6-12 September 2013 #672

The anatomy of radicalism

Ajaz Ashraf
Co-founder of Indian Mujahideen Yasin Bhatkal was arrested in Pokhara last week

When the Indian Mujahideen’s bomb-maker, Yasin Bhatkal, was caught in Pokhara last week, there was justifiable jubilation in India. Yasin spilled the beans on interrogation, revealing that Nepal’s scenic lakeside resort has become a hideout of choice where Indian extremists can lie low.

But few know that Yasin was radicalised by what he erroneously believed was just retaliation to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. Pogroms and terror require an ambience and ideology to flourish. Hindu and Muslim communal politics date back to decades before India’s independence.

There was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which defined Indians as those whose holy land and fatherland were the same. Muslims and Christians, therefore, were not Indian. The RSS’s aim was to build a Hindu nation in which Muslims and Christians would not have citizens’ rights. Political power was vital for the RSS to realise its avowed goal of Hindu Rastra. Masquerading as a cultural organisation, it spawned a bewildering variety of outfits, each assigned to play a specific religious role and electorally bolstering its political wing: the Jan Sangh earlier, and now the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The agenda was thrust into the public consciousness through agitations demanding a ban on cow slaughter, and participation in periodic communal rioting. The mirror image of the RSS among Muslims was the Jamaat-e-Islami, which drew its inspiration from Maulana Maududi, who wanted to capture political power to establish an Islamic state and shariah. But at partition Maududi migrated to Pakistan, leaving behind a rump which was renamed Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH). It continued to harp on its original goals, absurdly unmindful of the demographic reality of divided India, and declared participation in elections un-Islamic.

Roundly rebuffed in two Indian general elections, the JIH rescinded the ban on Muslims, other than those constituting its cadres, from casting their ballots. Subsequently, it redefined its goal as Iqamaat-e-deen, or establishment of religion. Now, much like the RSS, it floated its own political outfit. However, the JIH’s worldview remains sharply religious and socially conservative.

These groups and their divisive ideologies were mostly confined to the margins of the Indian polity, until they were brought to centre stage in the 1980s. In response to growing militancy in Punjab, Indira Gandhi, on return to power in 1980 but still anxious about the durability of her support base, began to play the Hindu card, thereby legitimising what had been decidedly the RSS’s policy till then.

It was also the decade in which Hindu-Muslim riots occurred with alarming frequency and severity. Ultimately, the opening of the lock of the Babri Masjid in 1986 and its eventual demolition six years later sparked off countrywide tension which the Sangh Parivar rode to become the principal alternative formation to the Congress.

The rise of the Sangh-BJP and the palpable partiality of the Indian state in tackling the riots stoked the anxiety of Muslims and had an impact on Jamaat politics. Earlier in 1977, the JIH floated the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) as its youth wing which turned increasingly strident as a reaction to riots in India, and broke away from the JIH in 1982, describing its leaders effete.

In 1996, SIMI issued a statement declaring that Indian secularism and democracy had failed the country’s Muslims, leaving them with no option but to struggle (jihad) for the establishment of the Caliphate. Thus, the old idea of jihad was back in currency. Post-9/11, the BJP-led government banned SIMI, and many of its activists went underground. Among them was Yasin Bhatkal. The Gujrat riots radicalised this group further and was born the Indian Mujahideen.

In the weeks to come, we will be provided deeper insights into Yasin’s motivations. Nevertheless, this much can be said: the politics of riot and terror are linked through ideas Muslim ideologues had propounded decades ago. Such ideas are reinterpreted and applied to contemporary reality.

You can scarcely counter ideas of jihad until the ambience in which it thrives is also transformed. Eight months away from India’s general election in May 2014, the RSS has been trying to keep the communal cauldron in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh simmering. Narendra Modi, suspected to have allowed the targeting of Muslims in 2002, is flaunting his prime ministerial ambitions. One wonders what India’s radicalised Muslims are thinking.


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