Behind the Bangalore bombing, a jihadist moonrise

In March, 1764, two men burst into the Portuguese church inside the fort at Darmapatnam, and attacked the congregation with swords.  Lizardo Evans was cut down and several other worshippers injured, before the attackers were killed.

“The bodies of the above Moors”, a colonial chronicler recorded, “were immediately ordered to be thrown into the sea as an example to deter from the like attempt in the future and to prevent any religious [illegible] being got of them, that they may not be worshipped as saints as is the practice of their caste”.

Two and a half centuries on, the rise of political Islamism on India’s spice coast is again stirring violent forces—forces which raise the spectre of the kind of communal conflict that raged, for decades, along the Malabar coast.

No one knows, yet, who bombed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s office in Bangalore—but irrespective of who the perpetrators turn out to be, the event will almost certainly feed the ugly chauvinism long evident across the region.  The political question is thus more important than the criminal one: just what is driving the jihadist moonrise on the spice coast—and what will its consequences be?

Evidence that violent jihadists are active across the spice coast isn’t hard to come by.  Earlier this year, the National Investigation Agency charged several Bangalore men in the first Indian plot involving online self-radicalisation. In 2011-2012, it alleges, Bangalore residents Abdul Hakeem Jamadar and Zafar Iqbal Sholapur visited Pakistan, drawn by online jihadist literature to join the jihad in Afghanistan.  In Karachi, though, fugitive jihad organiser Farhatullah Ghauri persuaded them to fight against India. The NIA alleges that the Bangalore jihadists plotted to assassinate a string of figures associated with the Hindutva right-wing.

Earlier, the NIA alleges, Kerala-born engineer and former Students Islamic Movement of India activist Sarfaraz Nawaz helped raise funds for an ambitious Lashkar-e-Taiba network run out of the middle-east.  Muscat resident, Abdul Aziz al-Hooti, the son of an Indian mother, provided funds for the 2008 serial bombings in Bangalore. The bombings, investigators allege, were carried out by a third man, Kerala resident Tadiyantavide Nasir. Nasir also recruited multiple Kerala men to train with the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Jammu and Kashmir.

Bangalore has long been a hub for jihadists drawn from across the spice coast region. Shibli Peedical Abdul, a top SIMI leader arrested in March 2008, was a computer engineer at a multinational firm in Bangalore, and often travelled abroad on business.  So, too, was his SIMI colleague Yahya Kamakutty. Perhaps the best known case was that of Glasgow suicide-bomber Kafeel Ahmed, an engineer born to a respectable and well-educated family in Bangalore.

How does one account for the apparent seduction of some young men?  There is no simple answer. In the course of their interrogations—which, under Indian law, are not admissible as evidence—police say suspects cast their actions as retaliation against the communal killings of 1992 and 2002.  Not all cases fit this narrative, though. Nasir, investigators have told Firstpost, was drawn to Abdul Nasir Madani’s Islamic Seva Sangh in 1991, and cut his teeth in street clashes with Hindutva groups—culminating in his participation in the tragic Marad massacre, which claimed 13 lives. Kamakutty and Abdul, investigators claim, first radicalised at Sarani, a hostel run to house Muslim professionals from Kerala. It is possible they felt a sense of social exclusion.

It may still be too early to predict who is behind the Bangalore blast. PTI

It may still be too early to predict who is behind the Bangalore blast. PTI

This, however, we do know more reliably: ever since the early 1990s, both Muslim neo-fundamentalism and Islamism have gathered momentum.  Petro-Islam, was imported by migrant workers in the Persian gulf may have influenced it. So, perhaps, did the enormous cultural and social changes brought about in the region by wealth and cultural modernity. Hindutva violence also gave the Islamists legitimacy. Parvathi Menon had warned in 2009, that youth were increasingly embracing extreme postures, and engaging in murderous attacks.

Following the attempt to assassinate former deputy prime minister LK Advani in 1993, the political landscape has been regularly punctuated by violence—be it the chopping-off of a purportedly-blasphemous teacher’s hand, or killings of political opponents. In 2010, veteran communist leader VS Achuthanandan even warned that Islamists were working to turn Kerala into a Muslim-majority state.

Put simply, the terrorist bombings are extreme forms of everyday violence—violence that has grown roots in a firmament of competitive communalism.

From the sixteenth century historian Sheikh Zainuddin Mab’ari, we know the jihadist political tendency in southern India isn’t of recent vintage. In 1498, the Portuguese arrived off the Malabar coast—tearing apart the prosperous Muslim community which until then enjoyed a monopoly of the spice trade with the Persian gulf. In Maba’ri’s view, the Muslims had invited this on themselves, their prosperity leading them to “deviate into sinful living, forgetting the blessings of Allah”. He also condemned Islamic rulers, “who loved this transient world more than the next and would not struggle in the path of Allah or spend their wealth in his cause”.

Portuguese colonialism was shaped—as all colonialism is—by the sword. Ma’bari chronicled its murderous impact: “They killed innumerable Muslims. Those who were caught, bound and confined were countless in number. Many were forcefully converted to Christianity. Kidnapping Muslim women and raping them in custody to produce Christian children was rampant”.

Ma’bari thus wrote with the declared intention intention of “giving inspiration to the believers to wage jihad against the cross-worshipping Portuguese”. In his view, jihad against unbelievers living in their own lands was not an individual obligation: “if nobody undertakes to do it, the entire community will be held responsible for committing the sin”.  In the face of invasion, though jihad was the “responsibility of every able-bodied individual adult Muslim, male or female”.

This kind of jihadist ideological motif, the historian Ayesha Jalal has shown, runs through South Asia—though, it bears mention, generally at the fringes of Muslim politics.  The eighteenth century cleric Shah Waliullah, for example, wrote to Muslim rulers and notables calling for measures against Hindus and followers of the Shia faith.  He also wrote to the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali, calling on him to invade India.  In a manifesto released after its 2008 bombings in New Delhi, the Indian Mujahideen had specifically invoked the memories of Sayyid Ahmad and Shah Ismail, two iconic jihadists killed who were killed at Balakot in May, 1831, while waging an unsuccessful jihad against Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire.

During the great rebellion of 1857, Indian insurgents fighting imperial British troops included among their ranks numbers of self-described jihadis, including at least one regiment of suicide ghazis, who vowed to fight until they met death at the hands of the infidel.   While it would, perhaps, be misleading to read this form of jihadi resistance in the context of our times, the fact remains the presence of the ghazis, or Islamic warriors, caused Hindu-Muslim communal friction of a kind that is startlingly modern.

In 2003, for example, the Lashkar had argued on its website that violence against Muslims in India was an outcome of the core character of Hindus, who “have no compassion in their religion”.   Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed also said that “the Hindu is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by and forefathers [who] crushed them by force”. In the wake, SIMI called for Muslims to avenge the act by following in the steps of the eleventh century conqueror, Mahmud Ghaznavi.

It isn’t that the jihadists and neo-fundamentalists are the only—or even principal—voice of Muslims along the spice coast today.  The region is also seeing the birth of a secularised middle-class, fighting for opportunities in the new economy. Yet, religious chauvinism and discrimination have empowered those—like the Lashkar and SIMI—who argue that democracy offers no way out of the crisis the community faces.

Facing up to the challenge will need both introspection and vision—qualities leaders in both communities have shown little of so far.