young people dancing, and the guests will not be able to watch their favourite programmes on cable television: here, encouraged by local clerics, the community is determined to resist the seductions of what it sees as a vulgar, immoral world. Just an hour's drive from suburban Mumbai, the small village of Padgah seems to be almost another planet.

Padgah and the nearby village of Borivali have been branded in the Mumbai media as being "a den of militants," "a hot bed of militant activity," and "a fertile ground for militants to recruit disillusioned Muslim youth". Home to Saquib Nachen, the all-India general secretary of the now-banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), who has been charged with orchestrating the bombing of a bus in Mumbai's Mulund area, the village has seen more than 16 young men sent to jail for their role in the outrage.

Mulla himself has just obtained bail after spending 33 months in jail for his alleged role in the Mulund bombing, part of a series of blasts that rocked Mumbai in 2003. Like most people in the community, he believes the arrests are the consequence of communal bias and prejudice in the police force: "I am innocent," he says, "and have always maintained that even under the most severe form of torture". Many of those charged are from backgrounds that defy the stereotype of the madrassa-educated fanatic. Both Mulla and his father, for example, studied at elite Mumbai colleges and speak excellent English.

Police sources say there is evidence that terror-training camps were organised in the area by SIMI, an organisation that provided a steady trickle of cadre to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Arms and bomb detonation materials have repeatedly been recovered from the village. At least 10 SIMI members continue to live in the village, say the police. Villagers, however, say the police plant the materials to discredit the community. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a village elder admitted that jehadi groups "may" have recruited some cadre. "We cannot rule that out; after all look at the level of frustration," he said.

Nasir Mulla, Atif Mulla's father, is irate at the suggestion. "I do not know where they come up with these `militant' things," he says. "We are just like any other Muslim mohalla," he argues, "except that here we try and make a difference in providing education and religious instruction. For instance we do not allow cable television in the village. A lot of emphasis is placed on the right interpretation of Islam and its application in our daily lives. If you want to call this conservative you can, but it is a pure form of the religion. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we are targeted - because of the strong sense of religion. Yet they do not seem to realise that we are proud to be Indians."

Young people, perhaps surprisingly, seem to have fallen in line with the village's ultra-conservative order, which is shaped by an alliance between clerics and its five most affluent families. Rarely has there been any defiance to the rules laid down for the community, says Nasir Mulla. Organisations such as the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-i-Islami have active branches in the village. Both organisations only do religious, educational and social work. When SIMI was around it was also active, but mainly in religious activities. Fearing harassment, almost all SIMI members have left the village.

A very strong feeling of persecution and an overwhelming sense of fear persist in the village. Atif Mulla's case reinforces this mood. "The most frustrating part is that we have no platform to speak from," says Anwar Sattar, a first year college student. "Politicians," he says, "only promise during elections but fail to deliver. And non-political bodies shun us because they think we have our own institutions to take care of us. Of course, we feel marginalised. How much will we bear? At some point we will have to do something." "To continue to be loyal to our country is becoming very difficult." Indiscriminate police action has not helped: villagers insist that each time the authorities need to show progress in any terrorism case, young people from Padgah are targeted.

The failure of both the State government and mainstream political parties has helped entrench the ultra-conservative social order in Padgah. Islamist organisations have built a network of charities that have ensured that Padgah is free of the kind of grinding poverty in which many Mumbai Muslims are mired. Its Konkani Muslim community has also seen its institutions offer some protection against communal violence. The area saw a large-scale influx of refugees displaced by the Hindu fundamentalist pogrom, which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Padgah was, in stark contrast with much of urban Mumbai, a safe haven. "We do a lot of social work to ensure the community is protected," says Nasir Mulla.

Events such as the 1992 pogrom, or the recent state-sponsored carnage in Gujarat, says the well-known scholar and human rights activist Asghar Ali Engineer, have inevitably generated widespread anger and frustration among Muslims: anger because of the event and frustration because of the state's failure to punish the guilty. Organisations linked to terrorism, he says, capitalise on indiscriminate police action against Muslims, which enables them to "swoop in, play on the persecution and spread their agenda". All of this he notes, suits Hindu fundamentalists as well, since it enables them to defame Muslims as a whole, thus preparing the ground for total violence against the minorities.

Multiple problems, then, frame the dynamics that are unfolding in villages such as Padgah. Communal violence, the failure of the Indian state to address it, lack of political will to provide marginalised Muslims with a platform for their legitimate grievances, police atrocities and ideological chauvinism, all have a role in creating conditions which could, somewhere down the road, explode into a crisis.

One fact, however, is evident: fanaticism breeds fanaticism. Allowing events to drift, as they have done, will only accentuate the problem.