Mitigating the Further Radicalization of India’s Muslim Community

Oct 01, 2010

In January 2010, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that a “syndicate” of terrorist groups, including Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LT, or LeT), were “operating under the umbrella of al-Qaeda” to destabilize South Asia by provoking a war between India and Pakistan.[1] U.S. officials have warned that another 2008 Mumbai-style attack in India could cause a violent escalation of tensions between the two rival states, both of which possess nuclear weapons. Indeed, Indian authorities allege that Pakistan’s intelligence agency helped organize recent terrorist strikes in India, including the assault on Mumbai.[2]

Smooth relations between India and Pakistan are essential for the success of the U.S. counterterrorism and counterinsurgency mission in South Asia. Any significant escalation of tensions between the two states would cause Pakistan to divert its forces away from its offensive against Taliban militants in the northwest and redeploy them to its eastern border with India. Therefore, building trust between India and Pakistan will be a key goal of President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India in November 2010.

Although it is clear that Pakistan’s India-focused terrorist infrastructure must be dismantled to prevent the further escalation of hostilities, there are steps that India can take domestically to help mitigate the growing threat of domestic terrorist attacks. In a number of recent attacks in India, for example, evidence revealed that homegrown Indian Muslim extremists have provided logistical support to Pakistan-based terrorist groups.[3] This article discusses the three stages of radicalization among India’s Muslim community, and suggests some steps the Indian government can take to prevent future violence. India’s Muslim community is the third largest in the world, standing at approximately 160 million people.[4][5] It is critical that the Indian government does not underestimate the potential of further domestic discontent within this community, and India must take immediate action to increase communal harmony.

Growing Radicalization of the Indian Muslim Community
First Stage
The radicalization of India’s Muslim community has passed through three stages. The first stage can be traced to developments following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992 by right-wing Hindu mobs.[6] The images of Hindu extremists destroying the mosque, and the subsequent riots targeting Muslims in Mumbai and New Delhi, shook the Muslim community. The wrangling over this disputed piece of land at Ayodhya led to religious polarization in various parts of India, and it provided an opportunity for extremist groups to exploit the insecurities of their respective communities. It was at this time that domestic terrorism involving Indian Muslims began.

One of the most deadly terrorist attacks during this first stage of radicalization struck India’s financial capital of Mumbai in March 1993. A series of bombings killed 250 people.[7] The suspected organizers of the plot, Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim, were Indian Muslims. The attacks occurred after violent Hindu-Muslim clashes broke out in the city. Right-wing Hindu organizations, such as Shiv Sena, contributed to the tensions, and the attacks were viewed as an act of revenge against the Hindu community for the riots and the demolition of the Babri Mosque.[8] Civil society groups intervened, which led to the restoration of calm in the city, but the violence brought a transformative change to Indian society. The discourse of groups such as the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), for example, became more extreme in the 1990s, partly as a result of these clashes.[9]

Second Stage
The second stage of extremism among India’s Muslim community occurred after the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. The Gujarat violence was sparked by the deaths of 59 train passengers, mostly Hindus, whose coach was set on fire by a Muslim mob in Godhra in February 2002. The attack sparked retaliatory massacres against Muslims in Gujarat, leaving more than 700 Muslims and 250 Hindus dead.[10] Around this time, loose extremist groups composed of Indian Muslims began to cooperate with LT operatives in Pakistan. Although LT had for years conducted a number of operations in Indian-administered Kashmir, it was only after 2002 that LT demonstrated a consistent capability to attack different regions of India.[11] Analysts believe that this change in strategy appears to be partly due to the support LT received from Muslim youth inside India.

One of LT’s first attacks in which Indian Muslims were involved was in Mumbai in August 2003.[12] Terrorists posing as passengers left bombs in two taxi cabs, which then exploded in crowded areas.[13] Indian citizens Mohammed Hanif Sayeed, his wife Fahmida and Ashrat Ansari were convicted for the attack.[14] According to the prosecution, the three received their instructions from LT operatives in Dubai.[15]

Investigations into attacks since 2003 show other incidents where LT has collaborated with Indian Muslims for attacks inside India, such as the attack on the Indian Institute of Science in December 2005.[16] In that attack, two terrorists fired on a group of professors who were departing a conference, killing one of them.[17] Most of these attacks were claimed by India-based militant groups, yet later interrogations of the arrested indicated that they also had connections to extremist groups in Pakistan.

