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Bombings Cast Pall Over India's Diwali Celebrations


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. In India today, they're celebrating Diwali. That's the festival of lights. It's like New Years. People set off fireworks. They feast and party and give each other gifts. At least that's what they usually do. Now a shadow has fallen over the festive season because of recent bombings. Philip Reeves, our correspondent in India's capital, reports on how many are spending the holiday this year.

PHILIP REEVES: Every seat in this cavernous conference hall in New Delhi is taken. Every person in those seats has a small Indian flag. They wave their flags in time as they sing India's national anthem.

(Soundbite of Indian national anthem)

REEVES: Some are dabbing tears from their eyes. This is a gathering of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front. It's marking its annual anti-terrorist day, a few days before Diwali.

(Soundbite of audience chanting)

REEVES: We salute mother India, the audience cries. Six weeks have elapsed since New Delhi was hit by multiple bombs that killed 21 people. Four big Indian cities have been bombed this year. Nearly 130 people have been killed.

(Soundbite of Delhi police band)

REEVES: The Delhi police bands strikes up as the organizers summon onto the stage a disheveled, bewildered looking woman. She lost her father in the Delhi blasts. She's presented with a trophy and a check. A small girl with a strangely fixed smile is asked to sing.

(Soundbite of girl singing)

REEVES: Her name is Manisha Mikel(ph). She's 11 years old. Last month's bombings were not the first in this city. Manisha lost both her parents in a blast three years ago. The Anti-Terrorist Front's leader takes the podium. Kill the terrorists and throw away their bodies, says M.S. Bitta. People in Delhi are no longer safe, he says. And they feel afraid.

Ms. MANISHA DUBAI(ph) (Master of Ceremonies, All India Anti-Terrorist Front Conference): The fear, of course, there is in Delhi because the festive season is coming. Diwali is coming.

REEVES: That's Manisha Dubai, master of ceremonies at this event.

Ms. DUBAI: I have seen the markets are all vacant. The people, they don't have the enthusiasm about the festival as usual. So I think it does affect the people. And the fear is, of course, there.

REEVES: India's security services are convinced the Delhi bombings were the work of Islamist militants. Manisha Dubai agrees.

Ms. DUBAI: I think outsiders have come in here, in India. And there are some less-educated people in India, so, you know, they just do them brainwashed. And they make them realize that whatever you are doing, you're just doing for jihad.

REEVES: When its cities are bombed, India usually points an accusing finger at Pakistan and its intelligence services. However, these days attention is focused on radical Indian Islamist organizations, including a mysterious group called the Indian Mujahedeen. It claimed last month's Delhi bombings. A few days after those attacks, something strange happened. The police raided a building in the city. Two Indian Muslims, both students, were shot dead. A police inspector also died.

This is the village where those two students came from. It's some 400 miles from Delhi, deep in the rural plains of north India. India has a huge Muslim minority, roughly 160 million people. Two-thirds of this village are Muslims. They live in a district called Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh state. India's media has begun labeling the place as India's terror capital. Yet the village looks no different than thousand of others. It's a cluster of tumbledown shops, brick homes, and stagnant ponds where pigs and water buffalo mingle with the village kids. Muhammad Zahid(ph) is sitting outside while his friends commiserate him. His 17-year-old brother, Sajid(ph), was one of the two students the police killed.

Mr. MUHAMMAD ZAHID: (Through Translator) You can imagine how it would feel if a 17-year-old child from your family was sent with so much hope to Delhi and was killed for no fault of his. It's terrible.

REEVES: Muhammad suspects his brother was the victim of what's known in India as a fake encounter in which the police inspector was somehow killed by mistake. A fake encounter is another term for an extrajudicial killing carried out by the police. Such killings by South Asia's beleaguered security forces are fairly common. Muhammad says his family is now paralyzed by grief and anger.

Mr. ZAHID: (Through Translator) We're angry because they call us terrorists. And we're also angry because they refused to set up a commission to look into this case.

REEVES: The family wants a judicial inquiry. They're not alone. Salman Sultan is a teacher here at Shibli College in Azamgarh. He's among a number of civil society activists, including many non-Muslims, calling for an investigation. Locals say a handful of other Muslim youngsters from the area have disappeared. They think they've been detained by the police. Sultan says this is causing a lot of a worry in the community.

Dr. SALMAN SULTAN (Professor, Shibli College): Many parents, now, they are just keeping their children at home. When they come back, we are just, you know, very happy that they have come back. So living in this environment, I mean, what kind of democracy is this? Many are living in this dreadful environment.

Mr. ISHTIAQ AHMAD ZILI (Islamic Scholar): I'm worried, and many people here are worried.

REEVES: Islamic scholar Ishtiaq Ahmad Zili fears the crackdown on Muslims in the aftermath of the Delhi bombings could create a potentially dangerous rift between India's Muslims and the rest of the country.

Mr. ZILI: This might lead to a kind of a perception about us and about the region, about the people of the region, which is not justified, and which is not correct.

REEVES: India's Muslims are underrepresented in the corridors of power. Even so, says Zili, they see themselves as every bit as patriotic as the crowd singing the national anthem on anti-terrorists day. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.