All bets off on India's crucial Muslim vote

Wed Apr 15, 2009 10:14am EDT
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By Krittivas Mukherjee

AZAMGARH, India (Reuters) - In India's fight against crime and Islamist militants, a quaint paddy-growing district in the vast northern plains is fast becoming synonymous with the threat to the country's secular identity.

If you believe police, Muslim-dominated Azamgarh's pastoral calm hides a recruitment ground for an assortment of criminals - from hit men on hire to hardened militants bombing Indian cities.

Investigations revealed that at least 21 suspects detained by police for a spate of bombings over the past year had roots in Azamgarh, a largely-impoverished part of most populous Uttar Pradesh state where alienation runs deep, officials say.

But residents say a whole community has been unfairly tarnished.

"In the eyes of police every Muslim here is a suspect," said Rashid, a local who gave only one name. "You are constantly being watched. You feel vulnerable. You never know who the police are going to take away calling him a terrorist."

Rashid's state of mental siege epitomizes the growing sense of alienation and insecurity among Muslims across India - a fundamental issue for them in a general election beginning Thursday. There's no knowing which way they will turn.

Muslims account for about 14 percent of India's 1.1 billion people, making them the biggest minority group whose vote remains critical in the key swing states such as Uttar Pradesh in the north and Kerala in the south.

Muslims form up to almost a quarter of the voters in states such as Kerala and West Bengal and about 20 percent in Uttar Pradesh which provides the single largest bloc of seats in India's parliament.   Continued...