In the justifiable jubilation at the arrest of Indian Mujahideen bomb-making expert Yasin Bhatkal, we haven’t debated on an aspect of his radicalisation that just about every newspaper narrative has alluded to: that he took to triggering bombs and killing people in what he erroneously believed was just retaliation to the macabre riot of 2002 in Gujarat. Such allusions link terrorism to communal politics, of which riots are the most grisly and extreme manifestation, prompting the question: can the circle of violence, in which India seems perennially trapped, ever be broken?
A neat causal link between terror and riot is difficult to establish, for it takes us back to that familiar question: which came first, the hen or the egg? Did the most extreme manifestation of communal politics in India – the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots in its wake – produce indigenous jihadi foot soldiers? Or was the Hindu mobilisation on a communal plank in itself, as innumerable Hindutva leaders claim, a reaction to the Indian state allegedly pampering Muslims and turning a blind eye to the growing radicalisation of their youth, in hopes of harvesting their votes in elections?
Riot and terror require a communal ambience to flourish, and an ideology to legitimize and justify them. No doubt, communal politics, of both Hindu and Muslim varieties, dates back to decades before India’s Independence, reaching its bloody culmination in what are euphemistically called Partition riots. As the madness of those dark days abated, and the Indian state asserted its authority, communal politics and ideologies were pushed to the margins but not obliterated.
There was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which defined the Indian in cultural terms: he or she was Indian whose holy land and fatherland were the same. Muslims and Christians, therefore, were not Indian as their holy land was outside India. The RSS’s aim was to build a Hindu nation in which Muslims and Christians, to quote RSS sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar, “must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizens’ rights.”
Political power was vital for the RSS to realise its avowed goal of Hindu rashtra. Masquerading as a cultural organisation, it spawned a bewildering variety of outfits, each assigned to play a specific role in Hinduising society and electorally bolstering its political wing – the Jan Sangh earlier, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now. Thus, for instance, the Hindu agenda was repeatedly insinuated into public consciousness through agitations over issues such as a ban on cow slaughter, and participation in, as several commissions of inquiry bear out, communal rioting.
The mirror image of the RSS among Muslim was the Jamaat-e-Islami, which drew its inspiration from Maulana Maududi, who wanted to capture political power for establishing an Islamic state and shariah, or Islamic law. Its cadres were opposed to secular democracy, in fact to all ism, Capitalism and Marxism alike, and were proscribed from participating in elections.
But the Partition saw Maududi migrate to Pakistan, leaving less than 300 members in the rump organisation, now renamed Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), which continued to harp on its original goals, absurdly unmindful of the demographic reality of divided India. It also continued to toe the line of its original avatar that it was un-Islamic for Muslims to participate in election.
Roundly rebuffed, obvious from the turnout of Muslims during the first two national polls, the JIH rescinded the ban before the third General Election, declaring Muslims – but not its members – should participate in the election. Subsequently, it redefined its goal as Iqamaat-e-deen, which its Constitution translates as “establishment, realisation or pursuit of religion” (it declares it is the closest you can get to the term in English). Over the years, it even lifted the ban on its members participating in elections and has now, much like the RSS, floated its own political outfit, the Welfare Party of India, the reins of which it holds. However, the JIH’s worldview remains sharply religious and socially conservative.
These outfits and their divisive ideologies were mostly confined to the margins of Indian polity, occasionally bursting out spectacularly and then receding. But they were brought to the centrestage in the Eighties. In response to the growing militancy in Punjab, Indira Gandhi, on return to power in 1980 but still anxious about the durability of her support base, began to play the Hindu card, thereby legitimizing what had been decidedly the RSS’s policy till then.
It was also the decade in which Hindu-Muslim riots – Meerut, Moradabad, the Nellie massacre, to name a few – occurred both with an alarming frequency and severity. Churning the communal cud were also issues such as the judgement on Shah Bano and the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the problematic, at times provocative stance of the Muslim leadership. Ultimately, though, the opening of the lock of the Babri Masjid in 1986 and its eventual demolition six years later sparked off countywide tension and riots which the Sangh Parivar rode to become the principal alternative formation to the Congress.
The rise of the Sangh-BJP and the palpable partiality of the Indian state in tackling the riots stoked the anxiety among Muslims about their status and security. It had its echo in the Jamaat politics. Earlier, in 1977, the JIH had floated the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) as its youth wing, with the purpose of promoting Islamic consciousness among the young. However, SIMI turned increasingly strident both because of external developments – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, for instance – and as a reaction to riots in India in the Eighties. No longer amenable to the JIH’s control, SIMI broke away from the parent organisation in 1982. Nevertheless, its growth wasn’t exceptional until the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
From then on, it began to organise protests in Muslim pockets and became increasingly bellicose. Academician and writer Yoginder Sikand cites a letter from a top SIMI leader Abdul Aziz Salafi in which he says that “Muslims should make it clear to Hindu militants that the Muslims ‘would now refuse to sit low.’” Four years later, in 1996, SIMI issued a statement declaring that secularism and democracy had failed Muslims, leaving them with no option but to struggle for the establishment of the Caliphate. In other words, jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state, or Caliphate, became the defining aspects of the SIMI movement.
Post-9/11, the BJP-led government banned SIMI, its offices were shuttered, and many of its activists were picked up and others went underground. Among them was also Yasin Bhatkal. Months later, the riots in Gujarat occurred, triggering yet another tide of anxiety and insecurity among Muslims and reinforcing the belief of those who believed secularism and democracy had indeed failed the community. It was from this crucible of anger and hatred and obscurantist ideas, which Maulana Maududi had propagated, was born the Indian Mujahideen, which has continued to rain death and devastation on India’s urban centres.
In the weeks to come, as Yasin is interrogated in custody, we will, through leaks to the media, be provided deeper insights into his motivations and inspiration. Nevertheless, this much can be said with certainty: The politics of riot and terror are linked through ideas Muslim ideologues had propounded and propagated decades ago. Those ideas are reinterpreted and reapplied to the new reality but remain opposed to progressive politics.
You need to combat ideas to vanquish them. But you can scarcely counter ideas of jihad until the ambience in which it thrives is also transformed. Eight months away from the General Election, the RSS and its affiliates have begun to coordinate their steps for marching on the road to Hindutva – an idea as obscurantist and exclusivist as jihad – and hoping the Indian electorate would follow. This is evident in the VHP’s aborted parikrama programme in Uttar Pradesh, and the concerted attempts of RSS activists to keep the communal cauldron in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh simmering.
As Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, an extremely polarizing symbol, struts around to realise his prime ministerial dream, you can’t tell what the radicalized Muslims are thinking and feeling. But, again, this much we can say with certainty: Hindutva is the other side of terror, menacing, divisive and devastating.