Many believe the jihadist movement in India to be driven by religious fanaticism. There is little doubt that the idiom of the Indian Mujahideen drew on Islam, or at least a certain reading of Islam. The manifestos the organisation released after its operations sought religious legitimacy for the jihadist project.

Days before 21 improvised explosive devices ripped through Ahmedabad on July 26, 2008, a young cleric from Azamgarh arrived to offer religious instruction to the Indian Mujahideen's bombers.

Sheikh Abul Bashar hoped, Gujarat Police investigators say, to deepen the bombers' theological understanding of the war they were engaged in. He came armed with Salamat-e-Kayamat, an evangelical video replete with scriptural prophecies of the triumph of Islam before the day of judgment. He also acquired a copy of Faruk Camp, a paean to Taliban rule in Afghanistan, from Usman Aggarbattiwala, a young commerce graduate from Vadodara's Maharaja Sayaji University who allegedly programmed the integrated circuits used as timers for a separate set of bombs planted in Surat.

Bored by the religious polemic, though, Bashar's students turned instead to Anurag Kashyap's movie Black Friday — a riveting account of just how a group of hard-drinking, womanising gangsters carried out the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai to avenge the anti-Muslim riots that that tore apart the city after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

It seems improbable that the earnest cleric approved of these decidedly irreligious role-models — and the Indian Mujahideen's aesthetic choices — may point us in the direction of important insights into the jihadist movement in India.

Many believe the jihadist movement in India to be driven by religious fanaticism. There is little doubt that the idiom of the Indian Mujahideen drew on Islam, or at least a certain reading of Islam. The manifestos the organisation released after its operations sought religious legitimacy for the jihadist project. They also point to specific secular political problems facing India's Muslims, specifically communal violence. Bashar's Black Friday story helps debunk notions that the jihadist movement in India is spearheaded by madrasa-educated fanatics indoctrinated in something called “extreme Islam.” Both SIMI, and the Jamaat-e-Islami from which it was born, would rail against watching films; Indian Mujahideen terrorists revelled in them. Many seminaries are still struggling with modernity; India's jihadists are natives of the new world.

Azamgarh and the Indian Mujahideen: Early last month, police in Uttar Pradesh arrested Salman Ahmad, one of a string of alleged jihadists associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba's so-called “Karachi Project”: an enterprise run by Karachi-based fugitive Indian jihadists Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri, his brother Iqbal Shahbandri, and Abdul Subhan Qureshi to execute a renewed wave of bombings across the country. Police say Ahmad, who was arrested after the Research and Analysis Wing intercepted phone calls he made from Nepal to Pakistan, had received training at a Lashkar camp in Karachi before being tasked to set up a safe-house in Kathmandu for routing new recruits to the Lashkar. Just 15, his lawyers claim, when he was alleged to have participated in the 2008 bombings in New Delhi, Ahmad studied at a government-run high school and had enrolled for a computer-applications course at a Lucknow college.

Ahmad's profile closely resembles that of many Azamgarh jihadists — which, along with Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Bhatkal, near Mangalore, served as a core recruitment base for the Lashkar-e-Taiba — linked jihadist cells which are today collectively referred to as the Indian Mujahideen.

Data obtained by The Hindu for 10 individuals alleged to be key members of the Azamgarh jihadist cell show that just two individuals — Bashar himself and Mohammad Arif Badruddin — had spent any length of time in madrasas. Many likely received some religious education in their spare time, in common with many small-town children of all faiths, but their aspirations appear to have been decidedly middle-class. Zeeshan Ahmad, one of the suspects involved in the 2008 shootout with the Delhi Police at Batla House, was pursuing a business administration degree. His flat-mate, Mohammad Saif, a history graduate, also hoped to secure an MBA. Mohammad Zakir Sheikh was studying for a Master's degree in Psychology in Azamgarh. Sadiq Israr Sheikh, who spent two years in an Azamgarh madrasa as a child, was enrolled in a computer-educaiton course.

Bashar's story casts some light on just how the jihadist cells in Azamgarh in fact formed. In the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Jamaat-e-Islami came under intense pressure from hardliners calling for militant action. The party, deeply entwined in mainstream politics and suspicious of a confrontation with the Indian state, resisted. Maulana Abdul Aleem Islahi — a prominent Hyderabad-based cleric who had graduated from Azamgarh's well-known Madrasat-ul-Islah — earned the party's wrath by authoring an inflammatory tract challenging its line. Expelled from the Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Islahi became an ideological mentor to many young radicals who played a key role in the jihadist movement in India — among them, fugitive Indian Mujahideen commander Abdul Subhan Qureshi.

