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In India, Islam is, in contrast, the other purged by the British, denigrated by the Hindu right, mistrusted by the majority, marginalized by society. India has nearly as many Muslims as all of Pakistan, but in a nation of more than a billion, they are still a minority, with all the burdens that minorities anywhere carry. Government surveys show that Muslims live shorter, poorer and unhealthier lives than Hindus and are often excluded from the better jobs. To be sure, there are Muslim success stories in the booming economy. Azim Premji, the founder of the outsourcing giant Wipro, is one of the richest individuals in India. But, for many Muslims, the inequality of the boom has reinforced their exclusion.
Kashmir, a Muslim-dominated princely state whose fate had been left undecided in the chaos that led up to partition, remains a suppurating wound in India's Muslim psyche. As the cause of three wars between India and Pakistan one of which nearly went nuclear in 1999 Kashmir has become a symbol of profound injustice to Indian Muslims who believe that their government cares little for Kashmir's claim of independence, which is based upon a 1948 U.N. resolution promising a plebiscite to determine the Kashmiri people's future. That frustration has spilled into the rest of India in the form of several devastating terrorist attacks that have made Indian Muslims both perpetrators and victims.
A mounting sense of persecution, fueled by the government's seeming reluctance to address the brutal anti-Muslim riots that killed more than 2,000 in the state of Gujarat in 2002, has aided the cause of homegrown militant groups. They include the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was accused of detonating nine bombs in Bombay during the course of 2003, killing close to 80. The 2006 terrorist attacks on the Bombay commuter rail system that killed 183 people were also blamed on SIMI, as well as the pro-Kashmir Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). Those incidents exposed the all-too-common Hindu belief that Muslims aren't really Indian. "LeT, SIMI, it doesn't matter who was behind these attacks. They are all children of Musharraf," sneers Manish Shah, a Mumbai resident who lost his best friend in the explosions. In India, unlike most of the time in Pakistan, Islam does not unify, but only divide.
Islam has also proved divisive in Bangladesh, even though the country is overwhelmingly Muslim. There, over the past few years, a similar fight for the soul of the country has taken place, between the secular vision of Bangladesh's nationalist founders, who led the 1971 war of secession from West Pakistan, and a more fundamentalist vision that embraces political Islam. After the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the more Islamic of the two main parties, came to power in 2001 with the support of small fundamentalist Islamic political parties, Western diplomats and intelligence agencies feared that the pro-Islamic grouping was turning a blind eye as Bangladesh became a base for jihadi groups. A series of bombings around the country, including 500 near-simultaneous explosions in August 2005, finally forced the government to round up extremist leaders and jail them. Since then, according to opinion polls, support for fundamentalism, always small, has declined, and the country's problems have centered on its massive corruption and political violence, which led to a de facto military coup in January. Religious tensions, says Najma Begum, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Islamic History and Culture at the University of Dhaka, have been manipulated by mainstream politicians not because they genuinely believe in fundamentalist Islam but for political gain. "They exploit the support of lesser-privileged people so they can get into power and make money," says Najma. "We are not fundamentalist in Bangladesh; we are moderate."
Still, many South Asian Muslims insist Islam is the one and only force that can bring the subcontinent together and return it to preeminence as a single whole. "We [Muslims] were the legal rulers of India, and in 1857 the British took that away from us," says Tarik Jan, a gentle-mannered scholar at Islamabad's Institute of Policy Studies. "In 1947 they should have given that back to the Muslims." Jan is no militant, but he pines for the golden era of the Mughal period in the 1700s, and has a fervent desire to see India, Pakistan and Bangladesh reunited under Islamic rule.
That sense of injustice is at the root of Muslim identity today. It has permeated every aspect of society, and forms the basis of rising Islamic radicalism on the subcontinent. "People are hungry for justice," says Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist and author of the seminal book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. "It is perceived to be the fundamental promise of the Koran." These twin phenomena the longing many Muslims have to see their religion restored as the subcontinent's core, and the marks of both piety and extremism Islam bears reflect the lack of strong political and civic institutions in the region for people to have faith in. Pervez Musharraf asks Pakistanis what they want. But the real question is what they, as well as Indians and Bangladeshis, Muslims and non-Muslims, believe.
with reporting by indrani ghosh nangia and simon robinson/new delhi and ershad mahmud/islamabad