Mumbra, a satellite town 35 km north of Mumbai, is a busy place on Fridays. In the midst of running businesses, rushing for jumma prayers and picking up children from school, few residents are inclined to stop for a chat. And most of those who do are oblivious to the headlines that hit the news on Friday: Mudabbir Shaikh, an alleged “chief recruiter” in India for the Islamic State terrorist organisation, was arrested from Mumbra late on Thursday night in a joint operation by the National Intelligence Agency and the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad.

Shaikh was among the 14 Muslim youth arrested across the country for alleged involvement in an IS module operating in India. The NIA claims the arrests were made after several months of tracking the phones and online activities of the 14 men. Shaikh, a 34-year-old IT worker, was allegedly in direct touch with a “foreign handler” from IS and was passing on information to the other young men through online chat rooms.

But in the lanes of Amrut Nagar, the tiny Mumbra neighbourhood where Shaikh lived with his wife and two daughters, few seem to know or care about IS or the dramatic midnight arrest.

“We had a murder in Amrut Nagar recently, but ISIS? We’ve never heard of anyone involved with such things in Mumbra,” said Azhar Malim, a 24-year-old Amrut Nagar resident who had stopped for a snack with his friends outside a local street food stall. “Just because 90% of Mumbra citizens are Muslim, doesn’t mean people here can be suspected of having terror links.”

‘Muslim boys are often picked up’

Up to the late 1980s, Mumbra was a small town in Thane district, with a population of less than 50,000. After the Mumbai riots of 1992, during which the Shiv Sena targetted the city's Muslims, there was a steady swell in Mumbra’s population: Muslims from across Mumbai sought refuge together in a safer suburb. Today, the town has nearly a million residents, many of whom believe that Muslims in India are often unfairly targeted by the police.

“I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard of Muslim boys getting picked up by the police and dumped in jail, only to be acquitted of all charges a few years later,” said Sarvar Husain, a mobile shop owner who has lived in Mumbra for the past 21 years.

Husain first heard about Mudabbir Shaikh’s arrest from some local youth in the neighbourhood, and is unsure of whether to take the police version of the story at face value. “Shaikh began to live in Mumbra only four years ago, and I’ve heard he was a very honest man,” he said. “This could very well be another case of a Muslim falsely being accused of terror links, but you can never tell, can you?”

Firoz Sorathiya, Shaikh’s neighbour at Amrut Nagar’s Reshma Apartments, is just as confused and uncertain about what to believe. “Mudabbir Shaikh was a simple man and no one could have imagined he’d get involved with a terrorist group,” said Sorathiya. “ISIS is a new fear we’ve never had to worry about before.”

‘ISIS poses a threat’

Outside the mosque where Husain has just offered afternoon prayers, a middle-aged man named Abbas Syed was keen to make a different, more balanced point.

“There can be no smoke without fire, and one can’t help wondering why the police would come after this one man in all of Mumbra,” said Syed, a travel agency owner who doubles as an imam in mosques. “Today, ISIS genuinely poses a threat to our community and some of us are worried young people could get influenced by their ideology.”

The problem, according to Sorathiya, is that Muslim youth spend more time online and less time paying attention to the sermons and teachings of local scholars in mosques. “Most of the videos and information shared online contain very wrong views of Islam,” he said.

For Syed, the solution is obvious. “Perhaps it is time for our local Indian imams to also go online and use the same social media to reach out to young people,” he said. “That way, we can make sure kids receive the right knowledge of Islam instead of getting influenced by the ideologies of the extremists.”