Investigations into the recent terrorist attacks and the subsequent chain of arrests and seizures in different parts of India, particularly rural Maharashtra, have revealed a growing alliance between jehadi groups operating from Pakistan and Bangladesh with ideologically extreme groups in India.
This development signals a new phase of terrorism within India where international terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Harkat-ul- Jehadi al Islami (HuJI) (and through them al Qaida) are likely to exert influence over a small and diffused group of individuals to take up arms against the State in the name of religion.
SIMI had begun as a student wing of Jamat-e-Islami, a moderate religious organisation, but under the influence of Wahabbis (Saudi Arabia, the source of generous funds), the group adopted an extremist ideology and broke away from the parent organisation. Today, its icon is Osama bin Laden.
The threat is these small groups can cause immense damage to the country, its economy, its image, its pluralist character by calculated terrorist attacks in specific centres. Terror is not the only agenda these groups profess. As revealed in attacks in market places in Delhi, Varanasi, Ayodhya and Jama Masjid, the primary objective has been to trigger communal riots and widen the historical divide and suspicion which has existed, at subliminal level, between Hindus and Muslims.
There are quite a few other conclusions which can be safely drawn from the recent terrorist incidents and arrests. First and foremost is that various terrorist elements have been successful in creating a network of terrorist brotherhood in India. Second, such a network of different terrorist groups cannot be possible without a mastermind. In this case, it is clear that the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), working on this strategy since the early 90s (Operation K2), has managed to bring together terrorist and extremist groups with different ideologies for a common cause.
Two such groups which the ISI is today using are LeT and HuJI, both have abiding linkages with al Qaida. Of the several Indian groups which the Pakistani agency has tapped, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), banned in several States, is the most resourceful. Almost all the recent arrested terrorists and their sympathisers have links with SIMI, an organisation set up in the late 70s in Aligarh Muslim University to counter the rising Hindu chauvinism, represented in large measure by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its various off-shoots.
SIMI had begun as a student wing of Jamat-e-Islami, a moderate religious organisation, but under the influence of Wahabbis (Saudi Arabia, the source of generous funds), the group adopted an extremist ideology and broke away from the parent organisation. Today, its icon is Osama bin Laden. Before its ban, the group had an active membership of 10,000 in different parts of India, particularly Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala and Gujarat.
Islamic terrorism will no longer be confined to Kashmir as has been the case since the early 90s. It is likely to be a major internal security challenge in different parts of the country, particularly west and south India
Its support base, according to intelligence reports, was almost 100,000, a base which became dormant after the Indian government ordered a crack down following the Mumbai blasts. Recent events, however, reveal that at least some sections of this support base are being revived by terrorist groups operating from Pakistan to carry out the next phase of proxy war.
This leads to the third conclusion. Islamic terrorism will no longer be confined to Kashmir as has been the case since the early 90s. It is likely to be a major internal security challenge in different parts of the country, particularly west and south India. North and north-east are already afflicted with terrorism. In all likelihood, north-east, especially Assam, will increasingly come under an additional threat from Islamic terrorists operating out of Bangladesh. Fourth point is the profile of the new set of terrorists. They are not exactly bearded, madarsa educated jehadis.
A sizeable number of them are well-educated, doctors and engineers, and adept in exploiting latest communication technologies like internet, email and sat phones. This means, and this is the fifth point, these are groups which can tap into the worldwide web of terror which has not only become a virtual university of jehad but also an overarching umbrella of faith, bringing all the faithful together on a single cyber platform. It is ironical that a faith, which is deeply suspicious of technology, especially western, has its share of proponents who are joined together in their mission of destruction and terror by this web of servers and protocols developed by ‘infidels‘.
Sixth, a large number of local recruits are influenced not by any ideology as such but by, what they perceive as, communal hatred and injustice inflicted by certain sections of the society. Although India has witnessed communal riots since Independence, it was the demolition of the disputed mosque in Ayodhya which drove a deep cleave between the two communities, bringing to the fore, perhaps for the first time since the Partition, the clash between the Majority Community and the Minority Community on a pan-India scale.
For the Muslim community as a whole, this incident raised the spectre of being totally subjugated in a nation of their choice. Riding on this communal frenzy and hatred, groups like SIMI stoked the fire, supported in no less measure by the ISI and different groups in West Asia, creating the first group of home-grown jehadis who wanted to avenge the demolition of the mosque by inflicting death and pain on the majority community, on the State perceived as a Hindu state.
A large number of the local terrorists who were arrested, or being hunted, for the attacks were influenced by, and incensed at, the failure of the State to protect Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
It can be worthwhile to look at how the first group of home grown jehadis came into existence. A group of angry Muslim young men, some owing allegiance to Ahl-e-Hadis, an Islamic school of thought which aims to cleanse the religion of all its external influences, especially Hindu, and SIMI, met at a mosque in Mominpura, Mumbai, to form Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (TIM) in 1993. Formed primarily to counter the growing communal posturings of extremist groups like the RSS and Shiv Sena, the group’s cadre adopted the training doctrines (morning cane drills) of the Hindu groups. Among those who attended the meeting were Azam Ghouri, Abdul Karim Tunda and Dr Jalees Ansari, a Maharashtra government doctor. The leader of the group was Ghouri who hailed from Hanmajjpet in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh and was a member of the outlawed People’s War Group (naxal) almost a decade ago. One of Ghauri’s close associate was Abdul Karim Tunda.
