Muslims in Mumbai at the Receiving End
Abuse and discrimination after the train blasts in Mumbai
Milli Gazette Online
The 11 July 2006 blasts in suburban railway trains in the western Indian city of Mumbai killed at least 207 people and injured more than 700 according to official sources. No individual or group officially claimed responsibility for the attacks. However, a large segment of the media, the police as well as a number of politicians and Hindu nationalist groups were swift to point the finger at Islamic 'terrorist organisations'. A leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party declared that "in the Mumbai blasts case, the terrorists were most probably Muslims".
K.P. Raghuvanshi, head of Mumbai's Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) in charge of investigating the bombings initially, alleged the involvement of a well-coordinated "big power". The Mumbai police now claim the involvement of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan.
Muslim leaders strongly condemned the bombings. Nevertheless, immediately in the aftermath of the bombings, about 350 men, mostly of Muslim origin and from Muslim majority areas in Mumbai, were detained overnight by the ATS for interrogation. The suburb of Mahim was especially targeted by the ATS and more than 250 people from the area were detained and interrogated a few days only after the blasts.
A directive was further issued by the government of the state of Maharashtra - of which Mumbai is the capital - calling on the state police to "thoroughly investigate every Muslim who travels abroad".
Accordingly, police forces carried out a number of investigations, conducting raids without proper legal documents, visiting and questioning several Muslim executives travelling abroad, especially to West Asia, and asking them to provide proof of their travel. In the neighbouring state of Gujarat, where violence against the Muslim community has been more pronounced, and indeed vicious, the state home department asked the police to monitor the movements of certain groups and collect details of the members of the group.
Labelling a community
The harassment and discriminatory treatment even led some to conceal their religious identities, with some Muslim men shaving off their beards and women casting aside their burqas. Heena Kausar, for instance, suffered humiliation and harassment on a public bus. The police stopped the bus she was in for a 'routine check' and searched her. "They picked me from all those passengers because I wore a burqa," she said. "A male constable asked me to lift my veil and then frisked me," she told reporters. The trend of concealing religious identity is not a new phenomenon in Mumbai. The same phenomenon was seen in Mumbai's Muslim-majority areas in the aftermath of the 1993 blasts in the city.
In Mumbai and elsewhere, Muslim men were picked up for questioning and often detained for days. Some were reportedly tortured. According to Farhana Shah, a lawyer representing some of those accused in the blasts case, "police high-handedness with Muslims in Mumbai isn't new." What is new is "that the community is being seen only through the prism of terror. The result is that when you pick up educated innocents and slap them around for a couple of days, they walk out as different people. It just ends up reinforcing their sense of being persecuted victims." One of Ms Shah's clients who was picked up by the police was whipped with a canvas belt and verbally abused. He was released three days later after the police, he said, realised he "knew nothing about the blasts".
Mumbai Director General of Police P.S. Pasricha was reported as saying: "Yes, we did a lot of combing and questioning just after the blasts. After that, however, we have been very, very discreet." Police in the northeastern Indian state of Tripura detained 20 Muslim men, including 11 from Maharashtra. Those held had no specific charges against them except that they were found close to the Bangladesh border. Muslim members of Parliament, outraged by the way Muslims were harassed in the name of investigations, asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to ensure that such abuses were halted. They drew attention to the fact that the basic civil and political rights of hundreds of Muslims had been violated since the beginning of the investigations and that police forces had completely disregarded the requirements to be followed in cases of arrest and detention as laid down by the Supreme Court of India in 1997. The fundamental right of a person who has been arrested or detained to inform a friend or relative was ignored.
A group of nearly 150 Muslim scholars raised its concern during a conference with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, stressing the danger of the "accused presumed to be guilty" approach adopted by security agencies during investigation as well as the use of the term 'Islamic terrorism', thereby accusing the entire Muslim community as "collaborators of evil". It urged the Prime Minister not to "tar the community with the same brush". The fact that legal rights have been neglected and human rights violated has increased the sense of victimisation felt by the Muslim community. According to Maulana Mehmood Daryabadi, General Secretary of the All India Ulema Council, it is "as if the police are out to prove that members of only one particular community are terrorists".
