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The Salafi-Jihadist Reaction to Hindu Nationalism

The Salafi-Jihadist Reaction to Hindu Nationalism

Hari Prasad

This article is an entry into Hudson Institute’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideologies.

On September 4, 2014, the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the creation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (Jamaat Qaidat al-Jihad fi’shibi al-qarrat al Hindiya), or AQIS.1 The establishment of this new al-Qaeda branch intersected with two other major political developments in 2014: the advent of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria-Iraq (ISIS) in June, and, in May, the election in India of Narendra Modi’s Bharitya Janata Party-led government (BJP), which brought Hindu Nationalism into the social and political mainstream. In response to these two developments, ISIS subsequently undertook to establish its own presence in South Asia. In May 2019, following an ISIS attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir, the caliphate movement announced that it had created a Wilayah (province) for India.2

Today, both ISIS and AQIS are competing throughout South Asia to win recruits, conduct terror attacks, and foment religious turmoil—and both have increasingly fixed their gaze on India. While it has been widely recognized these two Salafi-Jihadist movements are seeking to exploit Muslim-Hindu communal tensions in India for their own gain, less attention has been paid to their rhetoric about the Modi government and the social and political ascendancy of Hindutva or Hindu Nationalism. This dynamic demands greater attention.

For many Hindus, Hindutva simply means “Hinduness,” while the larger Hindutva movement stresses the unity, revitalization and celebration of Hinduism, the religious tradition of over 79 percent of the Indian population. Because many Hindus believe that Hinduism teaches pluralism and religious co-existence, the ongoing revival of Hinduism and its increasing role in Indian public life is not perceived as being inherently at odds with the liberal-democratic principles on which India was founded..3 However, since the Hindutva movement’s beginnings in the late British colonial period, many of its top ideologists have explicitly called for the establishment of a Hindu State, which exists by and for the Hindu majority. Further, many regard Islam as a religion that is alien to India; for them, Muslims are, at best, to be treated as second-class citizens and, at worst, to be regarded as a threat to Hindus and their nationhood. The rise of Hindu Nationalism in recent decades has, in fact, exacerbated communal tensions in parts of India, while Hindutva extremists have committed serial crimes against Muslims.

Zawahiri himself referenced these crimes—particularly the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujurat in 2002—when he announced the formation of AQIS.4 ISIS ideologists have since done the same. Indeed, Salafi-Jihadism has tried to show that India’s Hindus and Muslims are inexorably at odds with one another. For radical Islamists, the rise of Hindutva confirms this. Salafi-Jihadist rhetoric about Hindutva has focused on two primary issues: the oppression, both real and perceived, of Muslims under the BJP government in India, and the so-called “failure” of democracy in India. For Islamists, this alleged failure of democracy in India is evident in the Indian State’s failure to protect Muslims from Hindutva majoritarianism, discrimination, and violence. This, they claim, vindicates the Islamist view that democracy is intrinsically un-Islamic and against Muslims. Because of this, al-Qaeda and ISIS believe that India’s Muslims are required to fight the Hindutva movement. To this end, both groups are now attempting to shatter India’s democracy and traditions of religious co-existence in order to foment religious war.5

The Grayzone

The propaganda of Salafi-Jihadists makes clear their aim is to destroy what it terms the “grayzone”—that is, the plane of coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims.6 This subject was discussed at length in ISIS’s English language magazine Dabiq (later renamed Rumiya), in February 2015, in an article titled “The Extinction of the Grayzone.”

For ISIS, the world is divided in two: the world of kufr/unbelief and the world of Islam (the latter specifically being the areas controlled by the Caliphate). The article cites a speech made by Osama Bin Laden shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States in which the former al-Qaeda leader proclaimed, “The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”7

The author of the Dabiq article explains that the grayzone will be destroyed both by the Islamic State as well as by non-Muslims in the “Crusader” nations. The author claims that the “Islamophobia” faced by Muslim minorities in the West is only strengthened by the existence of the caliphate movement and the violence it commits. As he explains,

The presence of the Khilafah also magnifies the political, social, economic, and emotional impact of any operation carried out by the mujahidin against the enraged crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves, the zone in which many of the hypocrites and deviant innovators living in the West are hiding.8

Thus, by capitalizing on “Islamophobia” within Western societies, ISIS believes they will fuel anti-Muslim hate and delegitimize Muslim leaders and others who advocate for coexistence and democratic moderation. This, in turn, empowers greater anti-Muslim sentiment and bigotry in Crusader nations, which divides Muslims from their fellow citizens and facilitates the deterioration of enemy states. Anti-Muslim attacks will encourage other Muslims to defend themselves and strike back, leading to a cycle of brutality. In this escalation of hate and violence, the group hopes to leave Muslims with no choice but to join the caliphate movement. The author goes on to say that, with the establishment of the Caliphate,

Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufir religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam, so as to live amongst the kuffar without hardship, or they perform hijrah to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader government and citizens.9

This strategy is hardly novel or unique in the history of Salafi-Jihadism. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi advocated for a similar strategy to provoke large-scale conflict between Sunni and Shia throughout the Middle East.10 For ISIS supporters, it is vital to eliminate the grayzone by polarizing societies, and forcing Muslims to choose the “world of Islam” as opposed to everything else.

