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Islamist extremists eye India as fertile recruiting ground

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Via Financial Times

As Delhi reeled last month from deadly communal riots, a new digital magazine began circulating, its main article headlined: “So where are you going? A call to Muslims of India.”

Called the Voice of Hind — Arabic for India — it made no direct mention of the sectarian violence that claimed at least 53 lives as Hindu nationalist mobs rampaged through working-class neighbourhoods in the Indian capital. But it mocked the country’s Muslims for their faith in democracy, warning readers they were “on the verge of being stripped from your last shred of dignity”. 

The magazine — and its timing — highlights a renewed focus among transnational Islamist extremist groups on trying to recruit in India, at a time when Muslims feel increasingly marginalised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

Even before the riots, Isis newsletter Al-Naba had dedicated an article to recent changes to India’s citizenship laws, which introduced religious criteria into citizenship rules for the first time, giving followers of other south Asian states priority over Muslims.

The Islamist extremist group then used a Reuters photograph taken during the rampage — showing a bloodied Muslim being beaten by a Hindu mob — on an online poster justifying retaliatory violence. 

“Outsiders are fishing in troubled waters,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a think-tank focused on internal security. “If you see the social media, the chatter ongoing, statements by the Islamic State, all of them are asking Muslims to rise up and fight the injustice of the Hindu majoritarian state.” 

Kabir Taneja, author of a book on the influence of Isis in South Asia, said the Voice of Hind “lacked the finesse and quality of the usual Islamic State propaganda”. But, he said: “It’s a worry that this actually came out . . . at all. It’s not just about targeting Indian politics. It’s about trying to drive Indian Muslims towards the ideology of the Islamic State.”

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In the past, India’s Muslims — some 14 per cent of the population — have proved largely resistant to overtures from Arab-led Islamist extremist groups such as al-Qaeda or Isis. Few joined their ranks in Afghanistan or Syria, in stark contrast to other South Asian Muslims. On their own turf, lndian Muslim community leaders have co-operated with intelligence and security agencies to help dismantle homegrown radical groups. 

Analysts say India’s vibrant democracy — in which Muslims were once courted as an important constituency — had blunted the appeal of radical Islam, while buoyant economic growth generated optimism for the minority’s future prospects. 

But as Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party pushes to redefine India as primarily a Hindu state, security experts fear disaffected Muslim youths who feel politically and economically marginalised could embrace radical Islamist ideologies as a way to vent their frustration. 

“Democracy and the Indian economy did not allow radicalisation to be mainstreamed in India,” said Mr Taneja, a fellow with the strategic studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think-tank.

“There was a large sense of positivity about what India was. The fear now is that India is fundamentally being changed and fundamentally redesigned.

“The [Hindu] majority is saying, ‘we are the majority and our voice is always going to be louder than yours’,” he added. “That will have some consequences if you are talking about Islamic radicalisation.” 

Muslim political representation has declined steadily in India, amplified by the BJP’s ascent. Muslims today account for less than 5 per cent of MPs in India’s lower house of parliament, down from a peak of 9.7 per cent in 1980, and there is none among the BJP’s elected legislator in the chamber.

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The BJP’s underlying message to its core supporters has been its refusal to make concessions to a religious minority it believes once had undue influence over policymaking — and which it depicts as a potentially dangerous threat to security. 

Mr Modi’s recent policies have further stoked Muslim angst. Initially as premier, he talked mostly of faster economic growth, jobs and battling corruption. But since his re-election last May — and with India in the grip of a protracted economic slowdown — the prime minister has pivoted towards divisive sociopolitical issues popular among his rightwing Hindu base. 

Last August, his government stripped Jammu and Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, of its political autonomy and statehood, suspending its telecoms services for months and incarcerating its most prominent politicians. The changes to the citizenship law further alienated Muslims. 

When they took to the streets to protest, they were demonised as dangerous anti-nationals. Last month’s riots in Delhi erupted after a local BJP leader gave an inflammatory speech demanding that the police remove female demonstrators and saying he and his followers would otherwise do it themselves. 

Security experts fear the BJP’s uncompromising attitude towards the country’s largest religious minority will deepen Muslim alienation, potentially weakening its ties with the intelligence agencies. “If people carry on behaving the way they behaved in Delhi, that bond is going to be very quickly ruptured,” said Mr Sahni. 

Others warn that young Muslims might turn to violence to make their grievances felt. 

“As soon as people don’t have a stake in society, those are the people most prone to be drawn to some form of radical extremism,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a political science professor at Ashoka University.

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“People get sucked into the vortex of violence because of marginalisation and disenfranchisement. What happens in these situations is there to see all over the world.”

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