Communal riots in India are playing into the hands of Islamic State's jihadists and realising their dystopic dreams
There is little doubt Indian communal politics is reaching a crossroads — but there are many paths from here, and all but one leads to perdition
Five years ago, as the Islamic State's armies spilled a great tide of blood across Iraq, Abdus Sami Qasmi stood at the pulpit of an Ahmedabad mosque, gently seducing his audience into the cult of death. "Each day," the cleric began, "Shah Ismail would walk barefoot on the searing stones of the Jama Masjid. He would swim from Delhi to Agra. He learned to use the sword and the lance. Then, when the day came in 1831, he faced the army of Raja Ranjit Singh in Balakote, and drank the elixir of martyrdom."
"But you," Qasmi taunted the young men in his audience: "You paint bridal mehndi on your feet, so you have an excuse not to step out from your homes."
Last week, the Delhi Police made the latest in a long string of arrests linked to Islamic State cells Qasmi, a resident of northeast Delhi's riot-torn Seelampur, is alleged to have inspired. Kashmir resident Jahanzaib Sami Wani and his wife Hina Bashir Beigh, the Delhi Police claims, were producing Islamic State propaganda, and seeking to acquire weapons for a terrorist strike.
Behind the arrests lies a long, dark story: To some in India's beseiged, riot-torn Muslim ghettos, the flickering fires set off by the Islamic State appear to be lighting the way to salvation.
In speeches made across the country through 2015, Qasmi claimed Islam was founded not on prayers or ritual, but the sword. Indeed, he argued, war was the keystone of the faith. "Had Islam not come in the form of Muhammad Bin Qasim, to Sindh," he thundered, "Had Islam not led Mahmood Ghaznavi to triumph at Somnath; had Islam not brought Ahmad Shah Abdali victory at Panipat; then you and I would have been ringing bells and breaking coconuts every morning."
Qasmi's audience included a young college dropout from Hyderabad, Mohammed Abdullah Basith. Ever since he had discovered Islamism as a teenager, influenced by his uncle and former Students Islamic Movement of India president Syed Salahuddin Salar, Basith had venerated Osama Bin Laden — and longed, since then, to act on the jihadist patriarch's call.
In the summer of 2014, four men from Thane had made their way, through Iran, to the Islamic State — the first Indians known to have made the journey. A 2016 prosecution by the National Investigation Agency revealed evidence that one of that group, Areeb Majeed, had set up an online recruitment platform for aspiring jihadists from India, funded by supporters in the United Arab Emirates.
Funds from these networks made their way to Basith — but frustration followed. He was dragged home from Malda by the Telengana Police at his first attempt in 2014. Then, he stole Rs 90,000 from his father, and left for Nagpur, hoping to travel to Syria through Turkey. He was arrested, again.
Long sessions with professional counsellors and family elders followed; his anxious family even arranged his marriage, hoping it would lead Basith to settle down. The journey to paradise, it became clear, was going to be harder than he'd thought.
His online mentors were less fortunate. Adnan Husain Damudi, a resident of Bhatkal in Karnataka, received a seven-year prison sentence. Like Basith, Damudi had been drawn to jihadism as a teenager, through his chilhood friend, fugitive Indian Mujahideen jihadist Riyaz Shahbandri. Kashmir resident Sheikh Azhar-ul-Islam, among the founders of an Islamic State in Srinagar, received a seven-year prison sentence.
Basith did indeed realise his hopes of travelling to Iraq were over. But he soon discovered Qasmi's message: The jihad wasn’t something over there; it was here. In 2018, Basith would be arrested again — this time, on charges of seeking to assassinate Hindu-nationalist politicians.
Jahanzaib Sami Wani, the Delhi Police says, was one of several of Basith's acquaintances to be targeted for discreet electronic surveillance.
For Qasmi, the idea that Indian Muslims might seek support from Pakistan was absurd. "The Pakistan Army," he said in his Ahmedabad speech, "has torn Waziristan apart, destroying mosques and killing thousands of Muslims. It has never, once, done anything to harm America. A Muslim sultanate is obliged to raid its adjoining unbeliever Sultans twice a year — but has the Pakistan Army ever done this?" In his view, Islamabad was ruled by enemies of Islam, just as surely as New Delhi.
In 2001 — not long after Damudi first encountered jihadist ideas in Bhatkal, the Indian Mujahideen's founders had begun to travel to Pakistan for military training. Helped by relatives in Hyderabad with organised crime links, former Mumbai air-conditioning mechanic Sadiq Israr Sheikh made his way into a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp near Muzaffarabad, learning bomb-making and combat skills.
Following the 2002 riots in Gujarat, a small core of jihadists like Sheikh began to find new recruits. This network would coalesce into the Indian Mujahideen, which would wage India's most lethal urban terrorist campaign.
