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The Serpent In Paradise

Fringe militant groups explode to the surface with a series of blasts in the once peaceful south

The Serpent In Paradise

INDIA has finally done it in the 50th year of its independence: from Kashmir to Kerala, the country is now united in the flames of communal violence. A fact underlined by the first ever major bomb blast to rock God's Own Country—the train explosion on December 6 in Thrissur, Kerala.

Investigations into the explosion—the third in a series of blasts that coincided with the fifth anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya—has put the spotlight on several radical Islamic groups that operate in north Kerala and are suspected to have links with extremist out-fits in Tamil Nadu. Indications seem to be that the Thrissur blast was the handiwork of the Islamic Defence Force, a Tamil Nadu-based organisation whose pamphlets were recovered from the mangled bogie. Moreover, the explosion resembled the ones that occurred in Tiruchirapalli and Erode and all three targeted trains—Pandian Express, Cheran Express and Alapuzha Express—originated from Chennai. And, the mispelling of Kerala as Kerela in the pamphlets indicated an unfamiliarity with the state.

Ironically, Tamil Nadu, where two of the blasts had occurred, had remained peaceful immediately after the December 6, 1992 outrage, when much of the country had been engulfed in communal flames. Today, however, communal violence, which had been seeping down India's map in recent years, appears to have found a vicious grip on the once peaceful south. A total of nine passengers had been killed and 70 injured. In Kerala, the bomb symbolised a rude awakening to the spectre of terrorist violence. The state which has a multi-religious populace—of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews—had enjoyed a degree of calm that could now well be a thing of the past.

 Police in the coastal state are apprehensive that fringe elements may now wreck havoc in random acts of sabotage. In the wake of the Thrissur blast, a succession of bomb scares has kept the police on tenterhooks—this included an anonymous caller who warned of a bomb planted in the VIP ward of the medical college hospital in Thiruvananthapuram where chief minister E.K. Nayanar is undergoing treatment for a respiratory infection.

Following the chief minister's concern about the flow of foreign funds to militant organisations, a special police unit has been set up to probe the activities of militant groups operating in the northern districts of the state. Among the more militant of these are the Al-Umma and the National Democratic Front (NDF), groups that sprang up in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition.

The Al-Umma left a trail of blood in its wake. Its activists were rounded up by the police in 1996 on suspicion of complicity in a spate of killings of RSS cadres, and the organisation was virtually dismantled. The bulk of its workers regrouped under the NDF. A group, according to the police, that projects a human rights facade but pursues the hidden agenda of the Al-Umma. Its activists are suspected to be behind last year's arson attacks on cinema houses in Malappuram and the cache of pipe bombs recovered from the Kadalundi river. The death toll in the Chennai-Alapuzha Express blast is a sign that this underground militancy has now exploded to the surface. Not surprisingly, the fringe radicals have been disowned by the mainstream Muslim establishment.

The two fringe organisations have filled the vacuum left by the mellower mainstream parties in the post-Babri era. The militant groups have weaned a substantial section of Muslim youth who once supported the People's Democratic Party (PDP), started by Abdul Nasser Madani whose initial militancy was soon diluted by the compulsions of realpolitik. The rest of the rank and file in the Al-Umma and NDF consist of discontented elements from mainstream Muslim organisations such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Indian National League (INL).Young men between the age of 18 to 25 years, from impoverished Muslim families in Malappuram, Thrissur and Palakkad districts, flock to these groups lured by the call of religious fundamentalism.

Though Al-Umma is active in Kerala, its roots and base of operations lie in Tamil Nadu. With Z.A. Ansari as its current president, the organisation has a stake in Tamil Nadu politics and, according to intelligence sources, has covert links with the ruling DMK regime as well as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK).

In Tamil Nadu, where Muslims once considered themselves an intrinsic part of Tamil society, the communal change has been gradual but definite. With the growth of the BJP in north India, various Hindu communal organisations began spreading their tentacles in the state. In the early '80s, about 150 Dalits from Meenakshipuram village in Tirunelveli district converted to Islam in protest against untouchability. In order to woo them back, the Hindu Munnani led by Ramagopalan began vicious attacks on the Muslims.

