A week ago or so, glancing at a Hindi daily, I came across a fascinating report: On the previous day, a group of Muslim women in Varanasi had entered the Sankat Mochan temple, at whose entrance a terrorist bomb had killed eight persons and injured fifty early last month — and recited the Hanuman chalisa, Tulsidasa's chaupai or poem to Lord Hanuman, the presiding deity of that temple. Simultaneously, Hindu women went across to a dargah and presented a chadar for the Muslim shrine. The event reflects an important trend in the minority community of not merely seeking passive security from the government, but to reach out to the majority, as well as signal those who are trying to destabilise Hindu-Muslim relations, that they are nowhere near success. Another manifestation of this was a spate of fatwas from top Muslim seminaries and scholars in Uttar Pradesh roundly berating the terrorists and their tactics.
In my last column, two weeks ago, I compared the Maoist insurgency to a rogue bacteria eating the country from within. This time I would like to take up the other bacteria — Indian Muslim radicalism. This has been showing signs of rogue activity since the Eighties, and hasn't done so, despite the best efforts of the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Islamic fundamentalist preachers, the Sangh parivar and communal violence. All this despite trends in the larger Islamic world towards radicalism, as well as domestic provocations like the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1993 and the Gujarat massacres of 2002. Considering the 140-150 million-strong Muslim community, a hard core of two or three dozen involved in terrorist acts over 20 years constitutes a statistically negligible minority. You can believe this to be something intrinsic to the composite culture of India, summed up in Iqbal's paen: "Kuch baat hai ki hasti mit ti nahin hamari..." (There is something special that ensures that this entity (India) can never be erased.) But good sense would suggest that this is the outcome of India's essentially secular polity, the power of democracy, the sterling role of its higher judiciary, and the temperament of Indian Islam.
The events in J&K and the jehadisation of the movement are stories in themselves. Periodically, efforts have been made by ISI handlers to use the insurgents to light other fires in India. Groups like the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen and its successor J&K Islamic Front, launched out of Nepal, carried out bombings in Delhi and set up cells in other parts of the country in the mid-Nineties, but they were soon rounded up. The Kashmiri jehadis may have been able to use some Indian Muslims in their terrorist acts — the more remarkable fact has been the latter's virtually negligible presence in the Kashmir movement.
North Indian Muslim radicals have been involved in a number of terrorist incidents, but their motivation has been local, rather than transnational. For one, they have been a reaction to the violence and coercion of over the last 50 years, somewhat euphemistically called 'riots'. According to Paul Brass, in the 7,000-odd communal incidents between 1954-1982, some five hundred Hindus were killed, but the number of Muslims killed was three times that. Another major watershed was the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The Sangh parivar campaign to build a Ram temple on its site was motivated less by religious zeal and more by a desire to humiliate Muslims. The campaign came with a spate of riots — Meerut, Surat, Ahmedabad, and Bhagalpur to name a few. And so when the mosque was demolished, there was a sense of victory in the parivar and that of dishonour and disgrace in the Muslim community, and some anger. Abdul Karim aka Tunda of Pilkhua, a suburb of Delhi, Azam Ghauri and Jalees Ansari, a medical practitioner in Mumbai organised terrorist bombings across northern and western India. Both the Ansari and Tunda gangs were wrapped up by the late Nineties and the latter disappeared from view.
As is obvious, there are important regional variations on what has been happening within the Muslim community in India. A striking feature of the incidents in the North are that they have been linked to specific local grievances — lack of autonomy in Kashmir, the mosque demolition or Gujarat. But what of the South? What is motivating Muslims to join terrorist cells in Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu or Karnataka? Cities like Hyderabad have, of course, had endemic communal riots. But in recent years, terrorist cells have been found in Nalgonda, Karimnagar, Nanded and other small towns and there have been significant terror acts in Coimbatore, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Conventional wisdom had it that many southern Indian Muslim communities were even better integrated into the Indian ethos than their northern counterparts, better off, better educated, well travelled and with easy links to the Gulf. Preliminary evidence would suggest that for this very reason, the terrorist phenomenon in the South could be linked more to transnational Islamic fundamentalist movements which have a global agenda.
The Pakistani ISI has not only fished, but actually stocked, these troubled waters. Their top agents of the Eighties, Mohammed Sharif, Intekhab Zia and Sajjad Raza sought to create cells of the disaffected. Yet they could not find recruits. They did target the Student's Islamic Movement of India and, because they lacked a credible Indian Muslim agent, they actually trained Manjit Singh, alias Lal Singh, a Sikh terrorist to act like a Muslim. Under the alias Aslam Gill or Iqbal Alam, he entered India and tried to organise attacks on Indian nuclear and economic establishments. But Singh and his network, Sikh militants and the smuggling fraternity of Gujarat were arrested or killed before the Babri Masjid demolition. So for the Bombay blasts of 1993, the ISI used the services of the Muslim members of the Mumbai underworld.
At present, the ISI, as well as a number of Pakistani groups who have recruited Indian Muslim radicals have begun running parallel, and on occasion inter-locking, operations in India. While high-profile attacks such as the ones planned against the Indian Military Academy or Indian Institute of Science bear the hallmark of the ISI/LET combine, the attacks on softer targets such as the strikes in New Delhi and Varanasi are managed and executed by second rung groups like Bangladesh-headquartered Harkat Jehad ul Islami, or other locals like Salar aka Salim, a petty criminal- turned-radical shot the day after the Varanasi blasts. More alarming was the arrest of an Imam from Phulpur, Walilullah, an area organiser of HUJI for the same blasts. This confirms the suspicion that radical movements are growing roots in small mosques and madrasas across the north, from Bangladesh to New Delhi.
But seen in the larger perspective, all this appears to have borne little fruit. The absence of Indian Muslims in Guantanamo is just one evidence of the success of the Indian model of democratic assimilation and secularism. In the decade since the Mandal-Mandir conflict, Muslims have also been made aware of their own electoral clout. As a result, it is the BJP that has had to adjust to Muslim voters, and not the other way round. Arguably, the 2004 election outcome was a result of Muslim anger at the BJP's handling of Gujarat.
The Sangh parivar, as noted, began the Mandir movement to humiliate Muslims and consolidate the putative Hindu majority. But while they succeeded in the former, they failed spectacularly in the latter project. The reason was simple — there is no monolithic Hindu community.
In the detritus thrown up by the Mandal WMD, Muslims have found eager allies in Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati, each committed to providing them physical security, the one really important thing all Indian Muslims seek, not quotas and reservations. Ensuring this is not just about electoral dividends, but the de-ghettoisation of the community and its genuine assimilation in India.
This appeared in The Hindustan Times May 3, 2006