Finally, the IS bogey laid to rest
The former Indian interlocutor with West Asia in his capacity as envoy on counter-terrorism and extremism, Syed Ibrahim, has with finality read the obituary on the Islamic State (IS) in its alleged foray into India. Ibrahim should know since he is a former Intelligence Bureau head who in his run to being India’s top cop was reputed as an expert on Islamism and terrorism. After a suitable gap on demitting office, he pronounced at a meeting in Dubai that the IS managed to attract barely 108 Indians to its fold, of whom most were expatriates living in the Gulf. Adherents from within India were at a mid-double digit figure.
Though the Indian home minister – to his credit – has on numerous occasions mentioned that the IS does not have a foothold in India, he mostly followed up by taking credit for the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for having kept the IS off India. From time to time, he boasted of a terrorism-free record of the Modi sarkar, with the subtext that they had kept Muslims away from terrorism. Often a comparison was struck with the United Progressive Alliance years, in which Muslim-perpetrated terrorism was supposedly prevalent. For icing, he usually added as a back-handed compliment that Indian Muslims are peaceable and accepting of a secular and democratic India.
Since the government is in the run up for a second inning, it is important to bust this plank of the BJP as it goes to the electorate with its laundry list of ‘achievements’.
Firstly, the IS’ global threat was exaggerated, not least to enable the West continuing alibi for sway over West Asia. It was built up as a threat since it was at a temporary ascendant taking advantage of the troubled conditions in Iraq and Syria. Some of the angst that the continuing troubles in West Asia and the Muslim Maghreb elicited in some Muslims of the region was directed at those they held directly responsible for the turmoil. This was manifest in the form of terrorism in European states, leading to an understandably West-centric global media inflating the threat, while editing out root causes that include instability caused by Western interference. Thus, the IS had localized roots and a regional outreach limited to its perceived foes in the West. In so far as it was interested in recruits for its khalifat project from elsewhere, it was for purposes of self-preservation in its territorial stronghold that progressively came under concerted attack by Russia in aid of Syria and the United States (US) in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces. This bit of propaganda ensnared some Indians in the Gulf, who identified more with their Arab compatriots rather than as South Asians.
In the event, the two military powers, supporting respective proxies, have made short shrift of the IS’s territorial hold. The jury is still out on whether the IS as an idea – in conjunction with the ghost of the Al Qaeda – will continue to hold out in the minds of assorted jihadists. So long as Israel continues its aggressive posture against Palestinians, and Arab regimes appear to be overly dependent on the West, it is difficult to envision a subsiding of the attraction of the jihadist enterprise in reshaping their lands. Even so, Trump has announced ‘mission accomplished’ on the IS front and is pulling out troops, at the cost of losing his reluctant defence secretary.
As such there was no South Asian connection of the IS, claims of isolated websites and shadowy figures notwithstanding. The IS, whittled in its strongholds in the Levant, has surfaced in Afghanistan, not so much physically, but as an idea adhered to by those contesting a regime seen as imposed by the self-same West, supported as it is by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Yet again, the notable point is that unsettled local conditions and the unwanted Western presence are the two factors that appear to enable and sustain IS presence, besides keeping it afloat as an attractive-to-some idea. Trump, seeing the writing on the wall that it is Pushtun nationalism that drives the insurgency more than religious extremism, is recalling his troops from Afghanistan, with half their number – some 7000 - to depart by early next year.
The supposed advent of the IS in Kashmir as part of a project for the domination of Khorasan was bandied in the media. The Khorasan project – the domination of central Asia and north west South Asia - was associated with Al Qaeda, which has since been whittled by the Taliban. Strategic analysts made much of the appearance of black flags on the streets of Srinagar. Their hope was to depict India as in the same corner as the US in Afghanistan, so as to corner Pakistan. This did not materialize as Trump could not ignore the importance of Pakistan to the US presence in Afghanistan, even though he blew hot and cold periodically and cut off military aid to Pakistan considerably. With his winding up the Afghan misadventure, Pakistan is back in the game since its military and intelligence have a lifeline to the Taliban.
The India-centric argument was that the IS enemy was at the gates. This served the BJP government well since it was not too keen on taking up its periodic outreach to Pakistan to any conclusion. It also helped with the Othering of the Indian Muslim as ‘anti-national’ and pushing the community into its ghetto – metaphorically and physically - arguing that with the IS a step away in Kashmir, it would take it a little to reach in qasbas and mohallas in the hinterland. Their actual reason for alighting on the IS threat was also to extend the operation of the armed forces special powers exercised in Kashmir. These were critiqued when the troubles subsided in the mid-2000s and in the early 2010s. In the former period, the Al Qaeda bogey man was trotted out as justification for continued military presence under special powers and in the latter, the IS proved handy. Commentators have rightly pointed out that the black flags were waved by youth as red rags out to provoke security forces and cock-a-snook at India. This was the threadbare media touted and strategic analyst purveyed case of the IS foothold.
What this implies for the BJP’s supposed record on terror then is that there was no IS threat and, therefore, there is no question of a BJP achievement keeping India IS-free.
As for the absence of terror, this writer has on these pages earlier made the case that Muslim-perpetrated terror was instead a series of black operations executed by right-wing extremists. They wanted to deliver India for application of the Hindutva project under a right-wing dispensation. The black operations were to enhance the political profile of a certain provincial leader and manufacture a ‘wave’ based, inter-alia, on an ‘India under threat’ thesis to bring a right wing government to power. This they managed to achieve by suborning the media and having closet Hindutvavadis in the strategic community lend a hand in the information operations. The contribution of the right-leaning intelligence community and supine police to this enterprise is easy to infer. There is no other explanation to the hundreds of Muslim youth let off in terror-related court cases over the recent years. Who else then committed those crimes for which Muslim youth paid a price and exacted from the community a reputational cost? Let’s also not forget the pending case involving 22 Muslim deaths in Gujarat in the Modi chief-ministership, lodged way back by the very credible BG Verghese and Javed Akhtar, in which the dead were supposedly terrorists.
Given that – yet again – there was no Muslim perpetrated terror to speak of (admittedly it was not absent either in wake of the Mumbai carnage in 1993 and Gujarat pogrom in 2002), the supposed control over terror does not arise. Indeed, if there were such sleeper cells as one national security adviser famously warned, did they sleep through a chance to welcome the IS to South Asia? Also, if Indian Muslim terrorists were so omnipresent, have they been cowed down by mere lynchings of Muslims by the cow protection brigade? What has the D-Company been doing, if not for its people as it once reputedly did, then for its sponsors, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence? Is the Indian Mujahedeen as extinct as the IS or was it likewise a work of fiction from the same minds that conjured up the IS threat? Further, absence of terror only proves that black operations’ perpetrators having done their part do not need the strategy any more. They have been called off by their minders.
The narrative here sets right the motivated version of terror - and its purported control - received through the media, official channels and ‘experts’. It needs airing at every opportunity for the next six months so that as the electorate contemplates its choice for the next hustings, it must make amends for falling for the flawed line at the last elections. It needs to reclaim its good sense, even in face of a fresh dose of information war targeting it here on. Needless to add that as part of the global village the community needs continuing its internal vigilance, particularly in areas with a diaspora in the Gulf (as cautioned by Asif Ibrahim). In the context of prospects of right-wing extremism persisting into the next decade, the community can ill-afford any alien ideological import from a West Asian geopolitical setting into Indian shores nor any religious doctrine that sits uneasily with the community’s minority status in a plural society and democratic polity.
The author is a former international civil servant. He blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in