Late in 1983—the embers of India’s worst communal riots since Partition still glowing in Nellie, Aligarh, Meerut, Godhra and Moradabad; the flames that would soon engulf Kashmir and Punjab just starting to rise—Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressed a rally at the Sannihit Sarovar, the reservoir in Kurukshetra. Ahead, the prime minister warned, invoking the Mahabharata, lay a dharmyudh, a holy war. A few days earlier, she had claimed “Hindu religion and culture” were in danger.
Four decades on, it’s clear those words were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her use of Hindu chauvinism as an electoral weapon set off a cycle of violence that claimed thousands of lives in communal riots and gave birth, in ways that are little understood, to the modern jihadist movement in India.
As India immerses itself ever deeper in a toxic cesspool of hate—the intimidation of a hijab-wearing Karnataka girl, boycotts of Muslim businesses, even calls for genocide—the story helps understand the dangers that could lie ahead.
Fissures between faiths tore India apart at the moment of its birth. “You who have ruled India for eight hundred years, you who lit the flame of the one true God in the darkness of polytheism: how can you remain in your slumber”, asked Uttar Pradesh-born al-Qaeda leader Sana-ul-Haq in 2013? “Why is there no storm in your ocean”?
As communal strains deepen, though, it becomes that much more likely the storm he hoped for will arise. The widening communal fracture could lead it into a violent abyss from where there’s no return.
How riots birthed the Indian jihad
Abdul Karim’s left hand was buried under an Acacia tree outside Rajasthan’s Tonk, wrapped in a plastic bag along with the metal fragments of a bomb that had severed it. In 1984, Karim had watched as communal riots tore apart his city, Bhiwandi; seven of his relatives had been burned alive. Then, in February 1985, a judge—at the nudging of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government—ordered the gates of the Babri Masjid to be opened for Hindu worshippers.
The bomb-making experiment, early in 1986, marked the moment in which the modern Indian jihadist movement began to take shape.
From the late 1970s, the Congress lurched rightwards in an effort to shore up electoral constituency. Indira Gandhi cast herself as a Hindu leader. The party’s then-general secretary, CM Stephen, claimed that “the wavelength of Hindu culture and Congress culture is the same.” Institutions of the State got the message. The former police officer VN Rai, among others, has chronicled the partisan role of police in successive communal riots.
Together with three lieutenants, Karim—nicknamed ‘Tunda’, or the disabled—set up Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen (TIM), or Organisation for the Improvement of Muslims.TIM members would parade on the grounds of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Mumbai’s Mominpura, training to become lathi-wielding self-defence militia.
Efforts to grow this small cadre into an insurgent group, though, failed in the face of limited interest and even more limited resources. Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, the TIM decided the time had come to act—however ineffectually. Low-intensity bombs went off on seven trains, and at 43 sites in Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Like the mafia of Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar who bombed Mumbai in March 1993, TIM’s leaders had reached a simple conclusion: The terror of the bomb was the answer to the terror of the riot. For Islamist ideologues, though, the point wasn’t just to deter riots: it was to precipitate a war that would tear India apart.
A second wave of jihadist recruitment
Even though the TIM was too small to gain national attention, its ideas flourished among Islamists through the 1990s. Founded in April 1977, as the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) sought to capitalise on the secular space vacated by the Congress. The group argued, scholar Yoginder Sikand, has recorded, “that Islam alone was the solution to the problems of not just the Muslims of India, but of all Indians and, indeed, of the whole world.”
In 2001, on the eve of 9/11, SIMI had over 400 Ansar, or full-time workers, and 20,000 Ikhwan, or volunteers—evidence of its appeal to students from a new generation of Muslims alienated from India’s political system.
Following the demolition of Babri Masjid, SIMI’s language became increasingly inflammatory. The organisation put up posters calling on Muslims to follow the path of Yamin-ud-Dawla Sebüktegin, the 11th-century warlord usually known as Mahmud of Ghazni. Following 9/11, it organised demonstrations hailing al-Qaeda’s chief, Osama bin-Laden, as a “true mujahid”.
Gujarat’s 2002 communal carnage went on to crystallise a second jihadist surge, just as 1992 had done. Incubated in SIMI, but fed up with its inability to act, a core of volunteers from Maharashtra, coastal Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh began drifting into the urban terrorist group now known as the Indian Mujahideen.
From 2007 on, the Indian Mujahideen waged the most sustained and lethal urban terrorism campaign by any terrorist group in India’s history. There were similar networks in Aurangabad and Kerala, sending recruits for training to Kashmir while others looked to West Asia.
In some cases, these jihad volunteers were directly motivated by their experiences of 2002. For example, Feroze Ghaswala, arrested in 2012 for his alleged role in a bomb plot, claimed to have chosen violence after he saw the mass burial of 40 riot victims.
Even though the Indian Mujahideen was all but destroyed by 2013, several of its members fled through Pakistan and on to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. There has, however, been a steady flow of Indian jihadists to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, well as multiple—mercifully abortive—terror plots.
“We will return,” Thane resident Aman Tandel vowed in a video made in Syria 2016, “but with a sword in hand, to avenge the Babri Masjid, and the killings of Muslims in Kashmir, in Gujarat, and in Muzaffarnagar.”
Tandel was killed soon after that video was made, but the threat remains.
A long history of hate
Like most real-world stories, the story of jihadism in South Asia doesn’t have a simple beginning. Historian Ayesha Jalal has shown that the notion of jihad was entrenched in pre-colonial and colonial India. Indian jihadists regularly invoke the memory of Shah Ismail Dehlvi, slain in the course of an ill-fated jihad against the Sikh empire. Scholar Stephen Dale has recorded that 18th-century jihadists even carried out suicide attacks along Kerala’s spice coast.
It is important to understand that each of these jihadist projects arose in a specific political context: The decline of Mughal power, the rise of Portuguese power in the Indian ocean, the crisis of secularism that arose in the late-1970s.
Little imagination is needed to understand why the TIM—or the Indian Mujahideen or Islamic State after it—failed. Leaders of the jihadist movement have long known that sporadic attacks might deter communal violence, as they did in Mumbai, after 1993. The real objective has been to use terrorist violence to catalyse a wider Hindu-Muslim war.
Few Indian Muslims, though, have shown interest in the jihadist project, even after 2002. Instead, Indian Muslim communities have focussed on securing the gains their community made, however meagre, through the decades of economic liberalisation, especially in services and business.
As communal strains deepen, though, it is that much more likely that the storm al-Qaeda’s Sana-ul-Haq hopes for will come about
To many, this scenario might seem implausible: India’s state and society have, after all, proved resilient in the face of multiple crises. The world, however, is littered with polities and nation-states that imploded because of their failure to manage ethnic or religious tensions: Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Few in these countries understood the risks until it was too late.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)