These loose extremist cells of Indian Muslims would eventually form the Indian Mujahidin, a network that has become an important asset for LT.[18] Groups such as the Indian Mujahidin have recruited Indian citizens from communally sensitive pockets of the country such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Gujarat, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.[19] In 2008, the Mumbai police arrested 27 youths—including four IT-savvy members of the Indian Mujahidin—who sent e-mail messages in the name of the Indian Mujahidin after the July 2008 Ahmedabad blasts and before the September 2008 New Delhi blasts by hacking into wireless networks in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai.[20] Many of them were trained in Pakistan.[21] Additionally, India’s security establishment, after almost a year-long delay, finally admitted that there is a strong possibility that some Indian citizens provided help to the LT militants who carried out the terrorist strikes in Mumbai in November 2008.[22]

Third Stage
The latest stage of radicalization, however, has been of a different nature. Its chief characteristics are religious conservatism and intolerance, a development that has long-term societal ramifications for India.

In Kerala, the state enjoying the highest literacy rates in India, activists of the Popular Front of India (PFI) allegedly amputated the right hand of a college teacher on July 4, 2010.[23] The forced amputation occurred after the teacher allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad. PFI was established in 2006, and it is composed of several organizations, most of them extremist, who share the goal of mobilizing the Muslim community in India and enhancing the bloc’s political power. PFI claims it promotes communal amity and social harmony, and it has a network in six Indian states.[24] The group, however, has espoused an extremist ideology. In its first political conference in 2009, for example, the PFI reportedly said,

The war on terror is a US agenda. It is a political tactic shaped by hegemonic forces bent upon world domination. The Muslims are the victims of the war on terror. The Indian government supports the War on Terror (WOT) and makes available the county’s machinery for implementing the plan hatched by the US-Israel axis. It’s in the wake of this alliance that we witness the increase in bomb blasts in the country.[25]

The political discourse of groups such as PFI has already led to heightened bouts of religious anxiety among Muslim youth, driving them to target people in their own community. Rayana Khasi, a 23-year-old Muslim woman and aeronautical engineer living in North Kerala, for example, received death threats for not wearing the veil.[26] For Kerala in particular, the exposure to West Asia’s religious traditions is another factor contributing to heightened religiosity among the area’s Muslim population. Kerala has experienced one of the highest rates of economic migration to Gulf countries in South Asia and many of the returnees are bringing home with them a conservative version of Islam that is in contrast to Islamic practices in South Asia.

Exacerbating this cycle of religious polarization is the resurgence of Hindu extremist groups in the region. The spate of blasts executed by groups such as the Indian Mujahidin resulted in the formation of Hindu militant groups seeking revenge against Muslims. Investigations are still unraveling about the extent of this development. Yet recent investigations found that some attacks in India were planned by Hindu extremist outfits such as Abhinav Bharat. In October 2007, for example, Hindu extremists allegedly detonated a bomb at the Ajmer Sharif shrine, a popular South Asian mausoleum of a 13th century Muslim saint.[27] In September 2008, Abhinav Bharat also allegedly bombed Muslim-inhabited areas of Malegaon and Modasa in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, killing six civilians.[28] It was discovered that a retired Indian army colonel was allegedly involved in this latter attack.[29] Analysts are concerned that this cycle of violence could quickly escalate if authorities do not take action.

Failure to reduce religious violence will increase tensions between India and Pakistan, bringing the two nuclear states closer to war and serving the interests of al-Qa`ida and the Taliban. To prevent the further radicalization of the Indian Muslim community, authorities must integrate the youth into the political, economic and social mainstream by addressing real or perceived grievances. India’s mainstream political parties should take adequate steps for the economic and political empowerment of Indian Muslims.[30] At the same time, India’s Muslim leaders must proactively prevent further radicalization of their youth.

Indian authorities should also strongly enforce the rule of law, including arresting Hindu fundamentalists who commit crimes against minorities in India. India suffers from an absence of an independent investigative institutional structure at the provincial level, which often results in weak legal cases and failed prosecutions. Effective policing by Indian authorities is an important step to a sound counterterrorism strategy.

India has one of the largest Muslim communities in the world, and its efforts to integrate this community successfully into the political, social and economic life of Indian society will be a lesson to the rest of the world, especially those countries navigating their own mixed religious populations.

