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When al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri vowed last week to “raise the flag of jihad” in India, it was tempting to dismiss the announcement as an idle threat. India has a significant Muslim population -- approximately 14 percent of the total -- but it has mostly been insulated from violent extremism. Indian Muslims have generally not been among the foreign fighters who have joined the transnational Islamist cause; they haven’t been prominent among the militants who aided the Taliban in Afghanistan or those who have more recently traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. And although India has had its share of Islamist terrorist attacks, they have mostly been linked to Pakistani extremist groups. Indian Muslims, by and large, have tended not to be attracted to Islamic extremism.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that jihadists could never gain traction there. With the recent election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ground is more fertile for Islamic militancy than at any time in recent memory. Modi’s election will not lead to the radicalization of the majority of Indian Muslims -- but it will galvanize India’s fringe Islamic extremist groups, increase their recruitment, and create an opening for al Qaeda to make more inroads among them.
For most of its history as an independent state, India’s government has emphasized a pluralist understanding of Indian identity. The Indian National Congress (INC), which was the leading party of the Indian independence movement and has dominated the country’s politics since, derived its power from its claim to represent a multi-religious -- rather than a strictly Hindu -- India. INC leaders paid public tribute to all of India’s religions, and the state offered financial support to diverse religious organizations and endeavors. The public broadly supported this tolerant approach to politics. In the past, INC’s main political competitor, the BJP, could gain national power only by promising economic development and good governance and distancing itself from the chauvinistic rhetoric of Hindu nationalist organizations with which the party was affiliated.
The BJP’s most recent electoral victory, however, marks a dangerous new precedent. First, the party won under the banner of Modi, a particularly divisive and controversial politician. Second, the margin of the party’s victory in northern and western India has allowed it to avoid seeking extensive parliamentary compromise -- and thus having to temper its agenda. The rank and file of the BJP, in other words, will expect Modi to advance the cause of Hindu nationalism as well as the economic improvements he mostly touted on the campaign trail.
Modi’s record on religious tolerance is worrying. As chief minister of the state of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, Modi famously presided over a series of Hindu-Muslim riots that resulted in the mass killing of Muslims and extensive damage to Muslim neighborhoods and businesses. He was also accused of intentionally neglecting the economic development of Muslim communities in Gujarat. In addition, Modi is a member of the ultranationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary, a volunteer corps founded in the 1920s whose central ideology is that India’s national identity is rooted in Hinduism, not pluralism. The BJP was founded in 1951 as the political wing of the RSS. Both have long argued that Hinduism should have a privileged place in Indian politics and culture, at the expense of the country’s other religions and traditions, including Islam.
These anti-Muslim attitudes are now represented in national government. During Modi’s first few months in office, RSS members have taken on key government positions and have been appointed to leading cultural institutions, such as the Indian Council of Historical Research. Since the election, the vice president of the BJP and many other leaders have been strenuously peddling the so-called love jihad conspiracy theory -- the alleged efforts of Muslim men to convert Hindus through rape or romantic unions. Politicians of the Hindu right who are now in government have argued against existing minority welfare schemes designed to help Muslims. The government has also initiated campaigns to revise school curriculums and set rules for how the publishing industry and academia will be permitted to discuss India’s identity as a Hindu nation.
India’s Muslims have mostly resisted lashing out at the Hindu right’s efforts to exclude them from the national economy and culture. The long-standing consensus among Indian Muslim leaders and organizations across the ideological spectrum has been that democratic politics is the appropriate forum for airing grievances. Two major Indian Islamist groups -- the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind and the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind -- have long participated in India’s democratic political system and strongly condemn terrorism. And the umbrella organization of India’s Muslim groups, the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, issued a press release rejecting Zawahiri’s call for Indian jihadists.
However, militants do have a presence in India – and a history of responding to Hindu nationalist provocations. A radical offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind known as the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) broke away from its pacifist parent organization in response to the intensifying Hindu nationalist movement of the 1980s and was radicalized by the destruction of the Babri Mosque and other instances of violence against Muslims in 1992. Protesting the rise of Hindu nationalism -- and the moderate response of India’s Islamic institutions -- SIMI openly called for jihad against the Indian government and the creation of a caliphate. Today, the group is believed to have about 400 full-time operatives and 20,000 members.
SIMI has links and common members with another prominent Indian terrorist organization -- the relatively new Indian Mujahideen (IM) -- and militants from the two groups have taken responsibility for several successful and attempted bombings and attacks in India over the past decade. SIMI demonstrated its opposition to the BJP by attacking an election rally for Modi in the city of Patna in October 2013. Furthermore, both groups already have links to al Qaeda. Delhi has claimed that several IM members are working for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that the operative behind the Patna blasts learned bomb making by reading al Qaeda's Inspire magazine.
India’s Muslim population represents a huge array of sects, practices, and political participation and is exceedingly unlikely to become receptive to al Qaeda’s call for global jihad. But if Modi does not keep the BJP’s chauvinism in check, it may create an impetus for disaffected Muslims to join existing jihadist groups that are already working with al Qaeda. SIMI’s history demonstrates that India has the potential to foster violent Islamism, especially when the country’s Muslim population has reason to feel alienated from the country’s national economy and culture. The group has already shown an ability to recruit Muslims who are young and skeptical of the establishment: SIMI is reported to have a presence in universities in several Indian states, including Assam, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh.
India’s mainstream conservative Muslim movements and parties do not show signs of radicalization, but al Qaeda is not targeting them anyway. Instead, Zawahiri likely intends to strengthen India’s extremist fringe. Not so long ago, this may not have been major cause for concern, since the fringe was never big enough to pose a significant threat. But Modi’s Hindu nationalism, absent some shift in its priorities, may convert more Indian Muslims to the extremist cause.