The issue of the radicalisation of Indian Muslims is one that has been gaining momentum for a while now. While some continue to swim in the 'this only happens in other country' sea of denial, others are beginning to grasp the gravity of the situation and suggesting ways to counter it. In an exclusive four-part series on radicalisation in India, Tufail Ahmad examines a variety of conditions and scenarios that have made it possible to radicalise youths in Maharashtra, Hyderabad, Kerala and indeed, India as a whole. The first part of the series follows:
From early 2014 through this year, the radicalisation of Indian Muslims in favour of the Islamic State (or IS) has not ceased, although intelligence agencies have succeeded in preventing dozens of youths from leaving India to join the jihadi group. A review of media reports over the past three years indicates that the number of affected youths — ie those who left for Syria, others who were stopped from leaving India and counselled, and those under surveillance — is around 350. This figure is on the lower side, but does not take into account the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
Radicalisation is the process of directly and indirectly motivating Muslims to participate in jihadi terror, based on religious teachings and grievance-nurturing by Islamic preachers, the Urdu press and other Islamic media. Radicalisation has always existed in India leading to bomb blasts on many occasions, but that it could pose a serious challenge to the security of India was realised first in mid-2014 when four youths left Mumbai for Iraq and Syria — one of them, Areeb Majeed, returned later from Turkey, where he had ended up for medical treatment after being wounded in Syria.
From then till now, around a dozen states have witnessed incidents of radicalisation including Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Assam, Punjab (for pro-Khalistan radicalisation), Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In the run-up to Republic Day this year, at least 14 suspects were arrested. In June, five youths were arrested in Hyderabad, leading to two more arrests in July. Around two dozen youths, who were known to each other, left Kerala in early July for Syria. In the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, four youths were arrested in July. The argument here is this: Radicalisation in India has not ceased since 2014, leaving no room for complacency.
Political correctness forces analysts not to see the ideological nature of the jihadi terror. A usual shortcut is to blame the internet for radicalisation. This is contrary to evidence. In the 20th Century when there was no internet, the streets of Lahore looked much like the streets of Paris today. In December 1926, Swami Shraddhanand was killed by Abdur Rasheed, perhaps the first lone-wolf jihadi, for publishing Satyarth Prakash, a book critical of Prophet Muhammad. In 1929, Rajpal of the Rajpal Publisher of Lahore, was killed, much like the editors of Charlie Hebdo magazine and exactly for the same theological reason, by Ghazi Ilmuddin for publishing the book. The Islamist poet Muhammad Iqbal praised him. Hyderabadi leader Asaduddin Owaisi is not the first Muslim leader to offer legal aid to IS suspects. Ilmuddin's case was defended in court by MA Jinnah.
In modern times, Sufism, supported by the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, is presented as peaceful. In 1936, Murid Hussain, a Sufi from Chakwal in the present-day Pakistan, went on to kill Dr Ram Gopal after he was visited by Prophet Muhammad in dream. The alleged reason for killing was that an animal was named by Gopal after the prophet. Major Nidal Hasan, who shot dead his colleagues at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, is not the first Muslim soldier to be radicalised. In 1937, Miyan Muhammad of the Indian Army shot dead a Hindu soldier in Karachi. In 1942, Babu Merajuddin killed his Sikh officer Major Hardyal Singh allegedly for questioning the sacrifice of animals on Eid-al-Azha, the feast of sacrifice. Guantanamo Bay is also not the first offshore prison for jihadis. Lone-wolf attackers were sent by British officers to Andaman Islands.
While the Mumbai's four had left India before Abu Bakr Al-Baghadi declared himself on June 30, 2014 as the caliph of all Muslims, soon his call for all Muslims to perform Hijrah (migration) to the IS in the Iraq-Syria region caught the imagination of youths. Hijrah marks the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina where a large number of people had converted to Islam. It has special connotation in the minds of Muslims. In India, the pattern of Hijrah over the past three years showed two trends: One, Indian Muslim youths based in London, Qatar, the UAE, Afghanista-Pakistan region, Singapore and Australia travelled directly to Syria to join the ISIS; two, some youths left directly from India for Afghanistan, Iran and some West Asian capitals to join the IS or were prevented from boarding flights at Nagpur and Hyderabad, or stopped in Kolkata.
In July 2015, a note prepared by the Home Ministry noted: "As per available intelligence inputs, very few number of Indian youth(s) have joined ISIS after travelling to Iraq and Syria. Further, intelligence/security agencies have foiled the plan of some youth(s) to travel to Iraq/Syria who are under counselling and monitoring at present. A certain number of IS sympathisers are also under surveillance by security agencies."
A report dated 28 September, 2015, published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, put the number of those under surveillance at 250. As of last July, it appears that the number of Muslim youths arrested over the past three years in different states of India for pro-IS radicalisation is at least 60. Reports in the press indicate that at least 30 Muslims from India could be present in Syria with IS and there are some Indians based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. While the fundamental reasons for radicalisation and justifications for jihad are rooted in Islamic teachings, glorification of Islamic history and grievance mongering, one must bear in mind that the jihadi threat to India emanates also from the rise of jihadi movements in West Asia and the inability of the big powers to stabilise the situation.
Unless that happens, security agencies in India will need to remain alert.
Stay tuned for the next three parts of the series:
Former BBC journalist Tufail Ahmad is a contributing editor at Firstpost, and Executive Director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif