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Malegaon: the road to perdition

Praveen Swami & Anupama Katakam

Islamist violence has scarred much of India, but the Malegaon bombings were preceded by a series of Hindutva terrorist attacks on mosques.

— Photo courtesy pravin salunke, Sakal. papers limited.

A child injured in the Malegaon blasts. — Photo courtesy pravin salunke, Sakal. papers limited.

A FILTHY stream runs through the middle of Malegaon, sundering the town's Hindu homes from its Muslim quarter. A battered bridge is the only link between them. The small Maharashtra town is a living example of the apartheid nation Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists alike have long sought to create.

Few hard facts are so far available on just who might have carried out the bombing, and why. It is possible that no full account of the Malegaon bombings and their perpetrators will emerge for weeks or months. But the contours of the evidence available so far do not portend well.

In April, Bajrang Dal activists Naresh Raj Kondwar and Himanshu Phanse were killed while attempting to fabricate an improvised explosive device along with their fellow extremists Maruti Wagh, Rahul Pande, and Ramraj Guptewar. Investigators later recovered a second bomb from the Nanded home where the bomb-making exercise was under way, and evidence that the extremist had struck before.

Maharashtra Police found that Kondwar and Phanse were the key figures in the April 2006 bombing of a mosque at Parbhani, in which 25 persons were injured. Bajrang Dal operatives linked to the Nanded terror cell, investigators believe, also carried out the bombing of mosques at Purna and Jalna in April 2003. Eighteen persons sustained injuries in these twin attacks.

What disturbed the Maharashtra Police most about the Nanded explosion, though, was that it demonstrated the Bajrang Dal's growing bomb-making capabilities. In an interview to the magazine Communalism Combat earlier this year, K.P. Raghuvanshi, Joint Commissioner of Police, Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, admitted that the Nanded incident could have "frightening repercussions."

Despite police concerns, the Maharashtra Government has been reluctant to take on the Bajrang Dal for fear of providing political capital to organisations such as the Shiv Sena. Although Mr. Raghuvanshi acidly noted that the bombs were "not being manufactured for a puja," the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party Government refused to consider proscribing the Bajrang Dal.

Politics underpins this paralysis. Both the Congress and the NCP have run a successful campaign of poaching directed at middle level Shiv Sena leaders, and believe that action which might be considered `anti-Hindu' would give the religious Right a new lease of life. At the same time, the decaying Hindu far Right sees Islamist terrorism, and the widespread anxieties it has generated through India, as a means of stemming the secular tide.

Each mosque bombing is, in this vision, an act through which the frayed political legitimacy of groups such as the Bajrang Dal will be restored. Just how capable Hindu fundamentalist groups are of executing such a project is unclear, for already stretched police forces have paid little attention to the emerging threat. If a Hindu fundamentalist group did carry out the Malegaon attack, it would demonstrate a significant increase in their capabilities.

Circles of terror

It is far too early, of course, to be anything like certain that a Hindu fundamentalist group carried out the bombing. Islamist terror groups have long sought to provoke communal violence. Several have demonstrated their willingness to stage large-scale attacks against shrines and mosques in West Asia, Pakistan, and even Jammu and Kashmir, in the hope of securing their political objectives.

Malegaon has long had a strong presence of such networks. Just this May, the Mumbai Police recovered 13 kilograms of RDX, as well as assault rifles and grenades, from a Lashkar-e-Taiba safe house. The explosives were part of a larger consignment organised by Rahil Ahmed Sheikh and Zabiuddin Ansari, the two Lashkar operatives believed to have executed July's serial bombings in Mumbai.

As early as 2001, Nurulhoda Shamsudoha, president of the Malegaon unit of the Students Islamic Movement of India, was arrested on charges of planning bombings on the Lashkar's behalf. Five other Malegaon-based SIMI operatives, Waqar-ul-Hassan, Sheikh Rashid, Sheikh Siddiq, Sheikh Hassan, and Sharif Khan were also arrested, on the basis of intelligence provided by the Delhi Police.

Malegaon's SIMI unit, Delhi Police investigators found, had arranged to receive explosives and funds from two Jammu and Kashmir-based Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operatives, Gulzar Ahmad Wani and Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah. Wani and Shah were responsible for a 2001 grenade attack on the Border Security Force's headquarters, as well as abortive attempts to bomb North and South Block, home to the Union Home and External Affairs Ministries.

The Lashkar headquarters soon started paying attention to the town. In December 2001, for example, the terror group's website carried photographs of what it claimed were mosques and copies of the Koran destroyed in Malegaon "by Hindu militants." The photographs were used alongside an article by Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, which asserted that "India's aggressive designs were now quite clear as it was working for Akhand Bharat and wanted to undo Pakistan."

Javed Sheikh, a Pune-based Lashkar operative, played a key role in a 2003 attempt to bomb the Mumbai stock exchange. Before leaving to meet his Pakistani handlers at an Ahmedabad safe house, Sheikh spent several days at a Malegaon hotel with his lover and fellow operative, Ishrat Jehan Raza. The two are thought to have met with Lashkar-linked SIMI cadre during that time to discuss future terror strikes.

Riot after riot

It isn't hard to see just why communal ideologies — both Hindu-fundamentalist and Islamist — have flourished in Malegaon. Once known for its flourishing power-loom industry, recession and a long history of riots have made the town one of the most communally fragile places in Maharashtra. Along with Bhiwandi and Thane, Malegaon has been declared an ultra-sensitive zone by the Maharashtra Government.

And 75 per cent of Malegoan's population of 700,000 is Muslim — mostly descendant of migrants from Uttar Pradesh who came searching for jobs in the mills, and refugees from the post-Partition riots in Hyderabad. However, industrial recession led first to widespread criminalisation among the young — and then a turning to the religious Right in search of divine redemption where the state had failed.

In 1992, the town itself saw large-scale violence. Provoked by the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the riots reflected the political position of Islamists who attributed the hardships of Malegaon's Muslims to the Indian state's `Hindu' character. Violence broke out again in October 2001, this time after the police attacked demonstrators calling for a boycott of United States-manufactured goods in the wake of its attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Thirteen persons were killed in these riots, which came after a long series of communal skirmishes. Riots almost broke out that August, for example, after a Muslim youth was alleged to have sexually harassed a Hindu girl. Soon after, the Shiv Sena cadre attacked a student who put up an article on Al Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden on his college notice board. It was clear almost anything could become a pretext for communal violence.

Politicians seized the opportunity. Janata Dal (Secular) MLA Nihal Ahmad, who is alleged to have made a speech praising Osama bin-Laden, played for Islamist votes by preventing a municipal leader from singing Vande Mataram. His Bharatiya Janata Party counterparts enthusiastically seized on the issue in the Maharashtra Assembly, in an effort on play on Hindu communal sentiment.

Now, Malegaon and its leaders face their sternest test. On the shab-e-baraat (night of salvation), Prophet Mohammad told his followers: "spend the night in prayer and fast the next day for in it Allah forgives more sins than the hairs of the goats of the tribe of Kalb." What happened in Malegaon makes it imperative for all in India to carefully consider our options: forgiveness and reconciliation or mutual destruction.

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