India is no isolated island

In a nationwide swoop on the eve of Republic day, over a dozen people were arrested from different parts of the country on charges of being part of an Islamic State (IS) cell that was engaged in not only recruiting and spreading the IS propaganda but also planning terror attacks inside India. Understandably, only very sketchy details about the alleged transgressions by the people arrested are available in public domain. But whatever information is available is enough to jolt the Indian state and society out of its reverie on the dangers posed by the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism, more so because the problem is no longer just limited to just a few hotspots but has alarmingly spread in all parts of the country.

PEOPLE bandy buzzwords like ‘internet’ and ‘social media’, as though they are enough to explain why people are getting attracted to the despicable and abominable acts of brutality and cruelty committed by groups like the IS. The fact, however, is that the internet and social media are mere tools. These tools are no different from something like a knife which can be used both for cutting vegetables as well as for slitting someone’s throat. 

Clearly, India needs to shed its almost smug attitude that the cultural and social firewalls of Indian society will protect it from the pestilence of radicalism that is affecting Muslim societies around the world. India is no isolated island that is immune from the virus of radical Islamism. And notwithstanding the strengths of Indian society, the fact remains that even in the bygone era when it took months for news to travel, Indian Muslims did get affected and influenced by what happened in the middle-east. It is, therefore, nothing but a dangerous delusion for anyone to imagine that in this day and age of instant communication, the Indian Muslims will remain untouched and unaffected by the malign influences sweeping through Muslim societies from Rawalpindi to Rabat.

Many analysts miss the point when they underplay the threat of radicalism simply because there is no clear organisational structure or even some sort of established presence on ground to either recruit or guide and direct the activities of the guys getting attracted to jihadist ideology. But here’s the problem: old world style organisational setups are passé. The terror groups’ organisational structures are much more diffused and are managed remotely from locations that themselves aren’t spatially static. In other words, don’t look for a centralised command centre because it won’t be there. Also, don’t expect them to hold a launching party or presser to declare their arrival. They invariably start their activities by staying unobtrusive and well below the radar screen. Starting small, they steadily build their networks and before anyone realises it, there is a monster to be confronted. This means that instead of being complacent and congratulating ourselves that only an infinitesimally small number of people in India have fallen for the IS propaganda, we should be extremely worried and working overtime to nip this problem in the bud.

It is also important to understand that terror groups today increasingly function like multi-national corporations and operate on the principle ‘think global, act local’. In other words, a common ideological strand ties the franchises together, but in their own areas the franchises are pretty much autonomous to act. These franchises are more in the nature of cells and busting one module doesn’t necessarily affect the functioning of the other modules. This means that different modules will have different efficiency and effectiveness levels. What is more, because these are small cells, they are more difficult to detect. On the other hand, because they are small, their ability to pull off a major, devastating or even debilitating attack is that much more difficult, though not impossible.

What is also happening is a sort of dumbing down of the phenomenon of radicalism. People bandy buzzwords like ‘internet’ and ‘social media’, as though they are enough to explain why people are getting attracted to the despicable and abominable acts of brutality and cruelty committed by groups like the IS. The fact, however, is that the internet and social media are mere tools. These tools are no different from something like a knife which can be used both for cutting vegetables as well as for slitting someone’s throat. What is important is what exactly is making people use the social media and internet not as instruments for expressing their views, their dissent, or increasing their knowledge, but for linking up to and getting influenced by radical ideologies. In other words, what is it about radicalism that is captivating minds of so many young Muslims? Figure this out and you will figure out how to counter the radicals; fail, and you will keep flailing about trying to get a hold over the situation.

The real failure of states and societies around the globe, including India, is their inability to understand that the radicalism that is sweeping the Muslim societies has transcended the traditional grouses of jobs, economic deprivation, social discrimination etc. Scarily enough, it is increasingly less about this life and more about the after-life. This means that it is less about the IS and more about a mindset. Even if the IS were to be eliminated tomorrow, it would be replaced by some other group selling the same poison under a different label. The reason is that a decades-long sustained propaganda that peddles the narrative of victimisation and real and imagined grievance among Muslim communities has slowly but steadily started capturing the mind-space and has practically reached the tipping point where it is finding more and more people subscribing to it. What is worse, even where the radicals are emphatically denounced by the spiritual and temporal leaders of Muslim communities, the conspiracy theories that form the basic building block, or if you will germ, for the radicals’ narrative – for instance, Islam is under siege, or Muslim lands are under occupation of non-Muslims, or how IS is a creation of the West – are readily lapped up, and even offered as a sort of excuse to explain away what is clearly a problem with Muslim societies. Once this germ plants itself in the mind-space, it isn’t difficult to mutate it to convince someone to fight, die and kill for a higher cause. Incidentally, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive only to Islam. Other religions too have experienced it.

Until and unless this propaganda and narrative is effectively debunked, the security measures being taken to counter the radicals will always prove to be less than adequate. In India, without making too much of a show, the government has been taking many steps to counter the rise of radicalism among Muslims. What is quite remarkable is the fact that the Indian agencies are showing a sort of sensitivity that no one in India ever imagined in them, in dealing with many of the cases they have busted. And yet, there are serious issues of capacity that will need to be addressed if the efforts of the security agencies are to yield fruit. Apart from resources and technical capabilities which keeps them a few steps ahead of the bad guys instead of having them play the catch up game, the security agencies personnel need to develop a deeper knowledge of Islam, a knowledge of the language (Arabic and Urdu) and idiom, and most of all, an ability to work with and within the community so that they are aware of the conversations that take place when Muslims talk within themselves.

The fight against radicalism has to be fought at multiple levels – social, political, psychological, religious, technical, economic etc. – and merely a security oriented approach is destined for failure. Equally, any apologism is also not going to work. A balanced approach which disabuses the community of its misconceptions without abusing the rights of members of the community as Indians is probably the way to go.

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