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December 1, 1997


'Let them not demolish the mosques in Kashi and Mathura or the country will face another Partition'

The shadowy Al-Umma group has been reported to be involved in Sunday's communal riots in Coimbatore that has claimed at least a dozen lives. A few weeks before violence singed the Tamil Nadu town, A Ganesh Nadar spoke to Al-Umma officials to find out more about the organisation.

A very large cache of explosives were seized in Madras a few months ago. Three men were arrested with the explosives. All of them belonged to a Muslim organisation called AI-Umma. The day after the arrest, AI-Umma issued a statement saying those arrested did not belong to its organisation.

A Bharatiya Janata Party "fact-finding" team promptly announced that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency was active in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu Director General of Police Rajasekharan Nair was emphatic that the explosives had nothing to do with the ISI. "It was the AI-Umma and we are proceeding legally against them," was all he would disclose.

My cousin has lived in Coimbatore for many years. "Why the hell do you want to meet the AI-Umma?" he asked, clearly unhappy. But he agreed to help me. The next day he said, "I hear they are a very disciplined lot. Nobody smokes, drinks or womanises. Offenders are punished severely."

He sent me to Sundar who took me to Sayeed who took me to the AI-Umma office. I met its state general secretary Mohammed Ansari. He was calm and collected even when he made provocative statements. He lost his temper only once during the interview. On the way to its office I spotted graffiti on many walls. The AI-Umma, it said, was ready to take up the cause of the poor and the downtrodden.

Al-Umma has been around since 1987, but it became active and well organised all over Tamil Nadu only post-December 6, 1992 -- after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. AI-Umma is a Arabic word meaning 'These people.' Since 1987 it has been involved in social work among Muslims. It collect funds in mosques; affluent Muslims also help the organisation. It has branches in Coimbatore and Madras.

It has 3,000 members in Coimbatore alone; it also claims to have members in every district in Tamil Nadu. "We are ready to take up the cause of the downtrodden with the government," Ansari said, adding in the same breath, "Our main aim is to oppose the Sangh Parivar, the RSS."

"But the RSS has been around for more than seventy years," I said. "Yes, but we decided to take action only after their atrocities increased," Ansari said.

Its members are understandably Muslims, but Al-Umma claims to have sympathisers among Christians and Hindus as well. Local Hindus sometimes approach Al-Umma leaders with their problems. The Al-Umma acts like a village court. If somebody does not agree with its decision, they hand over the problem to the police. "The police respect our organisation and deal with our complaints without demanding money," says Ansari.

When I referred to the seizure of explosives in Madras and the subsequent denial by AI-Umma, he said, "The press distorted our statement. We never denied that they were our members, they are very much our members."

"Those three men had gone underground because the police were looking for them to book them under TADA. The police regularly uses TADA against our members. When the cops finally found them, they framed false charges and implicated them in the explosives seizure to take revenge."

"There was a commissioner who was totally against us. He was a tool of the RSS. He arrested one of our leaders Basha Bai, so the youth revolted -- they smashed shops and buses. They did the same thing that others in Tamil Nadu do when their leaders are arrested. You know what happens when Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi or Ramadoss are arrested."

Ansari feels the commissioner should have booked the Al-Umma activists for rioting or destruction of public property, not the draconian TADA. Sixteen activists were booked under TADA, he says. The only reason for this, he adds, being that they are Muslims.

"How come the second largest number of Muslims in the world live in India if the government persecutes them so much?" I asked. Ansari lost his temper. "Being a journalist you should not talk like this. Narasimha Rao sat with his eyes closed when the Babri Masjid was demolished. He promised to rebuild it for us, did he do it? Did the Indian prime minister protect the Muslims?"

"Thousands of Muslims were killed in the Bombay riots, yet Bal Thackeray is walking around free. The Shiv Sena got the Muslim vote in Bombay because they had scared them," he says vehemently.

When I argued that just because some fanatics demolished the Ayodhya mosque he could not blame all Hindus, he agreed. "They are a lot of good Hindus who are on very good terms with us," he said.

He blamed Jayalalitha for the community's problems. The police, he said, had stopped victimising Muslims in the Karunanidhi regime.

Ansari says Al-Umma activists will never contest elections. "We will support the candidate we like personally -- never a party. But we will never support the BJP. The BJP wants us to leave the country."

Coimbatore has seen skirmishes between the AI-Umma and the RSS before, but never on Sunday's bloody lines. In fact, peace meetings have been held in the town every month so that disputes are discussed and settled peacefully.

"The Quran tells us not to abuse others's gods or they will abuse our gods," says Ansari. "We respect all religions. I want all Indians of all religions to live together peacefully," he declares almost as a closing statement. Then, he adds, "Like they demolished the Babri Masjid, let them not demolish the mosques in Kashi and Mathura or the country will face another Partition."

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