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#5080, 12 July 2016

Spotlight West Asia

Countering IS: Should India be More Assertively Involved in West Asia?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India

In the context of conflicts raging across West Asia, a region of vital importance to India, many in India’s strategic community and media have criticised India's utterly passive hands off attitude. Suggestions have been made that India should have joined the international coalition fighting in Syria against the Islamic State (IS) and even of sending troops. The past few weeks have witnessed a particularly animated debate about the IS posing a serious terror threat to India. 

India has faced thousands of deadly terrorist attacks over the decades in Kashmir and the Northeast; Naxalite/Marxist type attacks in many parts of India; and, random politically motivated attacks. Such attacks continue on a regular basis even today. In strong contrast there has been no IS related terrorist attack in India. India has not been mentioned in statements listing IS’ branches around the world. Episodic arrests, detentions, deportations, interrogations, etc, involving a maximum of 150 or so persons constitute the overall IS related footprint in India; this number includes Indians reportedly fighting in Syria. Compared to the devastating mayhem it has and continues to unleash in many countries, IS activity in India does not constitute even minor pinpricks. If IS is making an effort to foment terrorism in India it has very clearly failed miserably. 

The US, Russia and many other countries are heavily involved in the war against the IS which is finally succeeding. The IS has lost a substantial part of the territory it controlled, casualties and desertions are mounting, it is facing an increasing financial resources crunch,and though the ideology it represents will remain a long-term global challenge, as a political entity in a specific geographical location, it is well on its way to defeat. Its resultant anger and desperation will be directed against its tormentors, not countries like India. In any case, the ideological threat has to be combated domestically not abroad.

Prime Minister Modi has paid extremely successful visits to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar in the past eleven months. These countries are deeply involved in the wars that are going on; while the conflicts in the region were discussed none of the leaders of these countries asked for India’s involvement, being fully aware of and respecting India’s wise traditional policy of non-involvement in wars abroad. Why therefore should India get involved at its own initiative? 

It is because of this reticent non-partisan attitude that India is the only major country in the world that has excellent relationships simultaneously with Israel, Iran, Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE apart from China. China has turned down all suggestions to join the international coalition against IS. 

India was not remotely involved with the actions and policies of the countries that led to the creation of the IS – in fact India opposed these policies. The Frankenstein monster that they created is now fighting them. Why should India voluntarily invite a blowback from global jihad by getting involved?  

Merely declaring that India is joining the international coalition will not make the slightest difference to the IS’ fortunes on the ground but cause India to be put on the IS hit list. It is worth noting that even Pakistan, a client state of the US and Saudi Arabia for decades and having extremely close military relations with them, has refused entreaties by them to join the ground or aerial war against the IS - one of the very rare wise decisions it has made.  

Given India’s unique demography, the historical baggage associated with it, the rampaging spread of extremism and militancy within Islam, and Pakistan’s 7-decade old ceaseless efforts to foment communal discord in India, India’s deploying troops in Muslim countries against a Muslim entity in a region torn apart by vicious sectarian warfare is an enterprise fraught with potentially hugely dangerous consequences both domestically and for its excellent relations with all countries in the Gulf region. 

For all these reasons there is no case whatsoever for India waging war or joining the international coalition against the IS or in any way getting intrusively involved in conflicts in West Asia. India’s hands off, low profile, and pragmatic approach based on mutual benefit has yielded very satisfying results and there is absolutely no need to change this policy.

A truly impressive fact is that no Muslim community of the world has kept itself further away from extremism and militancy than India’s Muslims. It is the world’s third largest Muslim community. There was not a single Indian who went to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Hardly any Indians joined al Qaeda. The IS has served as an ideological beacon to radicalise hundreds of thousands of misguided Muslims around the world. Only a tiny number of Indian Muslims have gone to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist fighters. In the context of 180 million Muslims in India, all this is very impressive. This author knows from personal interactions that these realities are greatly admired, even envied, in West Asia. All Indians should be proud of these facts. 

Every single Indian Muslim entity of repute, theological institution and prominent Muslim leader in different parts of the country, including separatist leaders in Kashmir, has strongly denounced the IS and also the so-called Caliphate. In September 2015, over 1,000 clerics ratified a 1,100-page religious ruling that declared the IS as un-Islamic and that its actions were against the basic tenets of Islam. Signatories included the Imam of Jama Masjid and the heads of Ajmer Sharif and Nizamuddin Auliya. On 24 February 2016, about 300 top Indian ulema passed a similar resolution in Hyderabad and also declared IS a terrorist organisation. Last week, the IS was condemned in a massive public gathering of Muslims in Kerala. A prominent scholar, Muhammad Qasim Zaman, the author of South Asian Islam and the Idea of the Caliphate has written, "The Muslims of India have, for the most part, seen the promises of a secular state as the best hope for the preservation of their culture and identity." As they have so successfully done so far, leaders of and family elders within the Muslim community will ensure that India’s Muslim youth are not led astray. 

However, it is necessary to maintain the utmost vigilance. India’s intelligence, investigative and security agencies are doing whatever is necessary quite well. However, it is a cardinal principle of counter-terrorism that the fight against terrorism is always more effective away from publicity. Therefore, newspaper reports detailing results of investigations of people being arrested for ostensible IS links are not helpful; counter intuitively, they help radicalisation, provide useful information to potential recruits, serve to exaggerate the so far distinctly manageable dimensions of the problem and contribute to spreading panic. 

India’s greatest contribution to the world has been its tolerant pluralistic civilisational ethos that has, over the centuries, nurtured inclusiveness consciously treating equally and with respect people of different customs, ethnicities, languages, religions, traditions, etc. At the November 2015 West Asia conference organised by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), participants from Iran (repeatedly), Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen made specific reference to this, suggesting that West Asia has a lot to learn from India. It is imperative that India maintain this globally admired, iconic and sacrosanct civilisational heritage. This is by far the best guarantee against radicalisation and potential threats posed by the likes of IS or even Pakistan’s ISI, which, in fact, poses far more danger for India than the IS. 

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