Working under the instructions of LeT commander Zaki-ur-Rehman, the trio-Ghauri, Tunda and Ansari-carried out their first act of terror on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. They set off seven explosions in trains, in and around Delhi, part of a series of explosions. Ansari, for instance, was scheduled to carry out another series on January 26 the next year, but was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Ghauri fled to Saudi Arabia and was recruited by Hamid Bahajib, a Saudi businessman who has been financing LeT’s activities for long.
Ghori learnt the techniques of creating and using locally available explosive materials to trigger lethal bomb explosions at the terrorist training camps run by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He returned to India to set up another LeT clone in Hyderabad, the Indian Muslim Mohammedi Mujahideen (IMMM), an Indian branch of the Muslim Defence Force founded in Saudi Arabia by Abu Hamsa alias Abdul Bari Hamsa.of Hyderabad. It subsequently had branches in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, apart from Andhra Pradesh. The IMMM was responsible for bomb blasts in Hyderabad, Karim Nagar and Nizamabad. The group’s LeT pedigree was betrayed by two incidents that were hardly noticed by the general media.
On February 29, 2000, several newspapers in Andhra Pradesh received a small note announcing the creation of the IMMM. The note was circulated a few days after the three-day annual conference of Markaz Dawa-wal-Irshad, the parent organisation of LeT, decided to set up a new unit in Hyderabad. Abdul Karim Tunda fled to Muzaffarabad after the bomb blasts and took over as the Deputy Commander of Lashkar’s India operations. He later escaped to Bangladesh and helped create a network of LeT operatives and sleeper cells in different parts of India. Ghauri helped him from Saudi Arabia by recruiting a significant number of operatives, some of whom-Amir Hashim, Abdul Qayoom Mohammad Ishtiaq ‘Junaid’and Abdul Aziz Sheikh, drawn from New Delhi and Hyderabad-were instrumental in launching several terrorist attacks in India besides expanding the network.
The ideological moorings for extremist Islam, as represented by jehadis the world over, could be traced to the reformist Islamic movements which emerged in the shadow of the declining power of the Mughal empire and the subsequent rise of non-Muslim powers such as the Jats, the Marathas, the Sikhs and the British.
On hindsight, it can be said that it was the beginning of a coalition of extremist and terrorist groups in India which came to the fore with alarming ferocity in the serial blasts in Delhi on October 29, 2005, the Bangalore attack of December 2005 and the March 2006 Varanasi twin blasts, all of which were executed by terrorists owing allegiance to LeT, SIMI, Harkat-ul Jehad al Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
More critical is the point which most of the Indian policy planners including counter-terrorism strategists would rather overlook, deliberately. A large number of the local terrorists who were arrested, or being hunted, for the attacks were influenced by, and incensed at, the failure of the State to protect Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The video cds, books, and posters, besides newspaper and television reports of the riots and killings, distributed far and wide (no doubt with generous help and assistance from funders in West Asia and Pakistan) have once again revived the spectre of an onslaught in the minds of a community which is 130-million strong (and hence the term ‘minority‘ can be misleading in the Indian context).
With the State, both at the Centre and State level, miserably failing to address the issue, squarely (mouthing homilies like ‘our Muslims are not al Qaida‘ might sound good and placating but can be dangerously supercilious), this small band of jehadis could grow in numbers, threatening not only life and property of Indian citizens but the very fabric of the Indian society.
This brings us to another point which most of us seem to give a miss. There has been no reported instance of any Indian extremist or terrorist group or individual operating in Iraq or Afghanistan or any other parts of the world (barring the recent Canadian case of an Indian origin neo-convert taking to terror). Neither has terrorist upsurge in Iraq or Afghanistan incited the wannabe terrorists in India. The single-most factor which is inciting men to turn to terror against the State is the complete failure of the latter to provide equitable justice and enforce law and order irrespective of colour, creed and caste. This factor has to be factored in any successful counter-terrorism strategy if we were to tackle this growing menace swiftly, without letting it fester like the Kashmir problem.
It is not only the mosque demolition or Gujarat riots which are the lone factors in the emergence of home grown jehadis with linkages in Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are undeniable historical reasons for certain sections of the society to feel the way it feels.
In fact, the ideological moorings for extremist Islam, as represented by jehadis the world over, could be traced to the reformist Islamic movements which emerged in the shadow of the declining power of the Mughal empire and the subsequent rise of non-Muslim powers such as the Jats, the Marathas, the Sikhs and the British. Many in the Muslim community began to feel threatened by these developments and called for going back to ‘true‘ Islam to regain the political supremacy.
