The story of the Indian Mujahideen tells us that communal violence and jihadist terrorism are intimately enmeshed. Rahul Gandhi deserves credit for addressing inconvenient truths, however clumsily
It began, if a story like this can be said to have a beginning, in the summer of 1985, as a great tide of hate washed over the decaying industrial city of Bhiwandi. They had gathered hoping to defend their community from riots: the small-time gangster, Muhammad Azam Ghauri, the ultra-pious Abdul Karim, the skilled doctor Jalees Ansari. The men would parade up and down the grounds of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Mumbai’s Mominpura, carrying lathis, doing drills borrowed from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s shakhas.
No one paid the least attention — until the men’s names began appearing in accounts of the bombing of dozens of trains on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi submitted a response to the Election Commission on Friday, in reply to complaints that he violated the law by saying Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate was trying to recruit Muzaffarnagar riot victims. Mr. Gandhi was sharply criticised for fanning anti-Muslim sentiment — ironically enough, by both the Hindu and Islamic religious right. He has been attacked for divulging classified information, and asked why the Union government isn’t acting against potential terror recruits. The story which began in Mominpora all those years ago though tells us this: while Mr. Gandhi might be guilty of all of these things, the story he is telling is the unvarnished truth.
From the plain words of the Indian Mujahideen, we know why its recruits are killing. In the minutes before bombs went off at courtrooms in Uttar Pradesh on November 27, 2007, the organisation released a digital manifesto saying it was seeking to avenge the “wounds given by the idol worshippers to the Indian Muslims.” “They demolished our Babri Masjid,” it argued, “and killed our brothers, children and raped our sisters.” “If you want to be a successful person in India,” the manifesto concluded, “then you should be (an) idol worshipper and kill Muslims.”
It would be plain wrong to cast the Indian Mujahideen as a gang of aggrieved riot victims, seeking Hindi-film vengeance. It would be just as wrong though to pretend anti-Muslim violence did not shape its members’ world view: in interrogation after interrogation, members have described their violence as vengeance-seeking.
The Indian Mujahideen’s manifesto, investigators say, was authored by Karnataka-born, Karachi-based Iqbal Shahbandri — a man we’ve come to know well by the alias Iqbal Bhatkal. Iqbal and his brother Riyaz Shahbandri came from a social class not known for resentments against the status quo. The Shahbandri brothers’ father, Ismail, had left the Mangalore-region town, Bhatkal, for Mumbai in the 1970s. He set up a successful leather-tanning works in the city’s Kurla area, buying an apartment on Tulsi Pipe Road.
Riyaz Shahbandri studied at upscale English-medium schools, and later picked up a civil engineering degree from Mumbai’s Saboo Siddiqui College. For his part, Iqbal studied Unani medicine, though his main interest was preaching and proselytising.
In 2001, the brothers were introduced to the now-proscribed Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, through a relative. Founded in the wake of the Emergency, SIMI’s language and practice had become increasingly vitriolic after the Babri Masjid was demolished. In 1996, it put up posters calling on god to send an avatar of the 11th century warlord Mahmud Ghaznavi to avenge the destruction of the mosque.
Yoginder Sikand, the author of authoritative scholarly work on SIMI, suggests its polemic may have given “its supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives.”
The reasons are not hard to understand: the Babri Masjid demolition, followed by murderous riots in many parts of the country, had crystallised the rage of many young Muslims against a political system which had failed them. For the Bhatkal brothers, the 1993 riots were lived experience.
From jailed Mumbai resident Sadiq Israr Sheikh’s testimony to police, we know some on SIMI’s radical fringes were craving for direct action. Born in 1978 to working class parents from the north Indian town of Azamgarh, Sheikh had grown up in Mumbai’s Cheetah Camp housing project. In 1996, he began attending SIMI gatherings — polite tea-and-biscuits affairs that he would eventually storm out of, frustrated by endless discussion.
Late in 2001, he ran into a distant relative, Salim Islahi, the son of a Jamaat-e-Islami-linked cleric who was himself expelled from the organisation for his extremism. Islahi, later controversially killed by police, allegedly arranged for Sheikh to travel to Pakistan for training in September 2001.
His story wasn’t uncommon: other SIMI friends like computer engineer Abdul Subhan Qureshi made the journey to the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s camps at about the same time.
From 2002, when this core leadership returned to India, it found fertile ground: Gujarat persuaded younger recruits that India’s claims to secularism and democracy were a sham. SIMI’s wellsprings gave birth to small jihadist cells across India. Peedical Abdul Shibly and Yahya Kamakutty, highly successful computer professionals, are alleged to have prepared to carry out attacks in Bangalore. Feroze Ghaswala, another alleged Indian Mujahideen recruit, told police he volunteered for joining jihad training after witnessing the mass burial of 40 Gujarat riot victims. Kerala men trained in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir with the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Zabiuddin Ansari, from Maharashtra’s Aurangabad, famously ended up in the 26/11 control room.
From the investigations of the Patna and Bodh Gaya bombings, we know the recruitment continues, often carried out by old SIMI cadre, drawing on an anger which every new communal confrontation fuels. “You have provoked the Mujahideen to massacre you and your five-and-a-half crore multitude of pathetic infidels,” read the bitter Indian Mujahideen manifesto released after the 2008 serial bombings in New Delhi, “who tortured us in the post-Godhra riots asking ‘where is your Allah’?”
“Here He Is”
It is interesting that the Indian Mujahideen never dropped its national identification from the name. In the 2007 manifesto, it said this: “We are not any foreign mujahideen nor we have any attachment with neighbouring countries. We are purely Indian.” In a later manifesto, the group called itself “the home-grown jihadi militia of Islam.” Recently arrested Indian Mujahideen operative Ahmed Siddibapa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal, is reported to have told the National Investigations Agency that he refused to train in Pakistan for these reasons.
The India of an Indian jihad shouldn’t surprise us. From the work of chronicler Zain al-Din Maabari, we know self-described jihadis waged war against Portugese colonial forces more than 200 years ago.
The eminent historian, Ayesha Jalal, has shown the notion of jihad was an important ideological theme through the 18th and 19th centuries.
Following the 2008 bombings in Delhi, the Indian Mujahideen actually invoked this heritage: “We have carried out this attack in the memory of two most eminent Mujahids of India: Sayyed Ahmed Shaheed and Shah Ismail Shaheed, who had raised the glorious banner of Jihad against the disbelievers in this very city of Delhi.”
Like all other modern ideologies, Islamism offers believers a road map for action. It has been a fringe tendency, drawing far fewer supporters among Indian Muslims than the Congress, the Left and perhaps even the BJP — but its durability points to deep tears in our social fabric.
Investigations of the Patna and Bodh Gaya blasts have shown the obvious: even as police and intelligence services have registered important successes in the battle against jihadist terrorism, the fractures in our society have enabled recruits to be drawn from a new generation. Pakistan’s intelligence services and their jihadist proxies will exploit the dysfunctions in our polity, until India’s political life addresses them.
For years now, it has suited a wide spectrum of Indian political opinion to simply deny this problem exists. The forces behind the silence are remarkably wide — among them, Hindu nationalists, unwilling to acknowledge their role in giving birth to jihadist terror; opportunists trying to cash in on Muslim fears; ideologues sympathetic to Islamists.
Mr. Gandhi's intervention, inchoate and fumbling, won’t solve the problem. It does, though, open the door to the truth-telling that is a precondition for healing. For that, India ought to be grateful.