Luv Puri is a political journalist cum researcher who just completed Across the Line of Control, published by Penguin, which examines various sources of radicalization in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani diaspora living in the United Kingdom. Mr. Puri was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 2008, and in 2006 he won the European Commission Award for Human Rights and Democracy (Asia). He has worked for the Hindu and has written extensively for several publications on Pakistan, different ethnic groups of the South Asian Muslim community and the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.

[1] Toby Harnden, “Al-Qaeda Trying to Spark India-Pakistan War, Says Robert Gates,” Telegraph, January 20, 2010.

[2] Ravi Nessman and Ashok Sharma, “Indian Gov’t: Pakistan Spies Tied to Mumbai Siege,” Associated Press, October 19, 2010.

[3] Indian citizens, for example, provided target reconnaissance for the militants who assaulted Mumbai in November 2008. See Sheela Bhatt, “Mumbai Attack Was Planned a Year Ago,” Rediff India, February 27, 2009.

[4] India has approximately 1.1 billion people. For a comprehensive understanding of the political and social issues confronting Indian Muslims, see Balraj Puri, Muslims of India Since Partition (New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2007).

[5] “Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population,” Pew Research Center, October 7, 2009.

[6] Some Hindu groups claim that the mosque was built by demolishing a Hindu temple in the 16th century.

[7] A fuller account of the planning of the Mumbai blasts is detailed in S. Hussain Zaidi, Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2003).

[8] “The Shiv Sena Indicted,” Frontline, August 15-28, 1998. The ascendancy of aggressive Hindu nationalism in the early 1990s and fierce anti-Muslim rhetoric contributed to the radicalization process of Muslim youth.

[9] SIMI is said to be the fountainhead of the Indian Mujahidin. In the 1980s, SIMI’s thrust was on education. In the 1990s, it centered around three issues: the call for jihad; the declaration of India as dar al-harb (an area of war); and the establishment of the caliphate. See Irfan Ahmad, Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[10]  “Post-Godhra Toll: 254 Hindus, 790 Muslims,” Press Trust of India, May 11, 2005.

[11] The LT did execute some attacks outside of Indian-administered Kashmir before 2002. It attacked the Red Fort in India’s capital in 2000.  There was also a terrorist strike on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, but this attack was carried out by Jaysh-i-Muhammad  and the logistical support was provided by youths from the contested region of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

[12] “2003 Mumbai Blasts: Court Awards Death Penalty to 3 Convicts,” Indian Express, August 6, 2009.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.; “Mumbai Twin Blasts: Three Sentenced to Death,” Press Trust of India, August 6, 2009.

[16] “We Were All Set to Hit Bangalore Again Last Year: Lashkar Operative to Police,” Indian Express, January 12, 2009.

[17] Ibid.

[18] It is not exactly clear when the Indian Mujahidin was founded.

[19] “Indian Mujahidin Strikes Deep,” Indian Express, February 22, 2010.

[20] “27 Indian Mujahideen Members Charged with Serial Bombings,” IANS, February 17, 2009.

[21] “Mumbai Arrests Expose New Face of Terror: Educated, Professionals,” Indian Express, October 7, 2008.

[22] “Indian Guided 26/11 Attackers: PC,” Press Trust of India, February 5, 2010.

[23] “Controversial Question Paper: Lecturer’s Hand Chopped Off,” Indian Express, July 5, 2010.

[24] To see PFI’s “constitution,” visit

[25] “Here Come the Pious,” Tehelka Magazine 7:40 (2010).

[26] Sovi Vidyadharan, “Young Woman Takes on Kerala’s ‘Taliban,’” NDTV, August 28, 2010.

[27] Mohammed Iqbal, “Ajmer Blast Case: RSS Leader’s Name Figures in Charge Sheet,” Hindu, October 23, 2010.

[28] Christophe Jaffrelot, “Abhinav Bharat, the Malegaon Blast and Hindu Nationalism,” Economic & Political Weekly 45:43 (2010).

[29] Ibid.

[30] During the 2008 parliamentary elections, for example, the representation of Indian Muslims declined to 5.1% from 6.2%, whereas the Indian Muslim community composes approximately 13% of India’s population. See Balraj Puri, “Look Beyond,” Indian Express, June 23, 2009.