In the five years that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid, the Muslims began striking back in earnest, killing 45 members of various Hindu communal organi-sations. In 1993, the state RSS head quarters in Chennai was blasted with RDX explosives and in 1995 the Hindu Munnani head office was bombed.

THE growth of Islamic communalism—there are 25 out-fits operating in the state—has many strands. First is the virulence with which the Hindu communal groups have been carrying out their hate campaign against religious minorities. The late '80s witnessed the transplanting of some of the North Indian practices in the state. Ganesh Chaturthi was always celebrated in Tamil Nadu as a domestic function. But over the last decade, the festival has acquired tinges of a nightmare, as the RSS and the Hindu Munnani began organising huge processions of Ganesh idols through Muslim-populated streets and provoking the Muslims with taunts.

The Hindu Munnani followed this up with an attempt to woo back Dalits converted to Islam by promising to make them Brahmins. In Meenakshipuram village, bang next to the mosque, the Hindu Munnani started a Vedic Pathashala. When none returned to the Hindu fold, there were posters accusing Muslims of being Pakistani agents. The next provocation came from karsevaks. And was followed by attempts by Hindu groups to light holy lamps at the foot of a mosque at Thiruparnkundaram in Madurai.

The second reason for the growing tension is the decline in influence of traditional leaders like Abdul Samad of the IUML and M.A. Lateef of the INL. These moderate leaders are perceived by the Muslim youth in Tamil Nadu to be the lackeys of the AIADMK and the DMK respectively. The language of reconciliation adopted by them is seen as the language of compromise.

Thirdly, the repatriation of funds from people employed in various Gulf countries has given the groups the economic strength to function as an organisation. The growth of Islamic nationalism in Kashmir—though of an entirely different character—did help some of the groups to think of using terror as a political weapon.

Fourth, there is now a real sense of alienation among the Muslims. An alienation that neither the state nor the media seems able to understand or to respond to with sense or sensitivity. Says M.H. Jawahirullah, president of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam: "Today we are viewed as an enemy. We do not have a proportional share either in the government or in the police and other powerful places. Muslims are not demanding anything outside the Indian constitution. Some groups are moving towards extremism because they see the failure of the earlier democratic struggles. We do not support them but we d understand them".

In the process, the liberal Muslim has become the worst victim. In September 1996, the Muslim Protection Force blasted the Imperial Hotel in the heart of Chennai. "How can a Muslim owner allow women to dance in his hotel?" asked a small handbill thrown outside the hotel. The liberal Muslims felt these types of Taliban-like groups should not be allowed to grow in Tamil Nadu and had asked some of the religious leaders to talk to the youths responsible for the blast. An Imam of the KK Nagar Mosque in Chennai tried to talk to the youths and explain to them the true spirit of Islamic scriptures. The result was tragic: the Imam was murdered for abetting unIsl-amic practices.

Most of these groups claim they have been trained in Kashmir and that they know how to use RDX and other explosives. Three years back, the state government had arrested Imam Ali of the Muslim Protection Force and 18 others. Though still in jail, they remain in control of most of the group's activities.

 Things seemed to have improved after DMK's return to power in 1996. But the fury of mutually assured destruction was recreated when the RSS killed Palani Baba, president of Jihad Committee, in January this year. Since then the state has been witnessing at least one untoward incident a week. Last May, disaster was closely averted by the police, when they raided and captured a huge haul of explosives at Kodunkaiyur.

With no one really sure of what they want and what they will do next, the fringe groups are installing fear in the common citizens—and providing grist to the ever-busy rumour mills of the Hindu communal groups. On record no group is willing to concede their bigotry or extreme forms of terrorising the population. Says Kovai Basha, president of Al-Umma: "We are victims of the Hindutva campaign. All we are trying to do is to democratically organise Muslims so that they are not exploited and their places of worship not destroyed."

With the close networking among the community, it is becoming increasingly dif-ficult for various agencies to sift the chaff and the grain. The tragedy is that, in the process, an entire community which has contributed immensely to the Tamil society is now being viewed, en bloc, with enormous suspicion.

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