Ayman al-Zawahiri leader of the al Qaeda (AQ) has recently announced his intention to “raise the flag of jihad” in the Indian sub- continent. Will Zawahiri succeed in establishing AQ roots in India?
Muslims constitute around 13 percent of India's population and do not appear sympathetic towards the AQ's ideology. Despite waving of black flags of the Islamic State (IS) in certain parts and the presence of few Indian youths in the conflict theatres of Syria and Iraq, the possibility of AQ gaining a foothold in India and turning into an organisation of redemption for Muslims is remote.
Following four reasons substantiate the assertion.
Faith in democracy and secularism
Firstly, the Indian Muslims have faith in notions of democracy and secularism. Even while their social mobility has been slow and has remained a cause for concern, they do see a sign of hope for socio- economic parity with the majority. Muslim personal law is seen by them as a recognition of and respect for their distinct identity and religious freedom.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pledge to treat all Indians as equals regardless of religion can also be an additional source of optimism if followed by positive actions. Thus, the use of religion-inspired violence and destruction in the name of liberation of Muslims is unacceptable to them. Statements renouncing Zawahiri's statement by several leading Muslim organisations is a pointer towards that direction.
The most powerful statement came from the Darul Uloom Deoband which categorically asserted, "Indian Muslims would never be convinced by un-Islamic and false arguments of the Al Qaeda."
Lack of Violent Societal Cleavages
Secondly, Al Qaeda in South Asia has benefited from the existing societal cleavages, especially in the Af-Pak region. Further, it has used the existing jihadi and sectarian groups to ferment trouble. As much as it has assisted and been a magnet for groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and activities of anti-Shia groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) has further helped it spread the Shia versus Sunni vitriol in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a result, besides the foreign fighters of the AQ in the Af-Pak region, local Afghans as well as Pakistanis have joined the group.
In India, it is highly unlikely that any such vehicle for hire would be available for Zawahiri who is attempting to revolutionise the minds of the Sunni Muslims in India. Both the Indian Mujahideen (IM) and its predecessor, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) who could possibly have played a second fiddle to AQ, are in their weakest points. Arrests of a number of IM leaders and cadres have pushed these organisations to the brink of collapse.
Unlikely Mass Movement favouring the AQ
Thirdly, in the absence of a vehicle for hire, AQ's objective to find a foothold in India would require developing operational capacities among the Indian Muslims youth. Despite few recent cases of radicalisation among the Muslim youth, the possibility of a engineering a movement favouring the AQ is unlikely. The Indian political and social systems have multiple checks and balances mechanisms in place to prevent any such eventuality.
Moderate Nature of Islam in India
Fourthly, the moderate nature of Islam in India act as the most crucial shield against radicalization which could be exploited by the AQ. Islam in India has a long history, led by the Sufis who integrated the multiple communities of India sharing common cultural practices. Unlike other countries, Sufism has remained an integral part of the Indian cultural tradition. Amity exists among India's Shias and the Sunnis, in spite of a division along ideological lines.
Cultural ethos can effectively hedge against an extremist rampage is clear from the experience of India's neighbour, Bangladesh. Once touted as the next Afghanistan, Bangladesh has remained free of AQ's influence. India's ability to weather the challenges is equally robust. In India, the official approach of involving the ulemas in framing a counter-narrative to AQ's appeal has immensely helped in maintaining a divide between Islam in India and its radical stream.
However, be prepared to prevent the unforeseen
Even with this positive outlook, there is a need for caution, as even handful of cases of radicalisation, if not a fully networked AQ base, could pose significant threats to India. To prevent such a scenario, certain precautionary measures should be taken. Muslims in India do have grievances of marginalisation, state-discrimination, and sense of alienation, which may get exploited. Concerns like these needs to be tackled through affirmative actions. Experts believe that reinforcing multiculturalism is the need of the hour.
Bringing communities together will serve as the best way to prevent radicalisation of youths. Inclusive and affirmative programmes must be undertaken so that India can never become a playground for the AQ and its violent agenda. For this, the government, NGOs, and religious organizations have to work together.