A decade after 9/11, Indian jihad still thrives

India's key failure has been to eradicate its culture of exclusion, which privileges religious identity over citizenship.

September 09, 2011 11:15 pm | Updated September 12, 2011 11:56 pm IST

File photo of an alleged SIMI activist being brought for further investigation. SIMI's leadership rejected the Jamaat's cautious embrace of democratic politics, and its tactical support of secularism.

File photo of an alleged SIMI activist being brought for further investigation. SIMI's leadership rejected the Jamaat's cautious embrace of democratic politics, and its tactical support of secularism.

Badly phrased and littered with misspellings, the e-mail that arrived in newsrooms on November 23, 2007 was typed in plain vanilla ‘Times New Roman,' bereft of the filmic Kalashnikov-and-Qur'an logo and lush graphic effects which would appear in its subsequent iterations.

Minutes later, three synchronised bombs went off outside courtrooms in Uttar Pradesh. The e-mail, journalists recall, went unread: there was too much work to be done.

That first manifesto of India's jihadist movement described the “wounds given by the idol worshippers to the Indian Muslims,” who had “demolished our Babri Masjid and killed our brothers, children and raped our sisters.” The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 had “forced us to take a strong stand against this injustice and all other wounds given by the idol worshippers of India.”

“Only Islam,” it concluded, “has the power to establish a civilised society, and this could only be possible in Islamic rule which could be achieved by only one path: jihad.”

Ever since — and long before — 9/11 India had experienced several occasions to introspect upon the causes and consequences of maximum terror: the 1993 Mumbai bombings, the 2001 attack on the Parliament House, the savageries of the attacks on commuter trains, and the horrors, of course of 26/11.

This newspaper has editorially recorded today that India's persistent failure to improve intelligence and build police capabilities has meant authorities have failed to apprehend the perpetrators of one terrorist attack since 26/11— the last of them being the bombing at the Delhi High Court earlier this week. Policing is the front line of a counterterrorism response; India's front line has disintegrated.

But there is also a larger political failure: to transform a culture of exclusion that privileges religious and ethnic identity over citizenship. Each bomb represents, as the manifesto makes clear, an idea — and each idea, in turn, is rooted in a larger political and cultural context. Policing can arrest perpetrators, not the historical processes which create them.

Even though ideological sources and material resources of the Indian jihad are global, the specific conditions in which it grew are local. India, in the decade since 9/11, has failed to engage with, and address, those conditions. “The whole world is fighting terrorism,” the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said in 2002. Like so many others in India's policy establishment, he believed this global project would absolve India of the need to address its own manifest failings.

It has proved a costly delusion.

The Indian jihad: Back in the summer of 1985, angered by a wave of communal riots in Maharashtra, a small group of neo-fundamentalist activists met on the grounds of the Young Men's Christian Association in Mumbai's Mominpura slum. Mimicking the anxious masculinity-seeking lathi -and-parade drills of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh militias, the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (TIM) — or organisation for the improvement of Muslims — attracted no police attention.

Perhaps it should have: on the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, one of the TIM's founders, Mumbai surgeon Jalees Ansari, executed the first act of the modern Indian jihad. Low-intensity bombs went off on seven trains, and at 43 places in Mumbai and Hyderabad.

The massive serial bombings that had taken place in Mumbai in 1993 sought to avenge the killing of Muslims in the post-Babri Masjid violence, using new tools of death but working to an old script. Dr. Ansari's bombs carried an ideological message.

Even though the TIM soon disintegrated, its message found resonance among young members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

Despite SIMI's emergence as one of the principal threats to India's internal security, neither the history nor objectives of its cult of the Kalashnikov are well understood. Founded in April 1977, SIMI was set up as the student wing of the Indian chapter, the Jamaat-e-Islami. From the outset, SIMI's leadership rejected the Jamaat's cautious embrace of democratic politics, and its tactical support of secularism. The practice of faith would remain incomplete without an Islamic state, it argued; Muslims who embraced secularism were headed to hell.

SIMI, scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, insisted “that Islam alone was the solution to the problems of not just the Muslims of India, but of all Indians and, indeed, of the whole world.”

