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.
"They are absolutely critical in the key Ganga Basin states (northern India)," said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
The conventional wisdom is that Muslims tend to vote en bloc, and were considered a vote-bank for the Congress party until 1992, when Hindu zealots razed a 16th century mosque in northern India, despite a Congress-led government in power.
But a mushrooming of smaller parties has seen repeated fragmentation of the electorate, offering Muslim voters regional alternatives to the national political parties, and making their vote count more.
"The Muslim vote is no more a monolithic object to be had by one party," said S.A.M Pasha, a political science professor at the Jamia Milia Islamia university. "Muslims now vote for whichever party they think will safeguard their interest in that particular region."
For example, after Hindu fanatics razed the mosque and tried to build a temple in its place in 1992, Muslims were seen as shifting their support to regional leaders such as Lalu Prasad in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh.
India is officially a secular nation and its top woman tennis star, its vice president, and its richest men are all Muslims as are several top Bollywood stars and federal ministers.
But such high-profile success stories may mask the real status of Indian Muslims, who are often held responsible for the partition of the country into Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan in 1947 at the time of independence from Britain.
Muslims account for less than seven percent of public service employees, only five percent of railways workers, around four percent of banking employees and there are only 29,000 Muslims in India's 1.3 million-strong military.
Alienation of Muslims has partly been fueled by communal riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, when around 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were hacked and burned to death. Little has been done to catch the culprits despite a national outcry.
Reinforcing stereotypes about the community, Muslims are targeted after most bomb attacks.
"Muslims have no leader," said Shahid Badr Falahi, the former chief of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), an organization banned on charges of abetting Islamist militancy.
"So they vote for whoever is perceived as less hateful of the community and, therefore, less threatening."
The community also wants jobs and college seats reserved for them, as a measure of the government's willingness to help them.
Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Sanjeev Miglani