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JEHAD IN INDIA
PRAVEEN SWAMI in New Delhi A Frontline investigation explores the causes and contexts of Islamist terrorism in India, a subject that has received extensive media coverage but remains little understood.
Soldiers stand guard near the mangled remains of a vehicle following an explosion on the outskirts of Srinagar on December 23, 2005. IN the summer of 2003, Lal Krishan Advani declared victory in the war against terrorism. Pakistan's proxy war, he told Bharatiya Janata Party officials, was "on the way to being defeated". Espionage rings and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) modules across the country had been smashed, he said; the situation in Jammu and Kashmir was "limping back to normalcy and India had successfully mobilised world opinion against Pakistansponsored cross-border terrorism".
Two years on, the former Union Home Minister's proclamation of victory seems premature. Weeks after executing a series of bombings in New Delhi that claimed 63 lives, terrorists of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba shot at a scientific gathering at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Covert Lashkar operatives have been discovered, in recent days, in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai. Jammu and Kashmir, the principal theatre of the jehad, has for its part seen a sharp escalation in high-profile fidayeen squad actions ever since the Great Kashmir Earthquake of October. For all the acres of newsprint devoted to Islamist terrorism in recent weeks, we know little about the groups spearheading the jehad against India - or the social and ideological conditions that have enabled organisations like the Lashkar to recruit cadre. Frontline's investigation of Islamist terrorism in India focusses on events outside Jammu and Kashmir: the extension of the jehad to what organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba believe to be their final objective - the destruction of India and the creation of an Islamic dispensation. Two major groups have been examined in detail: the Lashkar, which wages war from the west, and, to the east, the emerging threat of the Bangladesh-based Harkat ul-Jihad Islami. Frontline journalists examined several of the cities in which Islamist groups have operated in recent years in an attempt to explore the social conditions and crises that have enabled terrorist organisations to recruit cadre. Two themes appear as the leitmotif in all these reports: frustration and anger among young people at the failure of the state, and political parties, to deliver justice against perpetrators of communal violence, and anger at the economic marginalisation of the minority community. Islamist terrorism in India, these reports make clear, cannot be understood just as violent crime: it is profoundly enmeshed with historical forces. Outside of sections of the Urdu press, and with the notable exception of scholars such as Yoginder Sikand, there has been little discussion of these issues. Two explanatory discourses predominate. In the Hindu-chauvinist narrative, Muslims appear as five-wives fanatics; the liberal reading, conversely, generally represents Muslims as victims. Both versions objectify the community and obscure the vibrant political life and contestation within it. Journalists have, for the most part, chosen to ignore the processes underpinning the working of Islamists in India, representing the battle as a kind of wrestling match between supremely skilled terrorists and idiotic, corrupt policemen. POLICE and intelligence officials, for their part, complain that they are not given credit for demonstrable successes against terrorist groups: the many occasions that bombings and assassinations are prevented. There is some truth in the proposition. On January 6, for example, the Mumbai Police's Anti-Terrorist Squad arrested three alleged Lashkar operatives, Khurshid Ahmad Lala, Arshad Ghulam Hussain Badru and Mohammad Ramzan Qazi, from the city's Nagpada area. Electronic timers and detonators were recovered from the group, who investigators believe were ordered to set up base in Mumbai, and wait for a consignment of explosives despatched from northern Kashmir.
