It's been a tumultuous couple of days for one family in Hashmabad area in Hyderabad. Early on Wednesday morning, the National Investigation Agency picked up brothers Habeeb Mohammed and Abdul Qader for having suspected links with an Islamic State terror module.
Qader was let off on Thursday after interrogation. But 32-year-old Habeeb, who works at an centre providing internet services, is one of five men from Hyderabad who have been arrested and sent to two weeks’ judicial custody. The police allege that the five – Habeeb, Mohammed Iliyas Yazdani, 24, Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, 30; Muzaffar Hussain Rizwan, 29, and Abdullah Bin Ahmed Al-Amoodi alias Fahad, 31 – were part of a plan to carry out terror attacks in several places across in the city. In all, 11 were detained, but six were later released.
Qader vehemently denied that he or his brother have any links to IS. “I told them [the police] we have nothing to do with it,” he tells anyone who cares to listen. “Our family name is Al Baghdadi, hence the confusion. My brother is innocent.” The leader of the IS is Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi.
The arrests have shaken Hyderabad, the joint capital of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
“No one will listen to any other point of view,” said 28-year-old Mudassar (name changed to protected identity), a software professional working in the city’s flourishing IT sector. “The mindset of the police force and the media is such that the guilt of a Muslim is taken for granted.''
This damage to perception is likely to one of the biggest fallouts of Wednesday’s National Investigation Agency swoop. Those beyond Charminar – from where the Old City, the heart of Muslim culture in Hyderabad, begins – could be viewed with suspicion.
Most often, such arrests elicit a familiar narrative from the community: that the youth were innocent and picked up for no fault of their own. But this time around, the response has been muted. This could be because the holy month of Ramzan is underway, so community members did not rally around the families of those arrested. However, some Hindutva supporters are viewing this as an admission of guilt.
“It is not as though the IS indoctrinated the youth within three months and managed to sway them so soon,” said Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Hyderabad. “The radicalisation for many Muslims in the Old City starts from childhood.”
Threat to peace
It is this rhetoric that could disrupt the tenuous peace that exists on this side of the Musi river, which intersects Hyderabad.
This is not the first time Hyderabad residents have been arrested for alleged links to the IS. Two years ago, between July and September, 14 youth from Hyderabad and Karimnagar were stopped in Kolkata from where they were allegedly planning to cross into Bangladesh and then go to Syria to join the IS.
Then, in January 2015, Salman Mohiuddin, an engineer, was arrested while trying to flee to Dubai and onwards to Syria. The woman who had recruited him online, Afsha Jabeen, is also from Hyderabad and was extradited from UAE earlier this year.
Social activist Dr Lubna Sarwath said politicians need to be careful about the statements they make at such a time. “Do not make this a Muslim issue,” she said. “Treat this as a human rights issue.”
Though the recent arrests have rattled the city’s Muslim community, they point to what happened in 2007. That year, more than 100 Muslim youth were picked up in connection with the May 18 Mecca Masjid blasts in the Old City, which killed 15. Kept in jail for months, where they were allegedly tortured, all of them were finally acquitted two years later.
The Andhra Pradesh Minorities Commission had appointed lawyer L Ravichander as a one-man fact-finding committee to look into some of these arrests. Ravichander spoke to and examined more than 22 youth in judicial custody.
“Everyone’s story was strikingly similar,” he said in an earlier interview. “The way they were apprehended was also alike. It was straight out of a Bollywood film – a knock on the door at night, being blindfolded, subjected to the third-degree. They were produced 10 days later before a magistrate. And all of them were later acquitted.”
Prominent members of the Muslim community of Hyderabad said this should serve as a wake-up call. “I blame the people who are heading Islamist institutions like the Jamaat-e-Islami, who have reduced everything to a religious tamasha,” said a Muslim resident of the city who asked to remain anonymous. “The madrasas that do not allow outsiders need to be opened up.”
Abid Rasool Khan, the chairman of the State Minorities Commission, said this is an opportunity to make some important systemic changes. “Allow the government to be part of the madrasa education system,” he said. “Be answerable to the government for your financial dealings. This parallel education system does not help the community.”
There are also fears that these feelings that Muslims are unfairly targeted could prompt the community to close ranks.
“This victimisation and demonisation of Muslims in the guise of investigation of terror offences is having a serious psychological impact on the minds of not only the families of the victims but also other members of the community," said a 2008 report titled What it Means to be a Muslim in India Today, by the People's Tribunal on the Atrocities Committed Against the Minorities In The Name of Fighting Terrorism. "It is leading to a very strong sense of insecurity and alienation which may lead to frightful consequences for the nation.''
This is not a premise the police seems to agree with. “If you poke holes in the image of a credible and neutral force, the functioning of the police machinery will be hit,” said former Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police MV Bhaskara Rao.