Bombing Trial Highlights India's Hindu-Muslim Divide

A trial underway in Mumbai is putting the tense relationship between Hindus and Muslims under further strain. The court proceeding is for a bombing that took place 13 years ago, and there are over 120 defendants.

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In India, no issue is more sensitive than the relationship between its Hindu majority and its Muslims. India is the world's second most populous country and it has more Muslims than any other nation except Indonesia, about 120 million of them. Hindu/Muslim relations are especially tense these days in the city of Mumbai, the commercial capital formerly known as Bombay. That is where a trial is underway for a bombing that took place 13 years ago.

NPR's Philip Reeves has the story.

PHILIP REEVES: India's TV crews are setting up for the day. The dark stone walls of Mumbai's oldest, largest prison loomed behind them into an even darker monsoon sky. Beyond those walls, a trial's taking place.

Mr. SHESHEE JOSHEY(ph) (TV Today Network): It's huge in terms of magnitude. It's fascinating, in terms of dimension.

REEVES: Sheshee Joshey from India's TV Today Network said the city's never seen anything like it. The café outside the prison teems with policeman, journalists and onlookers. Day after day, they're drawn to this grim place, awaiting the fate of 123 defendants.

Mr. JOSHEY: People dying in custody, people getting murdered; while they're in prison children being born. It's a drama. It's emotion and it's reality, because it really changed the way Mumbai was and Mumbai is.

REEVES: Gradually, the verdicts are now coming in. The case has dragged on for a decade, but it was brought about by just two hours, shortly after lunch, one day in 1993.

Unidentified Woman: On March 12 was a kind of (unintelligible) that took place in different locations of Bombay - horrific, sudden, very violent.

Mr. JOSHEY: The targets were across religions and communities, because 13 blasts across Mumbai from South Bombay - from the Bombay Stock Exchange to(ph) a building like the Air India, which is the Indian national airline carrier, two five-star hotels, two airports, to(ph) the passport office.

REEVES: Two hundred and fifty-nine people were killed in the biggest assault of its kind India's ever seen.

In the crowded alleys of this neighborhood, they haven't forgotten that year, and not just because of the bombings.

This is a Muslim ghetto inside an area called Jogeshwari. Here people remember what happened in the weeks before the attacks on March 12th. Three months earlier, in December 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 400-year-old mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims broke out.

In Mumbai, mobs went on the rampage, burning down homes and raping and murdering their occupants. More than 1,000 people died in the city over a period of several weeks, mostly Muslims. Tista Svdelvad(ph), from an organization called Citizens for Justice and Peace, says those months had a profound impact on India's Muslims.

Ms. TISTA SVDELVAD (Citizens for Justice and Peace): It was not so much a demolition of the mosques, but along with the demolition we targeted violence, which included gang rape. That created, for the first time in India (unintelligible) the feeling that maybe he doesn't have future here, doesn't have a stake here.

REEVES: The question today is whether that sense of alienation is now growing. Some in India fear it is, and here's why. Two-thirds of the defendants now being tried for the 1993 Mumbai bombings are Muslims. Those who killed hundreds of Muslims in the same year, in the same city, have yet to face justice.

An official commission of inquiry found that during the pogroms, policemen actively connived with Hindu extremists attacking Muslim neighborhoods. Yet professor Ran Puniani(ph), who specializes in communal relations in Mumbai, says there have been no prosecutions.

Professor RAN PUNIANI (Mumbai Communal Relations Specialist): Those culprits have not been punished at all. Some of them even went on to get promotions.

(Soundbite of children)

REEVES: In the Muslim quarters of Jogeshwari, this discrepancy has been noted. Abdul Wuhab Ansari(ph), a laborer, sees it as blatant double standards.

Mr. ABDUL WUHAB ANSARI (Laborer): (Through translator) It's absolutely one-sided because of those that actually killed and looted and raped (unintelligible) have got away scot free.

REEVES: Ansari is one of some three million Muslims in Mumbai. They form about 15 percent of the city's population and are made up of many elements.

Mr. ASHKA ALI ANGINEA(ph) (Center for Study of Society and Secularism): There are Shia, there are Sunnis, there are Boras, there are…

REEVES: Ashka Ali Anginea, of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, goes on to list six more.

Mr. ANGINEA: The majority of Muslims are living in slums, and they belong to the lower socioeconomic strata. Many of them are small traders, artisans, and doing small little bitty jobs everywhere. So mainly I would say that this is the poorest section of the community of Bombay.

REEVES: Ram Puneani says Muslims are also severely under-represented in the ranks of the police, and that imbalance is reflected in police attitudes.

Mr. PUNEANI: Many times when we conduct workshops and we ask police, who do you think Muslims are, generally they equate Muslims with criminals. And in the aftermath of these bomb blasts, the first thing they did was to catch all of Muslims in hundreds, indiscriminately.

REEVES: The blasts he's talking about are not from 1993. On July the 11th, this year, bombers struck Mumbai again, blowing up seven trains. One hundred and eighty-seven people were killed.

Mr. MAHESH BHATT (Movie Director): Shock, outrage, and then slowly it dawned on them that we asked for it.

REEVES: That's how Mahesh Bhatt, one of Bollywood's better-known movie directors, remembers the impact on the city. This was a sequel no one in Mumbai wanted to see.

Mr. BHATT: There was a need to blame it all on Islamic terrorism, the Jihadi forces. That's why you saw - to soothe the nerves of the majority, you broke into homes of poor helpless Muslim people and paraded them in front of the media.

REEVES: Not everyone is critical of the police's performance. Some community workers say this time the police made a concerted effort to open lines of communication with the Muslim community and address its concerns.

NPR contacted Mumbai police numerous times, but was unable to secure an interview.

(Soundbite of train)

REEVES: Mumbai's trains are running normally again. The city's police commissioner says there's evidence the bombings were planned by Pakistani intelligence, an allegation Pakistan strongly denies. He also says they were carried out by the Kashmiri militant group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, acting with local Indian Muslims.

For Bhatt, the movie director, Mumbai still has much unsettled business. He believes those responsible for pogroms against Muslims in Mumbai, and also in the western state of Gudrak(ph) in 2002, must be prosecuted. If not, he says, it'll only strengthen extremist groups like Lashkar or al-Qaida.

Mr. BHATT: The monster that you're trying to fight is going to have a field day in this region. You can't turn a blind eye to a monstrosity like this. I feel there is an urgent need for India to wake up and deliver justice to the minority.

REEVES: As he and his friends play Karum, a game like snooker but played with wooden disks, Abdul Wuhabin Sari says so far there's little sign anyone in authority is listening.

Mr. SARI: (Through translator) (Unintelligible) they brand us as terrorists from Lashkar-e-Toiba or from the al-Qaida.

REEVES: He has this warning.

Mr. SARI: (Through translator) If they keep troubling youngsters like this, they'll be forced to join the ranks of organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba or the al-Qaida.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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