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Mumbai probe eyes local Muslim group

India's Muslim community has a moderate reputation, but pockets of alienation exist in growing ghettos.

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As the investigation into last week's bomb blasts gathers pace, authorities are probing a link between Pakistan-based Lashkar-i Tayyaba (LeT), the main suspect, and a banned Islamic organization in India called the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

Tests confirmed Monday that the bombers used the powerful military explosive RDX, a weapon used before by the LeT. Indian investigators say they suspect that LeT provided the bombs, the funding, the target, and the know-how to SIMI, which in turn provided the people on the ground. Authorities have rounded up nearly 300 local men from Muslim suburbs like Mumbra – including 11 detained Monday near the Bangladesh border.

This thread of the investigation has Indians facing the uncomfortable possibility that international jihad may have found a receptive ear within pockets of a huge religious minority. Already, some politicians are calling for tougher antiterrorism measures. But Muslim leaders here express concern that a harsh police crackdown and tough rhetoric from politicians would only serve to alienate a community with a strong reputation for moderation.

"India's Muslims don't countenance the killing of innocent civilians, and Muslim leaders have come out in the open and condemned these attacks. The terrorists want communal riots. They want to divide us," says Abdul Rauf Khan, an imam in Mumbra.

After bomb attacks in Mumbai three years ago, India's stringent antiterrorism law – the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) – had been used with particular force against Muslims, resulting in arbitrary arrests, harsh interrogations, and detention without charge. POTA was repealed in 2004, and so far police tactics over the past week haven't been as sweeping. Many of the hundreds interrogated were let go in a few hours; only a few remain in detention.

Given the charged debate over POTA's repeal, Indian politicians may be loathe to reinstate it. But the controversial chief minister of Gujarat state traveled to Mumbai to publicly challenge Delhi to do just that – or allow state governments to pass their own versions.

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