Were it not for the intelligence scoop, Mumbai could have faced a series of horrific bombings just days or weeks after the tragedy in Bangalore. Having said that, though, it is also true that successive governments have failed in giving India the police apparatus that modern counter-terrorism work requires. Unlike any other country of significance, India still does not possess a national database on terror groups and suspects, accessible to forces across the country. Most police stations in Jammu and Kashmir, to give another example, simply do not have the facilities to collect fingerprints, order ballistics and forensic tests, or even provide personnel on life-threatening counter-terrorism duties a hot meal and safe housing. All of these issues were addressed by a Group of Ministers after the Kargil War. If their recommendations were acted upon, India would have had a new Police Act by 2003. State police forces would have benefited from improved working conditions and support technologies. The Intelligence Bureau would have been freed from the supervisory control of the Ministry of Home Affairs bureaucrats. Its new Multi-Agency Centre would have had newly raised technical staff and sophisticated computer systems similar to those used by Western intelligence organisations. Bar some progress on fencing India's borders and despite a change of government, the implementation scorecard is zero. But does the problem, in fact, even warrant the little attention it gets? It is possible to argue otherwise. According to data published by the Loss Prevention Association, 80,118 people died in road accidents through India in the year 2000. In the same year, 2,063 civilians, 837 security force personnel, and 2,655 terrorists were killed across the country - a grand total of 5,555 people. Given that an overwhelming majority of these fatalities took place in a single State, Jammu and Kashmir, it is tempting to dismiss terrorism as a peripheral problem and to assert that it simply does not justify the enormous financial, military, economic, intellectual and media resources now committed to the problem. Yet, two powerful arguments exist against this attitude. First, the existence of multiple problems does not justify ignoring one or other. The existence of a widespread problem of car theft, for example, does not constitute a reason not to deal with the numerically lower incidence of murder. Action to deal with India's dismal road-safety situation, similarly, does not preclude vigorous state intervention to address the problem of Islamist violence. Islamist terrorism, despite its small scale, holds out very real threats to India. It has been ably used by Hindu fundamentalists, for example, both as a pretext for specific incidents of communal violence and to legitimise their fascist agenda. What is it that groups like the Lashkar actually want? In its own publications, the Lashkar is remarkably clear: the destruction of a state it sees as a predatory Hindu-fundamentalist entity, and the creation of a caliphate that would stretch from China to Spain. A paradox, however, is notable. The Lashkar's total jehad is, by the standards of wars, remarkably small-scale, at least outside of Jammu and Kashmir. Most victims of the recent Delhi serial bombings, for example, died because of the accidental detonation of gas cylinders in Sarojini Nagar market, not the small bombs themselves.
Terrorists have long understood, though, that even limited levels of violence can transform the world. Terrorism, Islamist or otherwise, can usefully be understood as a form of theatre, a performance staged for those who watch the spectacle unfold. As the scholar Stephen Cohen has noted, the "goal of the terrorist is to use an extreme act to change the way in which this group [civil society] sees reality. Thus, the terrorist is literally a bad actor, a bit player in a drama that seeks to change reality by a theatrical performance of increasingly unimaginable horror". For Hassan Ibn al-Sabbah, the brilliant 11th century mystic who founded the fidayeen as a means of resistance against anti-Shia chauvinism, terror was an end, not just a means. Although al-Sabbah's fidayeen terrorists would conspire in great secrecy against their Sunni fundamentalist opponents, they would strike before the largest audience possible. For these early terrorists, the historian Amin Maalouf has perceptively recorded, "murder was not merely a means of disposing of an enemy but was intended primarily as a twofold lesson for the public: first, the punishment of the victim and, second, the heroic sacrifice of the executioner". Violently anti-Shia as the Lashkar might be - its cadre have been involved in brutal violence directed at the minority in Pakistan - it has proved a thoughtful student of the lessons of al-Sabbah's campaign, which claimed its first victim in 1092 A.D. On that occasion, al-Sabbah's fidayeen claimed the life of a single man, the Seljuk Wazir Nizamul-Mulk. The state apparatus Nizam-ul-Mulk had built over 30 years disintegrated with his death, and, torn apart by endless wars of succession, the Seljuk empire never quite recovered its unity. It is precisely this kind of outcome that the Lashkar hopes its low-grade jehad against the Indian state will one day bring about. To see low-level acts of terrorism in Bangalore, Hyderabad or New Delhi as trivial acts of violence is to miss their point: any of these pinpricks could, in the Lashkar's imagination, prove to be the decisive moment when the jehad is transformed into a general communal war that will tear India apart. No great imagination is needed to see that this is no fantasy: the wages of the Indian state's decades-old failures to contain Hindutva fascism are depressingly evident, and will be with us for decades to come.
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