In the summer of 2005, Maulana Islahi offered Bashar a job at the Jamaiat Sheikh ul-Maududi, a seminary named for the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The cleric and Bashar's father had been friends and political allies in the Jamaat; their relationship evidently survived his expulsion.

Later, though, Bashar was increasingly drawn to the jihadist project advocated by Maulana Islahi's son, Salim. He left his job, began addressing gatherings of the pro-jihadist organisations like the Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat and Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Sha'aire Islam, and edited the Islamist magazine Nishaan-e-Rah, which drew its name from the seminal ideologue Syed Qutb's key work, Milestones. Salim Islahi introduced Bashar to Sadiq Israr Sheikh, a Mumbai-based SIMI radical with Azamgarh roots who had studied at a madrasa there for some years as a child. Sheikh, who was linked through SIMI to the Indian Mujahideen's fugitive commanders Qureshi and Shahbandri, in turn recruited jihadists in Azamgarh — key among them Atif Amin, who was killed in the 2008 shootout.

The “Islamist Class”: Clearly, a complex matrix of factors — among them, personal friendship, kinship networks and ideology — helped build the Indian Mujahideen's networks. Madrasas or traditional Islamist affiliations were not among them. Bashar, for example, did not draw on students of the Madrasa Sheikh ul-Maududi for recruits. Nor did he seek out students at the Azamgarh seminary where he and his employer were educated, the Madrasat-ul-Islah.

Part of the reason for this may be that the jihadist movement, of which SIMI was the most visible face, stood in opposition to both the traditional clerics and organised Islamist politics. In his rich anthropological study Islamism and Democracy in India, the scholar Irfan Ahmad explored the frictions between the Jamaat-e-Islami establishment and SIMI at the Jamaat-e-Islami-run Jamiat-ul-Falah seminary in Azamgarh. Founded by the Jamaat-e-Islami to capitalise on the new political space that opened up after the Emergency, SIMI soon embarrassed the party's elders by its support for jihadists.

SIMI mounted polemical attacks on the Jamaat-e-Islami scholar Maulana Mohammad Rahmani, and sought to take control of the Jamiat-ul-Falah's old-students' association. In 1999, a time when it had become increasingly vocal in its calls for jihad and support for organisations like the Taliban, SIMI members provoked a showdown with authorities at the Jamiat-ul-Falah. The Jamaat-e-Islami's official students' wing, the Students Islamic Organisation, responded by founding a parallel student body, the Tanzeem Tulba-e-Qadim, which charged SIMI with propagating “katta [gun] culture”, saying that its calls for jihad were “lethal for Islam, Muslims and the country.” Notably, SIMI was proscribed by authorities at the Jamiat-ul-Falah well before the Government of India finally acted against the jihadist organisation in the wake of the Al Qaeda's attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. During the police crackdown that followed the SIO refused to join in protests against SIMI leaders from the Jamiat-ul-Falah.

Dr. Ahmad points to the existence of what he describes as a distinct “Islamist class”. Unlike at some other seminaries, students living at Falah did not come from among the ranks of the poor. Fees, including food and incidental costs, ranged around Rs. 900 a month. Of 5,365 students, 4,300 came from cities. But class, he noted was “not just based on monthly income and an urban location but, more crucial, the specific cultural capital.” Just as cultural capital of the Jamaat-e-Islami led its leadership to make specific political choices to the crisis with which the Muslim community has been confronted, so, too, did the jihadists linked to the institutions and organisations that broke with the structured Islamist movement. Both sides drew on Islam to legitimise their position — but their choices were shaped by the challenges of politics in a modern, plural society.

“Haven't you still realised that the falsehood of your 33 crore dirty mud idols and the blasphemy of your deaf, dumb, mute and naked idols of Ram, Krishna and Hanuman”, the venomous Indian Mujahideen manifesto released to media as bombs went off across Ahmedabad read, “are not at all going to save your necks, Insha-Allah, from being slaughtered by our hands.”

Below, though, were five demands, each entirely secular in character: demands for restitution against police outrages, the punishment of the perpetrators of communal violence, and the legal defence of terrorism suspects.

Fighting the jihadists must obviously involve better policing and intelligence. But it also needs political interventions built around rights and justice — not the appeasement of religious neoconservatives and clerics, as successive Indian governments have seemed to believe.

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