Prime Minister Singh acknowledged a few weeks after the blasts that "terrorism has resulted in certain sections of our population being targeted, with the result that a wrong impression has been created of the radicalization of the entire Muslim community". He cautioned that while dealing with terrorism, no innocent person should be harassed. If a mistake is made, effective remedial and corrective measures must be taken well in time, he said.
Statements by Hindu nationalist organisations and parties, however, have continued to take a strident, often violent, stand. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) advocating, for instance, has accused madrasas of being "breeding grounds for terror infrastructure" and, referring to a group of radical activists, said they should be "ruthlessly crushed".
Leaders of the BJP have accused the Indian government of adopting a ‘soft’ stance and have called for the revival of tough anti-terrorism measures such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was repealed in 2004. The danger of the reinstatement of POTA lies in the fact that it was used with particular force against the Muslim community after the bombings in Mumbai in 2003.
Following a number of allegations of the police's misbehaviour during investigations, Mumbai Police Commissioner A.N. Roy sent a letter to Muslim community leaders in September 2006 to reassure them that any police official showing bias against Muslims would be punished. His letter was sent to more than 100 community leaders in an effort to prove the police's dedication to justice. No innocent would be targeted and in case there were complaints about harassment, Roy assured the community that he as well as other top police officials would meet them personally to redress their grievances: "there is no question of bias against people of a certain community… our investigation machinery has been set up in a way to ensure there is no bias. Still, if there are any holes in this system, we are ready to amend it. Police officials who are guilty of any bias will be punished".
However, there has yet to be any concrete example of a police official being punished for violations ranging from racist verbal abuse to physical torture.
The silence of the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) is also appalling. The only reaction of the NHRC after the blasts was to issue a notice regarding the difficulties being faced by the next of kin of the deceased and the victims suffering serious injuries. It made no mention of the discrimination faced by the Muslim community or of the violations of human rights committed in the name of investigation, arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions.
Alienation of the Muslim community
As Muslim leaders have warned, this situation has further alienated a community that was already facing marginalisation and discrimination before the blasts. The town of Mumbra, 40 kilometres from Mumbai and having a large Muslim population, was labelled "terror city" as a result of an alleged plot to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in 2004, and has been a refuge for Muslim families fleeing from violence in states such as Gujarat.
However, living in Mumbra also means living with labels. "Yes, we can educate ourselves, but now, especially after the train blasts, who will give us jobs with Mumbra in our address column?" is the main feeling amid Mumbra's Muslim population. Interviews and testimonies of Muslims living in Mumbai and other places around the country confirm this trend. The resentment and fear are palpable. Police forces meanwhile are stationed in large numbers in these areas.
This feeling of alienation and discrimination of the Muslim minority is particularly dangerous in a country with strong Hindu fundamentalist forces, which have a vested interest in promoting Hindu-Muslim conflict. The anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 blighted India's claims of being a tolerant society. The failure of the State was striking – it was not a failure born of incompetence; rather, the evidence pointed to the state apparatus willfully abdicating its duties in favour of pursuing its communal and ideological agenda. The State then failed to mitigate the effects of the horror, dispensing with the necessary measures to restore citizens' faith in the State machinery – adequate financial compensation for lives and property lost and the quick, fair and efficient trials to bring the guilty to book.
Now, with the community continuing to be the target of discriminatory treatment in the aftermath of the July 2006 blasts, the sense of alienation is bound to increase. In view of the global tendency to categorise Muslims as “terrorists,” it is important that India gives a clear signal to its Muslim minority that it does not take this position. The respect of a minority's rights is fundamental to secure peace and unity, especially in a country like India that claims to tolerate, value, and indeed celebrate, its multiculturalism.
(Human Rights Features)