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Salaam Malegaon!

September 20, 2006 19:13 IST
The military regime in Pakistan is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place.

On one side, President Pervez Musharraf faces intense pressure to deliver Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the elections to the United States Congress in November.

On the other, he has to contend with the virulently anti-American Muttahida Majlis e Amal, the six-party religious alliance which rules the frontier provinces.

Apart from this basic dilemma, the general also has to contend with mainstream opposition parties which have stepped up their demands for the restoration of democracy, and the unrest in Balochistan, which has spiralled following the killing of Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.

For last 50 years the Pakistani army has been ruling the roost by frightening people with the India bogey, which essentially argues that but for us 'India wale tumko kha jayenge (The Indians will eat you up but for us)'.

But the increasing people-to-people contact, the sense of security due to its nuclear weapons and the fact that most people in Pakistan accept that there is no conceivable Indian interest in conquering them has made this argument increasingly look thin.

During a visit to Karachi in June, it was obvious to me that in a desperate attempt to shore up its credibility, the Inter-Services Intelligence, a branch of the Pakistani army led by Musharraf, was likely to foment religious strife in India.

The blasts aboard the Mumbai commuter trains -- obviously aimed at sparking communal riots -- came barely a month later.

When that failed, the ISI and its henchmen settled on Malegaon, which has a long history of communal riots. One news report said grooms from the area found it difficult to find brides outside the region due to its reputation.

Even many Indian Muslims agree that the community is extremely sensitive when it comes to religious matters. The classic case was the riot of October 12, 2002 in Solapur when Muslims went on a rampage after the Friday prayers over remarks made against the Prophet by American evangelist Jerry Falwell. What that had to do with India, Maharashtra and Solapur is a question that has no logical answer.

The Malegaon blasts were unique in the sense that this was possibly for the first time that Muslims found themselves at the receiving end of terrorist violence (other than communal riots) of this kind.

The initial suspicion was on Hindu extremists, and it is too early to come to a conclusion since investigations are still on. But there could well be a Muslim sectarian angle to it as well.

The Friday on which the blasts took place is observed as Shabb e Barat, when Muslims pay their respects to their ancestors, similar to the Christian All Souls Day and the Hindu Pitru Pandhravada.

According to some Muslim sects, this is against true Islamic practice. In Pakistan, at Nishtar Park in Karachi, the entire leadership of a moderate Muslim sect was wiped out by a suicide bomber belonging to a rival sect on April 11.

The greatest tragedy in Malegaon was that most of the victims, mainly children, died in the stampede that followed the explosions. For a moment it seemed that an angry and shocked Malegaon would erupt again.

To the eternal gratitude of the whole country, the people saw through the terrorist gameplan and refused to be provoked. Tragic as the loss was to many a family, the city returned to normal the very next day.

This is nothing short of a miracle. The brave people of Malegaon have sent a very powerful message to the instigators across the border that Indians -- Hindus and Muslims -- are not prepared to fall prey to the divisive designs of our enemies.

Salaam, Malegaon!

But given the twisted compulsions tearing at the Pakistani army, it is too early to rest on our laurels. The more US President George Bush praises Musharraf, more Pakistanis like cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan denounce him as an American poodle. The US war on terror in Afghanistan hinges on Musharraf and the Pakistani army's support. And that army badly needs a good old fashioned riot in India to shore up its domestic support.

In this tangled web of interests, the US, via Musharraf, has also developed a vested interest in disturbing peace in India. Many analysts have noted that while the London, Madrid or the Bali bombings find mention in the long list of 'terrorist violence' worldwide, the killing in Delhi last Diwali, the Varanasi blasts and even the Mumbai train blasts do not.

So what will the ISI target next? The Taj Mahal? The Jama Masjid?

Back in Malegaon, chances are that many residents are unaware of the glorious part played by the Muslims of the area in the Third Anglo Maratha war in 1818.

At that time, the weak Marathas were no match for the highly superior British army. The Industrial Revolution in Europe ensured that the contest was as one-sided as the Gulf War of 1991 or the recent invasion of Iraq by the Americans.

Except for the Sikh wars and war with the Gorkhas, most battles in those days were one sided with Indians capitulating within days. In these adverse circumstances, the handful of Muslim soldiers of the Marathas that defended the small fort of Malegaon showed exemplary courage and loyalty.

When a brigade strength English force arrived at Malegaon in May 1818, the Marathas had already lost the war. Pune was under British occupation and both the formidable Shinde of Gwalior and the Holkars of Indore had lost. The siege of Malegaon was more in the nature of mopping up operations by the British. A garrison of less than 400 Muslim soldiers of the Marathas (referred to as Arabs in the British records) defended the fort.

The English brigade under Colonel Macdonald established a camp near the fort, which was flanked by a river on two sides and the city on another. The fort had a 25 feet deep and 16 feet wide moat on all sides. The outer parapet wall was 7 feet high and had apertures to fire. The formidable inner fort was built of stone and masonry work and towered 60 feet high.

On May 16, the British dug trenches around the fort and brought their cannons to within 400 yards of the fort before commencing their bombardment. Lieutenant Davies, in charge of a mining party, was killed when the defenders launched a sortie. The attack was so ferocious that the English retreated to their camp.

After a pause and more preparation, the English launched an attack from three directions on May 26, but could not even cross the moat. Subsequently, the British sent a messenger to the defenders with a white flag, asking why they were fighting when their Maratha commander had already surrendered.

According to one Marathi source, the defending soldiers replied that they knew that their commander had indeed given up, but their sense of loyalty demanded that they fight till their ammunition lasted or they received an order from their master to surrender.

It was only when two more British battalions arrived from Ahmednagar on June 7 that the British finally overran the fort. The British were so impressed with the chivalrous conduct of the Muslim soldiers that they permitted them to keep their daggers even after the surrender.

In the month-long battle, the British lost 5 officers and 220 soldiers. The Maratha toll: 35 dead and 60 wounded. The British used 36 guns, fired 8,000 shells and expended 35,000 pounds of gunpowder, huge firepower for those times.

(Extracted from The Maratha and Pindari War, compiled for General Staff India and published at the Government Press Simla, 1910, pages 89 to 91.)

What happened to that glorious tradition of loyalty and bravery?

The British tactic of divide and rule, pygmy leaders and imported fanaticism has resulted in Malegaon attaining notoriety as a communal tinderbox. Today, more than 70 per cent of the region's residents are from North India, and have no memories of the city's glorious past.

The exemplary peace and restraint shown by Malegaon after the recent blasts is perhaps a sign that things might finally be turning around for the better.

Colonel Anil Athale (retd)