While the grayzone article in Dabiq focused exclusively on destabilizing “Crusader” societies in the West, the ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda about India reflects similar themes.11 By declaring that Indian democracy has failed, and by highlighting the abuses of Muslims by extremist Hindutva forces, Salafi-Jihadism wants to persuade Indian Muslims they will never be accepted by their Hindu brethren. Their aim is to shatter religious co-existence and to ignite a religious war in India. They also believe the advance and rise to power of Hindu Nationalism will aid their efforts.

The Hindutva Movement

The Hindutva movement first emerged when India was still ruled by the British. Reacting to the perceived weakness of Hindus compared to their Abrahamic counterparts, a movement to reform and strengthen Hinduism emerged in the 19th Century. This reform movement subsequently split in various ways, with some who undertook to modernize the faith and others who wanted to take Hinduism back to a Golden Era, when Hindus dominated all of India. This set the stage for the rise of the Hindutva movement. The ideological movement spawned multiple organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu Mahasabha, and others, whose aim has been revitalize Hindu consciousness. Collectively, these organizations are referred to as the “Sangh Parivar,” or the “family” of organizations associated with the RSS.

Perhaps the best-known ideological text of the Hindutva movement is Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Written in 1923, Savarkar advocated for the creation of a “Hindu Nation.”12 He defined Hindus as a unique “race” of people whose homeland and holy lands were all in the Indian subcontinent. For Savarkar, Hindus were native to India while Muslims and Christians came to India as “invaders” and continue to adhere to “foreign ideologies” while they look to and pray in holy lands in the Middle East. On these grounds, the loyalty of these minorities to the Hindu Nation was suspect.

Savarkar’s ideas were controversial in his day, and they remain so now. At best, his ideology has been interpreted as a blueprint for the creation of a Hindu-majoritarian government in which Muslims, Christians and other non-Hindus would be treated as second class citizens. At worst, Savarkar and other Hindutva leaders expressed support for eliminating—by force, if necessary—these “foreign” ideologies from the Hindu Nation.13

The Hindutva movement was marginalized after India’s independence in 1947. The assassination of Gandhi by a Hindutva extremist led the ruling Congress Party government to crackdown on and outlaw various Hindutva organizations. However, while the Indian Constitution sought to establish a liberal and secular order, Hindutva groups continued to work at the grassroots level to change society and revitalize Hindu national consciousness. There is a long history of Hindutva groups being involved in communal violence across the country.

In 1992, the destruction of the Babri Masjid (mosque) by Hindus shocked the entire nation. The Babri Masjid was constructed by the Mughals in the 16th Century in what is now Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Hindutva organizations argued that a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Rama had been razed by the Mughals to construct the mosque. For many in the Hindutva movement, Babri Masjid symbolized the subjugation of Hindus to Islam. It was on this belief that thousands of Hindutva volunteers mobilized to demolish the structure. This was followed by Anti-Muslim riots throughout India, with the city of Bombay being particularly affected. Hundreds of Muslims were reportedly killed in the ensuing disturbances.

Even today, repercussions from that violent event continue to roil the country. For many Hindu nationalists, the destruction of Babri Masjid came to symbolize the dawning of a new India—an India where Hindus were no longer weak, and Hindutva was ascendant.

The BJP as it is known today was formed in 1980.14 The party’s roots are in the family of Hindutva organizations that were banned after independence. But from 1998-2004, during the BJP’s first full term as the leading party, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other party leaders helped to moderate and thus popularize Hindu nationalism. The period, however, was also affected by intensifying communal violence, including a deadly anti-Muslim pogrom. In the state of Gujarat (where Narendra Modi was then serving as Chief Minister), violence broke out in response to the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims on February 27, 2002. It is believed that Muslims had set the train on fire. In retaliation, Hindutva extremists and angry mobs committed horrendous violence against Muslims, killing over two thousand. There have been many allegations that Modi, as the state’s Chief Minister—who oversaw several ministers involved in the violence—was complicit in the pogroms. A court later cleared Modi, but his role in the violence continues to be disputed in India today.

