J.S. Bandukwala is a respected physics professor in the western Indian city of Baroda. On Feb. 26, 2002, Bandukwalaa devout Muslimdelivered an eloquent speech at a local gathering, calling for harmony and dialogue between India's minority Muslims and majority Hindus. "We have to decide," he said, "which India we want."
The next day, Baroda and other cities and towns in Gujarat state were consumed by Hindu and Muslim brutality: many hundreds of Muslims died, along with 59 Hindus.
In Baroda, a small Hindu mob torched Bandukwala's subcompact sedan, parked in the driveway of his comfortable three-bedroom home.
As the gas tank exploded, the mob cheered. The following day, a group of 200 descended on the professor's house, shrieking, "Hit Bandukwala! Cut Bandukwala!" They trashed the interior and set it on fire. Bandukwala and his 24-year-old daughter Umaima managed to escape, aided by kind Hindu neighbors.
It was a grim answer to the question Bandukwala had posed in his call for religious harmony. For many Indians these days, there is only one type of country they want: one without Muslims. Today there are 150 million Muslims living across India. And yet there is no strength in such numbers: they have never felt more vulnerable and persecuted. Says Razaqbhai, a retired mechanic in Gujarat: "The government may as well kill us, since there is no place for Muslims in this country any more."
The plight of India's Muslims is shared, in varying degrees, by Muslim minorities in other Asian lands: China's Turkic-speaking Uighurs, the Rohingyas in Burma, Cambodia's Chams, the disgruntled Muslims of Sri Lanka's Eastern province. A survey of the region reveals few Muslim minority populations that are, in the words of liberal Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed, "comfortable and adjusted." Most often, he claims, "they are resentful and deprived."
This is, of course, true of other minorities in the continent: in Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, Hindus have come under brutal attack, while in India, militant Hindu groups have denounced and murdered Christian converts in recent years. When Muslims are persecuted, however, there's a dangerous difference. They can seek help from the Muslim majority countriessometimes merely by crossing a borderand bring back a whiff of jihad to their struggle for equal rights, independence or an autonomous state. Meanwhile, fundamentalists in Muslim countries gain inspiration from the sufferings of their minority brothers in other lands. "It is their experiences," says Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.K. and now chair of the Islamic studies department at Washington, D.C.'s American University, "that are being used by extremists to stoke the fires of the ummah [the global Islamic community] and reinforce this feeling that all Muslims are under attack."
Ahmed argues that Muslim minorities remain the most vulnerable of religious or ethnic groups, prone to the worst forms of social discrimination and governmental oppression. Ysa Osman, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, has spent the past decade investigating the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge against Cambodia's small Muslim Cham population. Amid the bloodbath that was the killing fields, Osman concludes, a disproportionate number of Chams were killed compared with ethnic Khmers. "Perhaps as many as 500,000 died," he says. "They were considered the Khmer Rouge's No. 1 enemy. The plan was to exterminate them all."
Why? "They stood out," Osman says. "They worshiped their own god. Their diet was different. Their names and language were different. They lived by different rules. The Khmer Rouge wanted everyone to be equal, and when the Chams practiced Islam they did not appear to be equal. So they were punished."