Controversy Erupts in India Over Arrests of Hindus in Bombing Case

Ejaz Ahmad was injured when a motorcycle bomb went off near his tea shop in Malegaon, a textile town in Maharashtra state. Ten Hindus have been arrested in the September attack.
Ejaz Ahmad was injured when a motorcycle bomb went off near his tea shop in Malegaon, a textile town in Maharashtra state. Ten Hindus have been arrested in the September attack. (By Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 24, 2008

MALEGAON, India -- Every morning, dozens of Muslim men gather at a tea shop in this western textile town near the spot where a motorcycle bomb exploded in September during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The bomb killed six people, injured 101 and punctured the walls of the shop, whose clock stands frozen at the exact minute the bomb went off.

The men, slurping hot tea, pass around the newspaper to keep up with the ongoing investigation into the blast, which has led to the arrests of 10 Hindus here in Maharashtra state in recent weeks.

"We have always known that Hindu extremists were behind the blast, but we never thought the government would have the courage to arrest Hindus. The suspicion is always on Muslims," said Ejaz Ahmad, the 32-year-old shop owner, who was injured in the bombing. "Now we feel there is justice."

But in the rest of the country, the arrests of Hindus in a terrorism case and the use of the new tag "Hindu terror" have sparked enormous controversy. The acrimonious political debate and the street demonstrations in support of the accused threaten to paralyze India's concerted response to terrorism. The controversy also points to the growing complexities of combating tit-for-tat terrorism in this predominantly Hindu but officially secular nation.

Since May, several Indian cities have been rocked by bombings in crowded public places that killed more than 200 people. Police arrested scores of suspects from an outlawed Muslim student organization and a new Muslim group calling itself the Indian Mujaheddin, which asserted responsibility. But a handful of bombings in mosques and Muslim neighborhoods puzzled them.

Then, in the past month, came the arrests of the 10 Hindus, including a self-styled female saint and an army officer.

Police say that most of the 10 have been associated with or have attended meetings of a little-known group called Abhinav Bharat, or "New India," which is under scrutiny on suspicion of plotting the Malegaon bombing. At meetings across the country in the past two years, according to police, members of the group have given fiery speeches advocating the creation of a Hindu nation, attacked India's secular policies and urged Hindus to rise up against the Muslim extremist groups implicated in bomb attacks in India.

"They criticized the government and the police for being soft on terrorism," said Shailendra Shrivastava, inspector general of police in the central Indian city of Bhopal, where some of the meetings were held. "What we are seeing today is reprisal bombings against Muslims."

With every bombing this year, Hindu nationalist politicians played to the Hindu vote with denunciations of the growth of Islamist groups. And when the government arrested Muslim suspects, politicians vying for the Muslim vote would visit their families to express sympathy. This brazen appeal along religious lines has come to dominate India's response to terrorism.

The ruling Congress party government in New Delhi, which had been under criticism for cracking down on Muslim suspects, is now being accused of placating Muslims ahead of crucial six-state elections by going after Hindu extremists.

"It is a great balancing act by the Congress government. To appease the Muslims, they are now arresting Hindus for terrorism," said Himani Savarkar, 62, a Hindu nationalist and the president of Abhinav Bharat. Savarkar denied that the group had discussed bombs but said it works to "rouse Hindus out of their slumber and become alert to the danger around them from jihadi terrorism."

Such rhetoric has been part of India's political landscape for two decades, as Hindu nationalist parties gained center stage with strident appeals to Hindu sentiment. But although scores of Hindu activists have been arrested for rioting, this is the first time any have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism.

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