The jihadists grouped around Qasmi, the NIA has alleged in charges filed before a Delhi court, followed a similar trajectory. Ten men from New Delhi and Amroha, in Uttar Pradesh, it claims, set up the Harkat ul-Harb e-Islam, or Group for the War for Islam.
Instead of turning to Pakistani jihadists for training, the NIA says, the men trawled the internet to learn to fabricate improvised explosive devices. They purchased chemicals to make explosives, bought locally-made pistols, and even assembled a crude rocket-launcher from tractor parts.
Families of the arrested men have denied the charges, but there's little doubt the jihadist impulse by which they are alleged to have been driven, has real power. Early in 2018, just as the Delhi jihad cell was gathering, Hyderabad-born Muhammad Taufiq was shot dead along with two ethnic-Kashmiri jihadists in Anantnag. Taufiq, the police says, had twice been cautioned for trawling Islamic State websites, and sent for counselling.
His face masked with a white handkerchief, an assault rifle cradled in his lap, Taufiq left behind this videotaped testament: "These perfidious Hindus will keep changing their tactics until their mission is accomplished — and that mission is the elimination of every last Muslim."
The words run to script. Ever since December 1993, there have been successive waves of jihadist recruitment. That tragedy saw the rise of jihadists lead by Abdul Karim Tunda heading into the arms of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Following 2002, another generation formed the Indian Mujahideen. And following the Indian Mujahideen's collapse, many of its members fled for the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, and then Syria.
Now, a new cohort is learning from the failures of their predecessors. Instead of turning to Pakistan, they believe, the foundations for an Islamist insurgency have to be laid at home.
From Qasmi's Ahmedabad speech, it's easy to see the contours of the dystopia he wanted to build: India's Muslims, he argued, ought to practice the brutal punishments prescribed by Shari'a religious law for criminals; burn apostates and idolators. The National Anthem, he insisted, was blasphemy, seeking to supplant god as the true arbiter of human destiny. Parliament, he went on, was an obscenity, arrogating to man the right to reverse god's laws against sins like homosexuality.
His ugliest invective was reserved for secular Muslims: Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah and Congress leader Salman Khurshid were assailed for having daughters married outside their faith; newspaper editor Shakil Shamsi was, simply, a "stinking Shi'a", and his colleague Asad Raza "worthy of slaughter".
"The heroes of our people are those who conquered the world," Qasmi concluded, "The lovers of democracy cannot be representatives of the Muslims." He went on, "Islam is rising,... the world must choose between submission and the sword."
Language like this isn't new.
In a 1996 statement, the Students Islamic Movement of India had declared that since democracy and secularism had failed to protect Muslims, the sole option for Muslims was to struggle for the caliphate. Soon after, the movement put up posters calling on Muslims to follow the path of Mahmood Ghaznavi and appealing to God to send down a latter-day avatar of the 11th Century conqueror to avenge the destruction of mosques in India.
India's jihad, moreover, has deep historical roots. Eighteenth Century East India Company records describe fidayeen suicide-squad attacks along the Malabar coast, the acts of self-described jihadists. The historian historian Ayesha Jalal's work has shown that the notion of jihad was an important ideological theme elsewhere in India both during the pre-colonial and colonial period. Qasmi's speech shows, like the Indian Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed writings before it, that the failed jihad waged by Shah Islamil Dehlvi against Ranjit Singh's empire has lost its power to inspire.
As ever-greater numbers of Muslims turn to religious ghettos in search of security against violence, Islamists have come to realise that this communal cleavage offers them an unprecedented opportunity to expand their influence. Ever since the mid-1980s, though, as large-scale communal violence escalated, and the legitimacy of the Congress-centred Muslim political leadership collapsed, jihadist voices like Qasmi have gathered legitimacy. As the scholar Yoginder Sikand perceptively noted of the Students Islamic Movement of India, jihadist movements give "supporters a sense of power and agency they were denied in their actual lives".
Figures like Jahanzaib Sami and Hina Beigh — both the children of élite Srinagar business families, with stellar educational qualifications and successful careers — ought have been the core of a new Muslim political leadership. Instead, the new middle-class they represent has found its engagement with modern India being shaped by communal hatreds and political marginalisation.
In the still-unfolding protests at Shaheen Bagh, we have one vision of what the future of Muslim politics in India could be: A politics centred around constitutional claims, and the demand for inclusion as citizens of a secular republic. Less than a few kilometres away, in Qasmi's Seelampur seminary or the Sami home in Okhla, very different ideas have been birthed — and are also thriving.
For both Hindus and Muslims, the outcome of this political struggle is critical. There is little doubt Indian communal politics is reaching a crossroads — but there are many paths from here, and all but one leads to perdition.
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