Al-Qaeda’s declaration that it has set up a “branch” in the Indian subcontinent called Qaedat al-Jihad poses serious questions for India and the new government. For al-Qaeda to establish an >operational base in India , which has the third largest Muslim population in the world, would be to pull off something of a coup. Its failure all these years to establish a presence in this country has been attributed to India’s democracy, its secular foundations and pluralistic traditions. The government says the video recording through which al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made the >announcement — the group’s most direct call ever for jihad in India — is genuine. Even so, the message sounds like a recruitment pitch by a group that has no following on the ground and is taking a shot in the dark. Coming soon after the pull that the Islamic State seems to have exerted on a few >Indian youth through a campaign on the social media, al-Qaeda apparently believes there is a market for jihad in India that is waiting to be exploited. The video also supports the theory of rivalry between the two groups — though the IS was born from al-Qaeda, the older organisation has denounced its offshoot and cut off all links with it. Whatever the reason for the announcement, there is certainly no room for complacency on the part of the >Indian security establishment. After the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India has struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to set up a streamlined intelligence gathering system that can also read and effectively respond to inputs from the ground. Indeed, from the ease with which the IS has been able to lure some youngsters from India, it is clear that the internal security apparatus is far from reaching that goal.
There would be no bigger mistake, though, than to treat this purely as a >security issue . The portents from the video must not be allowed to become a justification for a heavy-handed response that would end up treating members of an entire community as suspects. As recent episodes have shown, there is a worrying tendency among police forces across India to respond to terror threats or attacks by detaining young Muslim men, sometimes on the flimsiest of grounds. There is also a pattern of acting on complaints against social media content in a manner that threatens individual liberties. If al-Qaeda is on a fishing expedition in India, it is because it believes there are disgruntled sections in the Muslim community with which it can build up its base. The >Modi government’s and the BJP’s best response to the threat by al-Qaeda would be to address the causes for such disenchantment. Reining in communally polarising political rhetoric of the kind that is roiling U.P. now, would be a welcome first step.