India's homegrown peril

Raja Karthikeya
8 September 2008

The wave of terror attacks earlier this summer in India has brought delayed attention to Islamist militant activity in the country. While international media focused only briefly on the bombings, their brutality is comparable to the outrages perpetrated in Madrid and London. More than 100 people were killed in the serial blasts in three cities in north, west, and south India in May and July. These attacks sit in a continuum with serial blasts in New Delhi and Mumbai in 2005 and 2006. India's position in a volatile region further compounds the threat. No other democracy grappling with Islamist terrorism must also cope with neighbours like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, all of which are home to intensifying Islamist violence.

But what must make New Delhi's counter-terrorism mandarins really toss in their sleep is the growth of indisputably indigenous terrorist groups. The emergence of the "Indian Mujahideen" asks probing and tough questions not only of India's security forces, but of the very resilience of the country's pluralist democracy.

A proliferating threat

India entered a new, definitive phase of in its confrontation with terrorism after the attacks on the Red Fort and then the Indian Parliament in 2001. Since then, jihadist incidents have become almost routine, reaping grisly tolls; the blasts on Mumbai's commuter trains in 2006, for instance, killed 174 people. Unlike its incarnations in Europe, Islamist violence in India stems from at least three separate strands of militancy: "Kashmiri separatism", "global jihadism" and, perhaps most worrisomely, "indigenous jihadism".

After the post-9/11 crackdown by US and Pakistan, pro-Pakistani Kashmiri separatists such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba moved their activities deeper into India, establishing sleeper cells across the country. They struck targets which were symbols of national identity and pride, such as the Indian Parliament and the Indian Institute of Science. The primary agenda of these groups is to draw international attention to Kashmir in a bid to force India out of the disputed territory.

The "global jihadists" consist of foreign militant groups, the foremost being the Harkat ul Jehadi Islami of Bangladesh (HuJI-BD), which over the last three years has targeted Hindu and Muslim religious places hoping to provoke communal clashes. HuJI-BD was a charter member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Jihad Front.

The third strand - the "indigenous jihadists" - have recently shot to notoriety. A student organisation called the Students' Islamic Movement of India has been held responsible for providing logistical help to the Kashmiri separatist groups and HuJI in their attacks. The organisation is now banned and some of its alumni have formed the "Indian Mujahideen", which claimed responsibility for the latest attacks in July.

Home discomforts

The growing influence of indigenous militant groups like "Indian Mujahideen" demands further reflection. India has the largest Muslim minority in the world, in both proportional and numerical terms. Unlike Muslims in the west, who are mostly descendants of immigrants or recent converts, Muslims in India are ethnically indigenous; Islam has been in India for over a millennium. Even the minority of Indian Muslims who trace their roots directly to Persia and Turkey have few ties with those lands.

Islam has long and intertwined history in the subcontinent. Muslims maintain numerous sites of pilgrimage within India. Shrines of Sufi Muslim saints are revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Even though orthodox Islam and conservative madrasas (the ultra-orthodox Deobandi school of Islam to which the Taliban trace their theological origins, started in northern India) are no strangers to India, taking up arms against the state is only a very recent phenomenon. While India has a history of nationalist Islamist movements waged against the British, jihad against fellow countrymen is a recent and unsettling trend.

After the Partition of British India in 1947, many elite and rich Muslims moved to newly-formed Pakistan. Muslims remained in India in their millions (until recently, India had the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia), but many were mired in poverty. Over the next fifty years, the economic and educational disparity between Muslims and other Indians only widened. The plight of Muslims is not a result of direct state policies; after all, the state has fairly uniformly failed to alleviate the conditions of the poor. However, Indian politicians have historically treated Muslims as an important "vote-bank", selectively pandering to them without addressing their real socio-economic problems. While Muslims bemoan the gap between rhetoric and reality, Hindu nationalists complain that the Muslim minority receives undue attention from politicians. Such selective interpretations have built high communal walls where once there were none.

Some scholars say that the radicalisation of Indian Muslims began in the early 1990s during the convulsions of the Babri Masjid dispute, when right-wing Hindu chauvinists managed to inflame passions across the country after they demolished a centuries-old mosque. The 2002 riots in Gujarat, in which over one thousand Muslims were killed, further deepened the sense of alienation felt by many Muslim across the country. But despite the persisting communal flare-ups, the participation of Indian Muslims in terrorist incidents was a rare occurrence until recently.

A potpourri of tactical and strategic objectives motivates Indian Muslim militants. They see themselves as fighting a defensive struggle against Hindu right-wing extremists; as seeking revenge for the 2002 riots; and as waging a war to regain control of political power in India, a large part of which was ruled by Muslim dynasties before the arrival of the British. Where radicals elsewhere rely on the common rallying cries of Palestine or Iraq, such invocations are rarer in India (though India's growing strategic alliance with the United States is unpopular amongst a majority of Indian Muslims). Most Indian jihadists do not advocate the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate as a primary objective.

The political response in India to jihadist terrorism strikes a stark contrast to that of other democracies. While political parties in the US and Europe are united across ideological lines in passing anti-terrorist legislation, in India some opposition parties regularly accuse the government of using terrorist attacks as a pretext for the persecution Muslims. In some cases, within hours after the arrest of an alleged terrorist, politicians rush to the suspect's home to console his relatives and condemn the government. Such behaviour may be the sign of a healthy, self-critical democracy; it also suggests that Indian counter-terrorism is susceptible to the corrosive effects of petty politics.

The indigenous threat opens up new frontiers in the country's battle with terrorism. Terrorist incidents in India, when not pegged to sub-national insurgencies, were mostly limited to high-profile, "elite" arenas, targeting major metropolises or passenger aircraft. Yet recent police investigations have unearthed jihadist training camps deep within the hinterland, in states such as Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Small-town Indians must find it strange to now see their luggage checked at railway stations, or to find their backwater towns targeted by jihadists. By turning from the bright lights of big cities to the quieter streets of the interior, indigenous terrorists aim to widen the rift between the majority and the minority Muslim community in an altogether new way. Not addressing the changing nature of terrorism in India carries catastrophic risks for the country's pluralistic democracy.

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