This Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a group of Chief Ministers that there could be "a further intensification" of terrorist acts, with the possible use of suicide bombers to attack economic and religious targets and vital installations like nuclear establishments. There were reports, he said, that suggested "terrorist modules and 'sleeper cells' exist in some of our urban centres" and that there was urgent need to find ways of dealing with this "decentralised micro-terrorist" threat. Clearly, his remarks would suggest that Al- Qaedaism has arrived in India, even if Al-Qaeda has not.
Next Monday will be the fifth anniversary of the global war against terrorism that was launched in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center. Almost everyone will agree that the war is far from won. Its leader, the US, which helped defeat Nazi Germany and Japan in the space of four years, is floundering for an exit policy. Instead of fighting the real war thrust on his country on that fateful morning, George W Bush’s obsession with an assorted chimera of neocon enemies has landed the US in a no-win situation in Iraq. A major casualty of the war has been the perception that America is no longer the overwhelming power it was prior to its Iraq misadventure. Another set of casualties have been domestic — the vaunted liberties of the American people, damaged by the unchecked expansion of government power that has brought into question the leadership of the US on human rights and democracy.
In the meantime, Osama Bin Laden remains free and the Taliban are once again resurgent in Afghanistan. While Al-Qaeda may no longer be a viable organisation, Al-Qaedaism has spread around the world. Its most prominent manifestation was the 7/11 attacks in Britain and the recently unearthed conspiracy to down several airliners in mid-flight. Add all this up and it will not be too difficult to see that whoever is winning the war against terrorism, it is certainly not forces of liberal democracy and freedom.
There have been periodic claims of Al-Qaeda operating in India. Some analysts claim that the precision and devastation of the recent set of Mumbai blasts had all the hallmarks of the outfit. This country has been a laboratory for all sorts of terrorism in the last two decades — conspiracies and attacks have targeted stock exchanges, nuclear power stations, trains and aircraft well before they did so elsewhere. Arguably, modern suicide terrorism was launched here in 1991 when LTTE operative Dhanu detonated an explosive belt around herself, and killed Rajiv Gandhi, several other people, as well as herself. But the attacks in India have never reached the intensity of what the Hamas and Islamic Jihad achieved in Israel, or the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Neither did they have the quality of the London attacks, where several bombers chose to blow themselves up, rather than merely plant the devices.
The first Mumbai blasts, of March 1993, were carried out by the Mumbai underworld with the help and instigation of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. The terrorists used RDX, an explosive that is not easily available. The big danger now is of a new generation, who may be rank amateurs, establishing their own groups and learning about bomb-making from the internet. The recent Mumbai blasts could be their handiwork. If so, they would represent a new phase in the terrorist war against India. Till now, the authorities have not gained any significant clue as to their perpetrators, though they have put in a great deal of effort.
The July blasts have not only sent alarm bells ringing in the IB headquarters, but at the Jamiat-ul-ulema-e-Hind HQ as well. Two weeks ago, the outfit organised a two-day convention in New Delhi to examine the issue. Speaking to a group of former intelligence chiefs, Mehmood Madni, Rajya Sabha MP and general secretary of the outfit — an umbrella body of the Deobandi Muslim clerics in the country — bluntly said that he and his colleagues were alarmed at recent trends and they wanted the help of the larger Indian community to tackle the problem. Madni’s diagnosis was that there was now an entire generation of rootless Muslim underclass in the slums of the burgeoning cities of western and peninsular India who were outside the influence of the traditional Deobandi clerics, madrassas and mosques. Cut loose from their rural moorings, unemployed and semi-literate, many of these came under the influence of imams who were not only flush with funds from Saudi Arabia, but had picked up half-baked Salafist notions from there.
In India, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Palestine, only the Kashmiri Muslim, as a group, sees himself fighting the Indian State. But this is no longer a tooth-and-nail battle on either side — that one is the parallel battle being fought between the Pakistani jehadis and the Indian security forces. On the other hand, Indian Muslims have confronted discrimination, riots and pogroms since Independence. The community is down on almost every social indicator, yet, on balance, they have no real complaint about living in India qua Muslims.
Nowhere is there a sense of helplessness and alienation that gives rise to that most deadliest of terrorists — the suicide bomber. They do not have that special anger that marks young Pakistanis in Britain, who feel that they have lost their dignity living in a society where they cannot get the jobs their educational qualifications entitles them to and where they also confront the burden of racism. And they do have one other thing — the power of the ballot box, which has, in India, arguably staved off the revolt of the dispossessed and the reviled. Over the years, the community’s penchant for tactical voting has given it considerable electoral clout in states like UP, Assam, MP, Bihar and Kerala.
But perhaps we have been missing something. Some recent polls have brought out the extent of discrimination that Indian Muslims confront and their significant lack of access to jobs, education and skills. As much has been acknowledged by Manmohan Singh, who put it in a more roundabout way: “We must recognise that the Muslim community in large parts of our country nurses a strong grievance of not having been an active participant and beneficiary of processes of social and economic development.” As other parts of western and peninsular India reap the harvest of economic growth, a disproportionate number of young Muslims are being left behind. They are, in the main, young and volatile and are beginning to believe that their low status and poverty is the outcome of discrimination against their faith. This is the dangerous sense of victimhood that is the essential primary for the kind of nuclear explosion that is rocking Britain.
How do you defeat such forces? Not by extra-judicial killings and violence, which only breeds a new generation of terrorists, as the Israeli experience with the Hamas has shown. Dialogue with the moderate forces and a sincere effort to redress grievances such as unemployment, education and participation in the political process can help.
But as a pre-condition to this, mainstream Muslim organisations need to overcome their state of denial and accept that there is indeed a problem that comes from radical trends within their faith and that everything should not be blamed on America, Israel or the Sangh parivar. Strange though it may sound, the BJP should be in the dialogue. True, the party remains addled by the anti-Muslim bias of its parent Jan Sangh, and the ghosts of Gujarat 2002. But many of its leaders do have a pragmatic awareness of the results of large-scale alienation, and consequent radicalisation of the Muslim community. This radicalisation may deliver a few more Hindu votes for the party, but it could raise the intensity of terrorist violence to dangerously high levels and set the country on the path to self-destruction.