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British arrests worry India's Muslims

Leaders warn against a rush to judgment

NEW DELHI -- The arrests of two Indians in connection with the Al Qaeda- style bombing plots in London and Glasgow have sparked surprise and consternation here in their homeland, where Islamic radicalization is of relatively small but increasing concern.

News of the arrests was splashed on front pages across the country yesterday, and raised fears among India's millions of Muslims that they could fall under greater suspicion at home and abroad. Community leaders appealed to the public not to rush to judgment concerning Mohammed Haneef, a doctor who was arrested in Australia, and Sabeel Ahmed, a trainee physician who was detained in northern England, where he reportedly had worked with Haneef.

A spokesman for the Indian government said yesterday that it was working with Australian authorities to confirm the nationality of Haneef, whom police picked up in Brisbane as he was about to board a flight to India with a one-way ticket.

His family, in the southern city of Bangalore, has told reporters that Haneef is innocent and that he was on his way back to India to visit his infant daughter.

Ahmed is also from Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka state.

"The community is a bit shocked. You don't expect young doctors to be connected with such incidents," Mohammed Belgami, a urologist who is president of the local chapter of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a national Muslim organization, said by telephone from Bangalore.

"Secondly, I'm a doctor and I do know most students here. And from what I know, they are very upright and very morally sound doctors," Belgami said of the two young men, both in their 20s. "Nothing is proven. It's as if they're already incriminated."

Police in Britain have arrested or detained at least eight suspects in what they say were related plots to set off two car bombs in the heart of London, which were discovered last Friday, and carry out a fiery assault on the airport in Glasgow, Scotland, a day later. Investigators are investigating potential links to Al Qaeda.

How Haneef and Ahmed might have been involved in the plots has not been detailed.

India is home to more Muslims than any other country besides Indonesia and Pakistan. About 13 percent of Indians are Muslim, out of a population of 1.1 billion. The proportion in Bangalore is higher -- about 1 in 5, Belgami said.

Both President Bush and Indian leaders have pointed out that no Indian Muslims have been found to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, a fact they attribute to India's pluralistic and democratic society.

But specialists say there are some radical, although not necessarily terrorist, Muslim groups here. And they warn that the bleak social conditions faced by many Muslims, including high unemployment and, at times, outright discrimination and violent persecution by Hindu fundamentalists, are creating an environment conducive to the disaffection of young Muslims.

Late last year, a high-level government committee investigating the status of India's Muslims found that a higher proportion were poor and illiterate. Many face suspicion that they are unpatriotic, favoring archrival Pakistan over India, and are often ghettoized, the report said. Muslims also are underrepresented in the military and the civil service.

"Muslims in India have a lot of problems. They don't have jobs, a good education," said Sayeed Khan, who runs the Muslim Youth of India organization. "At least 43 percent of Muslims live in slums. They don't have basic facilities."

His organization is trying to keep young Muslims from becoming radicalized, which he acknowledges "is happening, but on a very small scale."

With the arrests of Haneef and Ahmed, Khan expressed concern that India's Muslims could face more harassment.

"This creates a stigma for all educated Indian Muslims in Britain and the States," he said.

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