international analysis and commentary

India and the ISIS threat – mythical no more

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Even more than for the recent terrorist attack on an air force base in northern India, these days the government in Delhi worries about the around 150 Indian nationals whom intelligence agencies are tracking for links with the Syria – and Iraq – based terror group ISIS. It does so for good strategic reasons.

More than 20 of these citizens are known to already have travelled from India to the Middle East to join ISIS. The emergence of a small but dedicated cadre of ISIS supporters from India has shattered one of the country’s biggest self-delusions – that India does not contribute terrorists to the global jihadist movement in any significant numbers.

This national fiction was partly rooted in facts. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, few Indians answered the call of Osama bin Laden to take up arms with Al-Qaeda. Since India has the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, and is projected to take the number one spot sometime during the 2020s, the country has been justifiably proud that so few Indian Muslims traveled to the jihadist frontline in the last decade. This has allowed India to declare itself a victim of terrorism – one of the hardest-hit in fact – and almost never a perpetrator.

That line of defense is collapsing swiftly. Just six months ago, pundits in Delhi would declare the presence of ISIS in this country a ‘mythical’ construct. No one says that anymore. To make matters more complicated for Indian authorities, this is happening at a time when terror attacks orchestrated and carried out from outside the national borders are making headlines once again.

No sooner had the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an impromptu visit to Pakistan, in December 2015, that militants from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) rained fire on the air force base near the northern town of Pathankot, killing seven security personnel. That the JeM is led by a terrorist, Maulana Masood Azhar, whom India had to release from prison in 1999 – in the context of a prisoner swap agreed upon to end an airplane hostage crisis – has only made things worse. Now the much awaited – and long delayed – talks between India and Pakistan, the two nuclear neighbors, seem to have been hijacked by jihadists.

But Modi’s headache does not stem just from a hostile neighborhood. It increasingly has a domestic component. In the eastern Indian state of Bengal, a series of bomb blasts last year suggested that Islamic militants from Bangladesh, who are fighting a desperate war with the government in Dhaka, are once again seeping across the border into India – and that, as a result, the radicalization of certain subsets of Muslims is on the march in Bengal as well. It doesn’t help that, under Modi, Hindu extremists have made a series of inflammatory statements hitting out at Muslims.

In the meantime, in the north of the country, there has been a rekindling of old separatist sentiments in Punjab. Intelligence sources suggest – with horror – that Punjabi militants of Sikh faith might be finding kinship with Islamic radicals, though historically the two are foes. Further north, in Kashmir, all indications are that a new wave of violence is coming.

Unfortunately, India still lacks a cohesive game plan to fight this rising tide of extremism within and outside its borders. Even flames long assumed doused, like the separatist Khalistan movement in Punjab, are rearing their heads againin parallel with a reprise of religious violence.

Modi came to power in 2014 on a promise of tougher action against terrorism. Indeed he has made some good moves: for example he stitched up a stronger partnership with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been fighting a lone and debilitating battle against Islamic hardliners in her country. Dhaka has given Delhi invaluable support in weeding out terrorists attacking India from Bangladesh. In return, Modi has pushed through a coveted border agreement with Hasina, settling a decades-old territorial dispute.

But Modi has seen less success in his dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in tackling the conundrum in Kashmir, the territory both India and Pakistan claim as their own. Indian consulates in Afghanistan have been repeatedly attacked by terrorists – in spite of repeated assurances of protection by the Afghan government, which in turn blames Pakistan-based (or supported) insurgents. In the streets of Kashmir, sullen anger has dipped to levels unseen in many years. The death in early January of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Kashmir’s popular Muslim chief minister, who had formed a first-of-its-kind coalition with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has plunged the state into an even deeper crisis. Many people here are increasingly convinced that Modi has not kept his promises. They think this has strengthened the hands of terrorists, who have struck more fiercely in the recent past. In 2012-13, the talk in Kashmir was about how the state was turning a corner. Now terrorism and violence are primetime news’ material again.

The big difference between Modi and his Congress Party predecessor Manmohan Singh is that they see terrorism very differently. Nevertheless, the end result might be the same. Singh spoke “global” but acted “local”. In essence, he dealt with terrorism in India like it was only India’s problem, and when faced with attacks in other countries, responded with kind platitudes. Modi’s biggest contribution has been to make terrorism in India a global problem, at every turn pushing the idea that an attack on India is an attack on the world.

As a result, any conversation with members of India’s defense and home ministries today inevitably leads back to ISIS. The Pathankot attack has taught Delhi – says the government and security establishment – that at some point its Pakistani foes will use ISIS as strategic weapons against India. One intelligence officer told me recently: ‘What Jaish-e-Muhammad [the group that attacked the air force base] is today, might become ISIS tomorrow. In the game of bad terrorists and good terrorists, the nomenclature keeps changing.’

Though it is more aggressively tying India’s plight to the global war against terrorism (in particular its newest, most terrifying ISIS incarnation), Delhi worries that it can neither trust China, a long-time supporter of Pakistan, nor the US, which has also never stopped overtly and covertly supplying cutting-edge defense systems to Pakistan. Some in government believe that India would do better looking to Israel, even Japan. There is even an argument for deeper strategic ties with Russia, which has a history of supplying weapons to India.

But the stark reality is that India, more than ever, finds itself alone. No matter how much it tries, a terrorist attack in Delhi will never provoke the same global outrage, the same condolences, the same hashtags, of one in Paris or London or New York.