By Bappa Majumdar and Krittivas Mukherjee
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - In a government morgue in Mumbai lie the bodies of nine Islamist militants responsible for killing 179 people in a bloody attack on India's financial hub.
The deadly rampage happened in November, but India's Muslims have refused to bury the gunmen, distancing themselves from the killings in a country where Hindu nationalists often whip up anti-Muslim sentiment after such attacks.
"We strongly believe terrorists have no religion and they do not deserve a burial," said Maulana Zaheer Abbas Rizvi of the All India Shia Personal Law Board, a body for framing Muslim laws.
Leaders of India's 140-million-strong Muslim community have denounced the November 26-29 Mumbai attacks and thousands of Muslims have marched in protests against the bloodshed. It has been the strongest rejection yet of Islamist violence by Indian Muslims.
"We have lost our children in the Mumbai attacks too. And we, as Indians, share a common grief and demand justice," said Maulana Mehmood Daryabadi, general-secretary of the All-India Ulema Council, one of the biggest groupings of Muslim sects.
In Muslim neighbourhoods in the capital, residents observed low-key celebrations during an Islamic holiday in December.
Imran Ahmed, a book-seller, did not buy any new clothes for his children during the festival and did not distribute kebabs to neighbours as he does each year.
"So many people were killed by the terrorists. How could I celebrate?" asked the bearded book-seller, sitting outside his shop in the narrow, congested streets of Old Delhi.
For now, the issue of burial of the militants has been averted as Indian officials say the corpses are still needed for their investigation. At the same time, contacts are underway to convince Pakistan to take the bodies, so far to no avail.
Tension between India and Pakistan has flared in the wake of the attacks, blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.
As the two rivals bicker, India's Muslims have been caught in an uncomfortable position in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, which have intensified their feelings of being under siege even though Muslims make up about 13 percent of India's population.
Indian Muslims lag in health care, literacy and income. Official figures show Muslims are underrepresented in government jobs and the judiciary. Yet they are overrepresented in the prison populations in many Indian states.
Until recently India boasted that its Muslims, at least outside troubled Kashmir, had not embraced Islamist extremist violence of the type promoted by al Qaeda.
That has changed in recent years, with Indian Muslims thought to have carried out a series of bomb attacks on Indian cities this year and last.
Centuries of rule of Hindu-majority India by mediaeval Muslim invaders drove a wedge between the two communities, a suspicion that has only grown since the blood-soaked birth of Pakistan, carved out from Muslim-majority areas of India in 1947.
Alienation of Muslims has partly been fuelled by communal riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, when around 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were hacked and burnt to death. Little has been done to catch the culprits despite a national outcry.
But the Mumbai attacks have generated a groundswell of public anger across religious and political fault lines against Pakistan for providing refuge for militants on their soil.
That anger is mixed with fear of a backlash.
"At the moment, Muslims are feeling very insecure. They have always felt as if they were under suspicion for all attacks on India," said Kudlip Nayar, a political commentator.
"In every terror attack in the past, Indian Muslims were suspected to have played some role, so now with a clear Pakistan hand emerging in the Mumbai attacks, the Muslims are reiterating that Indian Muslims are united and they had never supported terror acts," Nayar added.
Some Muslims are apprehensive about a new terror law that India's parliament passed recently, allowing police to hold suspects without filing charges for up to 180 days.
Human rights groups say a similar law was used in the past to round up innocent Muslims, detain them indefinitely or even torture them. Some fear that abuse of the law could stoke up more outrage against the Indian government among Muslims.
"Laws against militants must be strict, but there should be enough safeguards to stop people from misusing it," said Maulana Abdus Salaf Salfi, leader of the Jamiat Ahle Hadees group.
Meanwhile, the squabble over the burial of nine of the 10 Mumbai attackers -- one was captured -- is far from over.
"They have committed a crime against humanity and people who kill innocent people cannot be buried, not in Indian soil at least. Let Pakistan take them back home," said Rizvi.
(Editing by Megan Goldin)