Even though SIMI remained peripheral to mainstream politics, its message appealed to a growing class of lower middle class and middle class urban Muslim men, denied opportunity and hard-hit by communal violence. By 2001, SIMI had over 400 Ansar, or full-time workers, and 20,000 Ikhwan, or volunteers. As Dr. Sikand has noted, the organisation provided “its supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives.”

From December 1992, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, SIMI's language became increasingly aggressive. In a 1996 statement, SIMI declared that since democracy and secularism had failed to protect Muslims, the sole option was to struggle for the caliphate. Soon after, it put up posters calling on Muslims to follow the path of Mahmood Ghaznavi, the 11th century warlord.

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, SIMI activists organised demonstrations hailing Osama bin-Laden as a “true mujahid,” and celebrating the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Writing in 2001, activist Javed Anand recalled seeing stickers pasted “in large numbers in Muslim shops and homes, a thick red ‘No' splashed across the words Democracy, Nationalism, Polytheism.”

Early in the summer of 2004, a group of young men — in the main, one-time members of SIMI — gathered for a retreat at one of the sprawling villas that line the cheerfully named Jolly Beach, the pride of the small, South Indian fishing town of Bhatkal. They swam, went for hikes into the woods, honed their archery skills, and occasionally indulged in some target practice with an air gun.

The young men on the Jolly Beach were drawn, almost without exception, from the ranks of India's Muslim middle and lower middle class. Riyaz Shahbandri, who hosted the Jolly Beach gathering, was a civil engineer born to a businessman; Altaf Subhan Qureshi, a computer professional; Sadiq Israr Sheikh, a child of working class parents. They hoped to claw their way to a better life by funding his education as an air conditioning mechanic. Peedical Abdul Shibly and Yahya Kakamutty, accused of plotting attacks in southern India, had stellar careers in multinational firms.

Five of 10 alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives for whom educational data is available were in or had completed postgraduate studies; eight had completed a college degree. Muhammad Arif Badr, accused of planting bombs in Delhi three years ago, is the only one of the 10 who had studied in a seminary; Afzal Mutalib Usmani, charged with helping steal a car for the group, alone did not have a high school qualification. These were not the madrasa-educated religious fanatics: they were, instead, members of a disenfranchised middle class.

Each found in SIMI a language for his rage: rage at a society in which social mobility still did not ensure protection against violence. Each eventually rejected SIMI, choosing bombs instead of words to express their anger.

In the autumn of 2002, spurred on by anti-Muslim violence which had claimed hundreds of lives in Gujarat, dozens of volunteers joined the Indian Mujahideen network — although the group did not yet have that, or indeed, any name.

Even though several members of that network were arrested in 2008, and since, its leadership remains in place — and, the string of unsolved bombings since 26/11 suggests, its rank and file, too.

Our culture of hate: India's key failure since 9/11 has been the inability to hold honest national conversation about communal violence, and the ways in which it is embedded in our cultures: a key cause of the persistence of the jihadist movement. Even though our national credo holds that Indian culture is exceptional in its tolerance, that very culture has often generated unimaginable violence.

In the middle class liberal rendition of events, Muslims are victims of a betrayal of our syncretic values; in the Hindu nationalist account, Muslims are the villains who betrayed it. In practice, that means politics which either panders to fundamentalists or demonises Muslims.

Neither narrative corresponds closely to reality. The truth, sadly, is that communalism is an organic part of the warp and weft of our cultures. In all but a few, otherwise-liberal Indian families, the cross-communal marriages of children would be the object of intense disputation. Housing apartheid and job discrimination remain organic parts of the experience of everyday reality for Muslims. Even though India has embraced technological modernity, its culture is yet to secularise.

In the months after he took power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's concern over the persistence of communal violence called for measures to ensure that “painful incidents like [the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres] and the Gujarat riots never happen again.”

He has kept his word to ensure that Indians are protected from carnage — but it is not enough. Indians need to engage in real introspection, on both the causes and consequences of their decades-old communal war.

This article has been corrected for clarity

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.