Midnight knocks are not alien to 35-year-old Mohammed Maqueemuddin Yasir. Having spent over four years in Indore jail till September 2012, on charges of having helped a SIMI leader from Karnataka, acquittal from the lower court has not meant freedom from the suspicious gaze of the security agencies. Being the son of Maulana Naseeruddin, a feisty cleric in Hyderabad, means that in the police book, Yasir is a radicalised youth, with many shades of grey, if not black. In his sermons, the 66-year-old Maulana exhorts the Muslims to adopt an eye for an eye approach against aggressive Hindutva. He spent five years between 2004 and 2009 in Sabarmati jail in Gujarat, accused of plotting to kill Haren Pandya and Narendra Modi.
"Yeh internet ka dhokha hai," says Yasir. "Some youth out of curiosity search some keywords and the police catches them, accusing them of terrorism." He is referring to the arrest of five youth—accused of being part of an Islamic State terror module—from Hyderabad's Old city, the same area he lives in.
Many in the Muslim community are understandably worried. They realise that allegation of a Syria connect is a very serious charge, that could inflict collateral damage on every Muslim. One that will push the entire community, especially its youth, under police surveillance. "But if you look back, all conspiracy cases turn out to be false. Moreover, there is no influence of the Islamic State here," says Yasir.
For the first time, the feeling is that the arrests are not just about the Old city area, but about Muslims in the entire city. Aamer Javeed, Director of the Mufakkam Jah College of Engineering and Technology, says given the education profile of the accused, it will create problems for educated Muslims when they step into the job market. "Already there is bias against the Muslims. A beard, the attire itself draws suspicion," says Javeed.
Of the 11 detained, six were let off after questioning. Among them, 27-year-old Mohammed Irfan.
"The police came early morning, held Irfan by the neck and told us to come to the NIA office after two days. But they let him off after a few hours of interrogation," says Mohammed Nasir, brother of Mohammed Irfan, his voice still quivering. But the family is not sure if the worst is behind it because the remand report mentions Irfan as one of the five who "entered into a criminal conspiracy to wage war against the government of India". But Irfan is not among the five arrested. His family members ask if this is the way a professional investigative agency like the NIA is meant to operate.
The Yazdani brothers, said to be the kingpins of the alleged terror module, were undone by the electrical wires and tools used by their late father, says their sister. Alena Begum says, "Our late father was an electrical contractor and it is therefore natural for such material to be lying around in our home. To say these were used by my brothers to make bombs is far-fetched."
A senior intelligence wing officer calls this the typical minority syndrome. "Their parents would not even know what they are up to on the internet or who they meet outside. There is a tendency to be overprotective," he says.
Hindutva groups have jumped in with a 'We told you so' tone. BJP MLA Raja Singh who has the reputation of being a rabble-rouser attacks the madrasas, the Islamic centres of learning, saying, "There they talk of attacking India in the name of Islam. They have converted old city into mini-Pakistan."
Muslim politicians bristle at this attempt to label the community. "What do we infer when the same NIA that gave a clean chit to Sadhvi Pragya, who was later charged by ATS for her role in Malegaon blasts. Hundred of youth were arrested after the Mecca Masjid blast of 2007, charged similarly with waging war against the state, tortured in police custody but after no proof was found, they were acquitted," says Amjedullah Khan of the Majlis Bachao Tehreek, a Hyderabad-based political party.
An unconvinced community is punching holes in the NIA's Islamic State conspiracy theory. Ehtesham Ahmed Khan at the Maulana Azad Urdu University says, "Reports suggest that the module wanted to create tension between Hindus and Muslims. What little we know of the Islamic State, it is not the kind of terror outfit whose focus is to foment communal trouble?"
Others blame the communal approach of the men in uniform for targeting Muslims. Yasir's brother, Mohammed Jaber, who too was thrown into Indore jail, claims the jail superintendent used to speak in `We versus You' terms. He says, "He would call us traitors of the country. He would say, you do not deserve to live. That even if you were hanged fifty times, it would be less."
But the community for a change is also asking itself searching questions. Muslim intellectuals ask if there can be smoke without fire. Blaming the very inward-looking approach of religious institutions like the Jamaat-e-Islami, they say the madrasas need to be opened up. "This is an opportunity to clean up the act. Allow outsiders to enter these closed groups. The source of funding of these madrasas also needs to be investigated. Some 20 years back, those who ran these madrasas used to collect small donations from families in lanes and bylanes. Now no one collects funds. Where is the money coming from," says a social activist, requesting not to be identified.
The realisation that a few black sheep could harm the entire community is also setting in. The 29-year-old Mohammed Ehsan, who owns a bangle making workshop in the Old city, says it is wrong to accuse the police of having a communal mindset. "The police have a job to do. We have to trust them. After all, six of the 11 men detained were let off," says Ehsan.
Realising the pitfalls in letting the youth go undefended, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM)—the dominant political party of the Muslims in the city—has offered to provide legal aid to the accused. This while reiterating that the party is against terrorism.
The NIA and the Telangana Police say the arrest of the module is a major breakthrough. They point to the Bangladesh terror attack on Saturday and say that is proof that IS is recruiting homegrown talent. "You no longer have to go to Syria to fight the war for them. We suspect that these youth in Hyderabad were in touch with this foreign terror group and conspired to wage war against the government of India," says a senior officer who is part of the investigation team. The police say in contrast to earlier cases where intel sleuths would snoop around to see who meets who, to establish a conspiracy, now the challenge is to track the virtual connect to the world wide web of terror.
As thousands of Muslims converged near the Charminar on Friday afternoon, to offer prayers on the last Friday of the month of Ramzan, the mood was sombre. The community realises it is on test. How the city reacts to the latest development will determine whether it will allow its fault lines to be exposed.