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Muslims can't stand aloof

Muslims can't stand aloof

Author: Sunanda K. Datta Ray
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: August 1, 2008

With Mr Omar Abdullah's impassioned "I am a Muslim and I am an Indian" ringing in my ears, I am loath to write this. But I do hope the sound of exploding and non-exploding bombs will not drown the small voice of Gauhati High Court's Justice BK Sarma who warned last week about illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

This is far too serious a matter to be exploited for partisan purposes, and Ms Sushma Swaraj's comment, personal or not, must be filed away with dangerous flippancies like the threatening SMS from a Nepalese family in Orissa and the e-mail warning of terror strikes that sent Calcutta into a tizzy. As Mr Narendra Modi rightly put it, the Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Surat bombs, like the attack in Kabul, announce a proxy war against India. They were intended to damage, destroy and demoralise. Since the last outrage was the handiwork of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the other three must also be attributed to Pakistani agents among us.

This is the conundrum, for it is difficult to distinguish between Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indian Muslims (or, as Syed Shahabuddin used to say, 'Muslim Indians') though even voicing the thought may do injustice to millions of loyal Indians. Many years before East Pakistan became Bangladesh, a Muslim landowner in northern West Bengal complained that local policemen were extorting bribes from peasants who could not prove they were not Pakistanis since unlettered cultivators don't have passports or birth certificates. The border existed on maps, not in people's minds. The same dialect and lifestyle prevailed on both sides, and cross-border marriages were common. East Pakistanis came to India on what were called 'jungle passports', Hindus paying more to Pakistani guards, and Muslims more to Indian officials.

Justice Sarma mentioned this clandestine traffic when he ordered 49 Bangladeshis to be deported after rejecting their appeal against the tribunal which had identified them as foreigners. He argued that the "mistaken and misconceived notion of secularism" should not be allowed to hamper the process of detecting and deporting illegal immigrants. "Influx from Bangladesh is a regular phenomenon with the resultant contributory factor behind the outbreak of insurgency in the State" he declared. "The illegal migration not only affects the people of Assam but have more dangerous dimension of greatly undermining our national security."

Quite so, though most Bangladeshi migrants are probably only economic refugees, at least to start with. However, when I put this to the late President Ziaur Rahman, he exploded in angry denial, boasting that Bangladesh had a higher living standard than adjoining parts of India. Be that as it may, even economic refugees need a conduit and that is provided by constituents of West Bengal's Left Front. Bhutan's former Foreign Minister, the late Dawa Tsering, claimed they always knew Bengali road workers from Bangladeshis who moved to West Bengal whenever there was an election. Voting for the sponsoring party was the price of refuge. It was a small price for a new life but the sequel spelt danger.

No wonder Mr Jyoti Basu was furious when Mr TV Rajeswar, West Bengal's former Governor, spilt the beans about this influx. The 2001 Census proved Mr Rajeswar right, showing that the Muslim share of Murshidabad district's population had risen from 61.4 per cent to 63.67 per cent. Incidentally, Murshidabad, West Bengal's only Muslim-majority district, was in Pakistan for two days after Partition, and became notorious afterwards for a network of Gulf-funded madrassas, and thriving cross-border smuggling.

Earlier this week, the police arrested a 23-year-old schoolteacher, Mohammad Nazrul, and a 30-year-old garment dealer, Mohammad Mustaque, in Murshidabad's Raghunathgunj area. They had hosted and helped a Pakistani Lashkar-e-Tayyeba activist, Sikandar Azam, who came from Bangladesh and went on to Jammu. One does not know whether Nazrul and Mustaque are themselves of East Pakistan/Bangladesh origin. Or if they are insurgents. They may be locally born fundamentalists whose loyalty is to the Islamic ummah and not their country of birth. On the other hand, they may be innocent villagers who extended hospitality to co-religionists who are technically foreigners but speak the same language, wear the same dress and eat the same food.

It must be the same in Jammu & Kashmir and parts of Punjab. Partition left many such loose ends, dividing many simple families. The aftermath of the blasts must be a traumatic time for Indian Muslims who have no truck with jihadis, foreign or domestic. As the needle of suspicion veers in their direction, they might feel like James Baldwin, the Black American writer, who never knew whether the White liftman was busy or kept him waiting because he was Black.

One reason why Mr Manmohan Singh hesitated over the nuclear deal was the fear that Muslim voters would resent closer New Delhi-Washington ties. But when the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen's Asaduddin Owaisi dismissed it as a "canard", attacking Marxists for questioning Muslim patriotism, it occurred to me that clarification of the Muslim position on national and international issues might help to dissolve the sense of insecurity from which the community allegedly suffers. This is not a matter for scriptural debate. There is little learning at the level where, as Mr Omar Abdullah said, the enemies of Indian Muslims "are the same as the enemies of all those who are poor -- poverty, hunger, lack of development and the absence of a voice."

General problems do not permit specific religious solutions. They must be tackled in the same way for people of all faiths, through education, employment, family planning, women's emancipation and social welfare programmes. It is for the Islamic organisations that have denounced terror also to spread the message that if Muslims stand aloof from the rest of the country, they risk being left behind in a ghetto of their own choice. Not only will complaints multiply there but isolation will inevitably attract the nation's suspicion.

India certainly needs much better security to keep out migrant mischiefmakers and weed out disloyal elements. But even instruments like a Multi-Agency Centre and Joint Task Force on Intelligence or a resurrected Prevention of Terrorism Act cannot be wholly effective. The war on terror is not only about bombs. It's also about presenting a united front to the enemy. The solidarity with which Gujaratis, Hindu and Muslim alike, have responded to provocation offers an example of consolidation in the face of danger. There is no alternative to social integration.

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