India isn’t a serious target for al-Qaeda and now ISIS despite appearing on their imaginary maps. But instead of being thankful for this situation, a number of Indian journalists and policymakers seem anxious that the country be recognised as a victim of globalised terrorism, and so an ally of the Europeans and Americans fighting against it.
Indian columnists and television anchors have vied with each other to draw a connection between the recent Paris attacks and those in Mumbai seven years previously. They have, of course, been right to do so since the earlier attacks served as precedent for a novel form of militancy — one in which a whole city could be paralysed by the coordinated, yet random, killing of people held captive in places of entertainment and public passage. Even the blasts of 1993 had made Mumbai an experimental site of militancy, for they were the first serial bombings of a city and targeted not specific places or people but the metropolis as a whole. Featured as it is in Hollywood films as well as best-selling novels, Mumbai is India’s only globally iconic city and so provides an appropriate setting for terrorism. In fact, such attacks even contribute to the city’s glamour by adding the Leopold Café to every tourist’s list of must-see places in Mumbai.
Mumbai is not Paris
Despite its role as an easily accessible and internationally recognised site for terrorist innovation, however, Mumbai doesn’t belong in the same group as Paris, London, Madrid or New York as targets of al-Qaeda and now Islamic State (ISIS) terrorism. India isn’t a serious target for these groups despite appearing on their imaginary maps like so many other places. But instead of being thankful for this situation, a number of Indian journalists and policymakers seem anxious that the country be recognised as a victim of globalised terrorism, and so an ally of the Europeans and Americans fighting against it. This longing to join the all-white club of terrorism’s leading enemies can even be seen as a perversion of the older desire that India take her place among the great powers. Indeed, the British Prime Minister’s recent speech introducing his Indian counterpart to a largely Gujarati audience at Wembley Stadium made precisely this link.
Shared threat of terror
Shifting uncomfortably between craven supplication and post-colonial paternalism, David Cameron promised Britain’s help in making India a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But he also claimed that in addition to possessing virtues like democracy in common, the two countries also shared terrorism as a threat to their existence. This is of course false, as apart from murdering British or Indian citizens, such attacks can at most threaten only the electoral prospects of governments unable to prevent them. By mentioning the shared threat of terrorism, Mr. Cameron was in effect appealing to what he may have imagined was an anti-Muslim audience of Hindus, though they seemed rather taken aback by his insinuation. Narendra Modi, too, ignored his host’s dog whistle politics and explicitly included Muslims in his description of India’s dynamism.
David Cameron’s invocation of terrorism in Wembley was disingenuous since in common with the British press, he rarely includes India in any discussion of militancy. Whatever his motives, correct about Mr. Cameron’s stance is the recognition that however novel and destructive its manifestation there, Islamic militancy in India continues to be defined by politically conventional causes rather than global ones. Involved in a bombing campaign some half a dozen years ago, the Indian Mujahideen, for example, were obsessed with avenging what they saw as the persecution of Muslims in their country, but had no vision of a future outside the Indian nation state. The Kashmiri militants of the 1990s, for their part, wanted autonomy, independence or a union with Pakistan and were never interested in caliphates or battles outside India. Similarly, Pakistan-sponsored groups are focussed on the conflict between the two states rather than some global war.
Naturally, there are and will always be Indians who gravitate towards global forms of jihad, but they don’t form a coherent group, and seem to be put to the kind of menial tasks that Indians and other Asians tend to do in West Asia more generally. Then there are those who appear to live vicarious lives as jihadis, like the mild-mannered, young professional in Bengaluru who was discovered some months ago to be running the most bloodthirsty web forum dedicated to the war in Syria. He, too, seemed to have no interest in attacking India, and like so many of those attracted by ISIS, was more concerned with the threat supposedly posed by the Shia and other sectarian minorities. If anything, then, global forms of jihad become popular in India for reasons having to do with internal cleavages within Islam rather than some undying enmity towards Hinduism or Christianity.
Sectarianism as trigger
The importance of sectarian violence may even signal the coming apart of Islam itself as a category, one that in any case only dates from the 19th century. For Islam is a term that appears a couple of times in the Koran, and for most of Muslim history does not seem to have named any kind of singular or unified entity like a religious system but instead a set of attitudes or practices. Hastened by political and economic problems in different parts of the world, the unmaking of Islam gives rise not only to unprecedented levels of sectarian conflict, but to atheism, conversion to other religions and new forms of Muslim devotion as well. This is the bigger picture within which the issues tearing apart Muslim communities as well as bringing them together in new forms need to be placed. Sectarianism then may well be the entry-point for global forms of Muslim militancy in India.
Globalised forms of militancy have only taken root where the state is failing, as in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, or where it is despotic, as in Saudi Arabia and Syria. A third case involves European countries, where neoliberalism has reduced the state and its politics to a kind of management, and that too one often delegated and outsourced to the bureaucracy or private sector. The European Union for instance, while it is indubitably a political entity, is unprecedented in that apart from a currency, it lacks every other sign of sovereignty, and has therefore to be managed by central banks rather than governed by representative institutions. In this situation, “culture” often comes to take the place of old-fashioned politics as a site of contestation, something that at the domestic level produces both Muslim identity politics and the opposite demand for a secular national culture, as well as the famous “clash of civilizations” at the international one.
While India is not immune to the politics of culture, the state continues to dominate social relations there in such a way as to define, if not produce, all forms of resistance as well. But by the same token, it limits such resistance so that Islamic militancy in India remains conventional and bizarrely even “nationalist”. Yet, while the procedures of anti-Muslim violence generally remain visceral, low-tech and highly traditional in their confinement to the riot form, that of anti-Hindu violence now relies upon bombs and other remote-controlled means of killing at a distance. And while this pattern of high-tech violence might result from the lack of popular support as much as the disparity of numbers and power involved, it also indicates the way in which Muslim forms of terrorism appear to be gravitating towards those deployed by globally dispersed jihadis. And yet they remain tied to the nation-state, which thus becomes both the cause and cure of militant Islam in India.
(Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St. Antony’s College in the University of Oxford.)