Quoting Islam’s noted thinker, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, Pakistani scholar Hussain Haqqani aptly sums up the fundamentals of Islamic revival as:1
“..any programme for Islamic revival must also include a scheme to wrest authority from the hands of un-Islam and practically re-establish government on the pattern described as ‘Caliphate after the pattern of Prophethood’ by the Holy Prophet. Furthermore, Muslim revivalists must not rest content with establishing the Islamic system in one or more countries already inhabited by the Muslims. They must initiate such a strong universal movement as may spread the reformative and revolutionary message of Islam among mankind at large. The final aim….is to enable Islam to become a predominant cultural force in the world and capture the moral, intellectual and political leadership of mankind.”
One of the religious leaders, ulama, who led the campaign for revival of Islam was Shah Waliullah of Delhi.
A large number of Muslims in India were inclined towards far more liberal interpretation of Islam and remained skeptical of Waliullahs call for return to a puritanical approach.
After studying for two years in Saudi Arabia, Shah Waliullah returned to Delhi in 1732 and began preaching the need for purity in religious beliefs and practices. He was strongly opposed to Islam adopting beliefs and practices from other beliefs. He said only by adopting a purified Islam could the Muslims remain united against the enemies of Islam. A prolific writer, Shah Waliullah popularised the six canonical collections of Hadith of the Sunnis (sihah sitta) and is today considered as the pioneer of Islamic reform by all Sunni schools.2
Waliullah was not content with the theoretic aspects of his preaching and believed that practical steps should be taken to regain political supremacy. In 1760, he invited the Afghan warlord, Ahmad Shah Abdali to get rid of the Marathas. Though Waliullah thought Abdali would be an Islamic mujahid, the latter plundered the areas he captured, killing both Hindus and Muslims, resulting in a major set back to the Islamic revival.
In any case, Waliullah’s teachings did not attract any substantial number of followers.3 A large number of Muslims in India were inclined towards far more liberal interpretation of Islam and remained skeptical of Waliullah’s call for return to a puritanical approach. Many Sunnis felt that Waliullah and his followers were inspired by the Arabian heretical preacher, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab who despised Sufism and other influences in the religion. While Wahhab’s followers called themselves Wahhabis, Waliullah’s group came to be known as the Ahl-e-Hadith (the People of the Prophetic Tradition). Alongside Ahl-e-Hadith emerged another group, equally attracted by Waliullah’s teachings and legend but more accommodating towards Sufism, Deobandis who set up their centre of learning in a small town, Deoband, in United Province (Uttar Pradesh of today).
To win popular support, Sayyed Ahmed launched a jehad against the Sikhs, who it felt, were discriminating against the Muslims in Punjab.
The next time the Islamic puritans managed to band together was early 19th century when a group of ulema, in an attempt to counter the gathering strength of the British, traveled to the borderlands of Afghanistan and set up a proto-state where the rule of law was Sharia.
The group was led by one of Waliullah’s grandsons, Shah Ismail and his associate Sayyed Ahmed of Rae Bareilly, inspired mostly by the teachings of Shah Abdul Aziz, one of Waliullah’s sons. A staunch opponent of the British expansion, Aziz had issued a fatwa declaring that India was a dar ul-harb, abode of war.
The Pathans of Afghanistan were not enamored by the puritanical approach of the extremist group resulting in frequent clashes between the two groups. To win popular support, Sayyed Ahmed launched a jehad against the Sikhs, who it felt, were discriminating against the Muslims in Punjab. A large number of Pathans sided with the Sikhs to take on the extremist group in an armed conflict in Balakot in 1831 which ended with the death of Shah Ismail and Sayyed Ahmed.
Though the death of the two top leaders was a crippling setback, many of their followers pursued the path of jehad till the attempts were crushed by the British during the 1857 war of independence. Some of the Ahl-e-Hadith leaders, however, continued to raise the banner of revolt against the British, especially in the North-West Frontier Province till they were finally fatally crippled in the early part of 19th century. Although the group largely opted to remain peaceful thereafter, according to a Hadith scholar, the group had ‘refused to accept the supremacy of the British and the Hindus’, and vowed to carry on the struggle through other means to ‘convert India into an abode of Islam (dar-ul-islam) through jehad. 4. Many madarsas in India, and in Pakistan, even today believe in carrying forward this tradition of jehad.
This historical perspective is important to understand the potential of terrorist groups like LeT, which owes allegiance to the Ahl-e-Hadis group, HuJI and SIMI, Deobandi groups, to come together to recruit and expand the network of terror in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
- Hussain Haqqani, India’s Islamist groups, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Volume II, (Haqqani draws his observations from S Abul Ala Maududi, A Short History of the Revivalist Movement in Islam (translated from Urdu), (Lahore: Islamic Publications Limited, 1963). P.5.
- Barbara D. Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982, p. 283.
- Hafiz Salahuddin Yusuf, Tehrik-i-Jehad, Jama9at Ahl-i Hadith Aur 8Ulama-i Ahnaf, Dar ul-Kitab Islamia, Delhi, 2000, p. 54.