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December 15, 1997


Fear and loathing in Tamil Nadu

N Sathiya Moorthy examines the factors responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu.

When the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished in December 1992, Tamil Nadu was mostly peaceful while the rest of India reverberated with murderous violence. But while the rest of India was peaceful, the fifth anniversary of the demolition was marked in Tamil Nadu by bomb blasts aboard three trains, killing nine people.

Local factors, lack of credible leadership and frustration among the youth, not to mention the unseen hands of Islamic fundamentalists and the alleged inspiration of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate are said to have activated the increased communal violence in the southern state.

It is difficult to say whether Hindu communalism and Hindutva-related violence fed Muslim fundamentalism and violence, or the other way round. But it is safe to conclude, in the light of the December 6 train blasts, that Islamic fundamentalists in Tamil Nadu have started choosing their targets indiscriminately, thus declaring a war of sorts on the State.

What has gone almost unnoticed is the emergence of new power centres within Tamil Nadu's Muslim community. S A Basha, chief of the Al-Umma organisation, and Hyder Ali, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, are not wellknown outside their outfits, leave alone the community.

While Al-Umma has been in the news for almost five years now -- for its alleged attacks on Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Hindu Munnani targets -- the blame ultimately fell on the more hostile Jihad Committee. The TMMK has projected itself as a moderate political force with an agenda of its own. A two-year-old organisation, the TMMK's success can be gauged from the 5,000-strong disciplined crowd of volunteers who courted arrest on December 6 in Madras, braving heavy rain and state-wide preventive arrests -- equaling another 5,000 -- to enforce a ban on the rally.

Last year, on December 6, the TMMK took a procession to Raj Bhavan and presented a memorandum to the governor. The procession, as also this year's rally, was peaceful, despite fears of violence. The processionists shouted slogans, demanding job reservations for the community, apart from the restoration of the Ayodhya site to the Muslim community.

What has made the TMMK possible and relevant in Muslim politics is the internecine quarrels within the community's established political leadership in Tamil Nadu. Ever since state Indian Union Muslim League president A K A Abdus Samad and then general secretary M A Lateef fell out ten years ago, the community has been divided across the political spectrum. Lateef is now state general secretary of the Indian National League, the splinter IUML group floated by Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait in the post-demolition era.

With Samad and Lateef splitting the Muslim votebank to favour whichever major electoral partner they aligned themselves with, the community slowly lost its electoral clout. There have also been allegations that the Muslim political leadership has served its own ends, exploiting the ignorance of the backward Islamic vote-bank.

A divided leadership thus kept busy, the situation was ripe for the radicals to take roots. The leadership's silence over the demolition unnerved the youth, and unsettled the community. Though largely unaffected by the happenings in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, they could see the writing on the wall when Hindutva activists targeted some Muslims in Tamil Nadu towns.

Last fortnight's violence in Coimbatore, allegedly assisted by the police, and the Lateef-Samad silence on the issue has only fanned the fires of alienation. The community's choice is now between neo-political moderate groups like the TMMK and fire-spitting, violence-prone outfits like the Jihad Committee.

Fundamentalism is also big business, and frustrated youth, left out of the Gulf job boom, are easy prey, particularly if ideological colouring and financial incentives could help. Added to that is the ISI's alleged involvement which central agencies and political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party have constantly alluded to.

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