London: “India’s over 150 million Muslim population is largely unattracted to extremism. India’s growing economy, vibrant democracy, and inclusive culture, encourage Muslims to seek success and social mobility in the mainstream and reduces alienation. With Indian Muslim youth increasingly comfortable in the mainstream, the pool of potential recruits is shrinking, while Muslim families and communities provide little sanction or support to extremist appeals.”—US embassy in Delhi in a secret cable to the State Department in December 2005 as revealed by WikiLeaks.
Ten years later, although things are less rosy with “the pool of potential recruits’’ expanding rather than “shrinking’’ India still has the best record in South Asia in keeping Islamists at bay. But there are now fears that with the “inclusive culture”, which made the Indian Muslim youth “comfortable in the mainstream”, facing threat from the Hindu Right the global jihadi groups are likely to step up their campaign to attract disaffected Muslims.
A leading London-based counter-terror think- tank, which advises the British government on its de-radicalisation programme, has urged Narendra Modi to take “swift” and “pro-active” steps to address Muslim grievances and allay their fears in order to reduce the appeal of Islamist militant groups.
The Indian Prime Minister must also do more to “strengthen” his government’s avowed commitment to “religious freedoms” and “integration”, according to the Quilliam Foundation.
“We strongly urge the Indian Government to better engage with its Muslim community in order to decrease the appeal of IS’s projections of an Islamic Caliphate, as well as to reduce the appeal of militant ideologies that cater to Indian Muslims’ grievances,” it says in a strongly-worded report on Islamist militancy in South Asia timed to coincide with the first anniversary this week of Islamic State (IS)’s so-called Caliphate this week.
Criticising “ghar wapsi” style campaigns, seen as a provocation by Muslims, it says, “We ask the BJP to take swift, proactive steps to clamp down on coercive conversions to Hinduism, and allay fears that state welfare is conditional on Hinduism.”
About threats from “home-grown’’ Muslim extremists, it warns, “These threats will not be quelled so long as there is the perception that Muslims are being subjugated by the Indian Government.’’
Nikita Malik, a co-author of the report who has written the India section, told Firstpost that so far Indian Muslims had mostly stayed clear of global jihadi groups (“India is the best case scenario in South Asia”) with only a handful of confirmed cases of young men fleeing to Syria to join IS. But she was concerned about the likely Muslim backlash against Hindu right-wing organisations’ inflammatory rhetoric.
“We’ll need to watch out,” she said.
Baroness Kishwer Falkner, a Liberal Democrat peer, who has worked extensively on human rights issues and was present at the Quilliam report launch said the BJP’s “hostility” to Muslims was problematic from the point of view of fighting Islamist extremism.
“The BJP government of today is very different in nature from the previous BJP governments. As a Muslim if I was living in India today I would be very worried,” she said replying to questions.
But I’ll come back to the report in a bit, first a word about the Quilliam Foundation. It is important to know its background to get a perspective on its understanding of Islamist extremism.
Set up by a group of former British jihadi insiders of Indian and Pakistani origin in the wake of the 2005 London bombings, its stated aim is to develop a counter-narrative to challenge the Islamists’ “fabricated narrative of recent history and current affairs” by drawing on its founders’ experience of “having been to hell and back”. One of them Ed Husain wrote the autobiographical best-seller The Islamist which at one time became “must” reading for counter-terror pundits.
The group, which is reported to have received about £1m in government funding, is accused by its critics of “McCarthyite smear tactics” to please its patrons which are said to include American neo-cons. It is named after William Henry Quilliam, a 19th century Christian convert to Islam who later changed his name to Abdullah Quilliam and established Britain’s first mosque and Islamic Centre in Liverpool.
So, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Progressive, but part of a growing human rights/conflict resolution/counter-terror “industry’’ with a penchant for self-promotion.
Coming back to the report, however, it is critical of the BJP’s hawkish line on Kashmir’s special status which, it says, is fuelling anger among Kashmiri Muslims and likely to play into the hands of separatists and extremists. The high turnout in the Assembly elections in December 2014, it points out, showed that Kashmiri Muslims were “prepared to give democratic politics under Indian rule a chance’’.
“This is an opportunity to stabilise the situation in Jammu and Kashmir that must not be wasted…We strongly encourage the BJP to quell the fear that they plan to rescind Article 370 , a move which would infuriate Kashmiris and is likely to usher in a new wave of militancy,” it warns.
The report notes with some bewilderment that India has “no comprehensive policy on countering radicalisation.”
“This creates gaps in long-term effectiveness,” it says.
Nor does India have “a specific anti-terrorism law”, it points out though it is not clear whether it advocates one. But it is more pointed in its criticism that India’s counter-terror strategy doesn’t pay enough attention to likely domestic factors behind extremism, and is too Pakistan-centric.
A larger point the report makes in relation to extremism in South Asia generally is that it is fuelled by high levels of youth unemployment, corruption and an absence of rule of law and accountability in many countries in the region.
Even in India, a robust democracy with constitutional trappings of rule of law, access to justice is hard, time-consuming and tilted in favour of the rich and the powerful, says Baroness Falkner. This breeds frustration and alienates the disadvantaged, especially the youth.
“If it takes 20 to 25 years to get justice it is frustrating,’’ she said adding that India also suffered from high levels of violence, notably against women.
Many in India will accuse Quilliam of offering gratuitous advice and interfering in the country’s internal affairs but the fact is that it contains many unpleasant home truths that must be confronted if groups like the IS are to be kept at bay.