India is awash with Islamophobia and there could not be a more dangerous time for this pernicious slant in our national politics.
Hateful vitriol was spewed upon actor Aamir Khan recently, for expressing concern over the rising anti-minority attitude, just as black ink was literally spilled on the Observer Research Foundation’s Sudheendra Kulkarni last month for organising a book release event for a former Pakistani foreign Minister.
Even more violent and disquieting were September’s mob lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, over rumours that he had stored beef in his home, and August’s murder of notable rationalist M.M. Kalburgi, who was shot dead after being threatened for his criticism of idolatry in Hinduism.
There will no doubt be more such displays of bigotry in the months ahead, as fringe elements of the Hindutva brigade, emboldened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s description of the Dadri lynching as “unfortunate” and “undesirable”, go on the rampage to correct what they perceive to be injuries to the sentiments of the majority.
The most compelling reasons for Mr. Modi to decisively stymie this rising tide of hatred are quite obvious: respect for India’s constitutionally protected secular credentials, and the maintenance of broader societal peace and harmony between communities.
Yet there is a third feature of the Indian political firmament that makes it urgent, nay imperative, that the country’s leadership effectively tamp down on the flames of extremism – the alarming proliferation of support for Islamic State (IS), the jihadist terror outfit that controls parts of Syria and Iraq.
The discovery of these IS-sympathisers has had a creeping quality, starting late last year with a handful of youth travelling to West Asia from Kalyan, near Mumbai, but more recently has been gathering momentum with a much larger cohort being pulled into the net by intelligence operations.
The fact that this trend has been coterminous with the surge in anti-minority violence ought to be a red flag for the Modi government, for there is a risk that the two developments may begin to feed off one another, leading to a perfect storm linking an ongoing foreign policy crisis to a community under siege on Indian soil.
Consider the speed and pattern of IS proliferation on Indian soil over the past year.
Back in January The Hindu received a response on a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Department of Defence asking what information it had on Indian nationals discovered to be fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq.
Their answer was simple: none. Clearly the few Indians that had made it into the ranks of IS at that point were either relegated to menial tasks or used as cannon fodder on the frontlines as they have generally been considered “inferior” fighters.
Yet, as outlined in a series of reports in The Hindu (“The IS Files”), the last past year has witnessed a slew of intelligence operations that have flushed out a number of potential IS recruits, and they hail from across the breadth of India.
For example, Haja Fakkrudeen and Gul Mohamed Maracachi Maraicar both grew up in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu, and while Maraicar is now lodged in an Indian prison, Fakkrudeen, who may have been radicalised by Maraicar, is likely to be fighting alongside IS in Syria.
The case of Muhammed Abdul Ahad, a U.S.-educated computer professional from Bengaluru, reflects the diversity of backgrounds from which IS has managed to woo supporters in India. Ahad was intercepted by Turkish authorities last year on the Syrian border and deported earlier this year after authorities suspected him of seeking to enter the Syrian battlefield.
At the opposite end of the nation, in the Kashmir Valley, Kamil Wada spoke to The Hindu about how his older brother Adil had travelled to Syria, with authorities noting that he may have got radicalised by an Australian Islamic group after a visit to that country.
As Indian intelligence agencies continue to grapple with the “foreign fighter” question, an issue that has long been front and centre for the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, it behoves the government of Mr. Modi to more effectively address societal forces that make the isolation, demonisation and ultimate radicalisation of minority communities more likely.
Unless there is a concerted effort to neutralise the impunity of extremist elements that regularly engage in anti-Muslim violence, there may be little to halt the drift of a few members of an overwhelmingly moderate community into the arms of IS radicals.
In the present climate of hostility, a vicious cycle is likely, as there are groups that would happily seize upon the insidious presence of the IS in India to paint the entire Muslim community with the broad brush of negative propaganda or worse.
To have any hope of success in this context, anti-radicalisation strategies of the government must foster a sense of physical security, democratic space and cultural sensitivity towards traditions of minority communities while adopting a no-nonsense, intelligence-based crackdown on the shadowy menace of the IS.