For many Hindutva leaders and organizations, the violence against Muslims was met with glee. Ashok Singhal, then-president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, described the violence in Gujarat as a “successful experiment.”15 From an electoral standpoint, worsening communal tensions appears to have aided the BJP’s success at mobilizing Hindu voters while placating an Hindutva base.16 Meanwhile, little has been done to hold to account the organizers of the Gujurat violence, or, for that matter, the anti-Muslim pogroms in Mumbai in 1992 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

Although Modi did not campaign on a communal platform in 2014, it is undeniable that religious tensions have increased during his time as prime minister. There was, for instance, a notable escalation in lynchings throughout the country following his election. Human Rights Watch reported that at least 44 people—36 of them Muslims—were killed by Hindu vigilantes, some with ties to the governing party, across 12 Indian states between May 2015 and December 2018.17 During that period of unrest, Muslim men were murdered by Hindu extremists on the suspicion that they were smuggling beef. Analysis by the Indian factchecking website IndiaSpend has shown a noticeable increase in cow lynchings since 2014. 18 In addition to these violent crimes, Hindutva politicians and activists have spread anti-Islamic conspiracies, charged Muslims with “wooing Hindu women” and other offenses to Hindu honor, called illegal Muslim immigrants “termites,” as well as elevated politicians accused of terrorism against Muslims to positions of power.19 This polarized atmosphere has caused some leading Indian observers to worry about the future of secularism in India.20 Simultaneously, intensifying communalist strife has presented opportunities upon which al-Qaeda and ISIS have hoped to capitalize.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Subcontinent

Despite al-Qaeda’s long history in South Asia, its creation of a terrorist branch focused on the Indian subcontinent was tied explicitly to atrocities committed by Hindus against Muslims. Citing a hadith known as Ghazwa-ul-Hind which prophesies a war between Islam and the unbelievers in India, Zawahiri spoke about the Karachi Operation on September 6, 2014—the first attempted attack by AQIS.21 He explained that the “operation gives a clear message to India that Ghazwa-e-Hind has only just begun. We shall never forget your oppression of our brothers in Kashmir, Gujarat, and Assam, and you shall reap what you sowed.”

In June 2017, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent released its “Code of Conduct.”22 The document details the group’s strategy, principles, and various allegiances. Section V is entitled “The Nature of the Enemy and Military Operations,” and it divides the group’s operations into three parts: fighting in Afghanistan, targets in Pakistan, and thirdly, targets and enemies in India, Bangladesh, and Arakaan (Burma). While it deals with both India and Bangladesh together, the AQIS document makes clear that armed jihadism in India is the priority, because India “is the prime defender of secular government and secular movements in Bangladesh, and provides every sort of support to blasphemers of the Messenger (SWT) and to Mulhids.”23

In addition to the necessity of attacking India because of the country’s desire to “make the Muslims of Bengal live as its slaves,” the Code of Conduct also accuses India of “executing the policy of oppressing the Muslims in Kashmir and India, destroying their homes, weakening them in social status, and coercing them to convert to Hinduism.24 The cruelty and oppression on the Muslims in Kashmir and India clearly demonstrate this fact.”25

Interestingly, however, the document also states that AQ should avoid attacks on Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist civilians.26 And in fact, with the exception of the Karachi operation, AQIS has carried out relatively few major attacks.27 The majority of AQ’s violence has been against secularist Bangladeshi bloggers and activists for alleged blasphemy.28 Despite the organization’s prioritizing of India as a target, there do not seem to have been any other major attacks directly carried out by AQIS.

Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has not had a long history in the Indian subcontinent. According to Amira Jadoon of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, ISIS has been able to expand in South Asia in recent years by making alliances with other extremist groups in the region.29 One of the earliest examples of an Indian group joining the caliphate movement took place in September 2014, when a relatively unknown group named Ansar-ul-Tahid Fi Bilad Al Hind pledged allegiance.30

But perhaps what has been more surprising has been ISIS’s success in recruiting Indians to join their cause. Kabir Taneja, an ISIS expert at India’s Observer Research Foundation, found at least 112 cases of Indians attempting to join ISIS or to create an affiliate.31 In the early days of the ISIS Caliphate, one of the primary propaganda accounts for the group was an Indian working with the online moniker, @ShamiWitness.32 Despite this, ISIS did not establish a formal Wilayah for India (Wilayah Hind) until May 10, 2019. Prior to this, actions carried out by ISIS were either affiliated with the Khorasan (Afghanistan/Pakistan) province or with no specific branch.33,34

Disturbingly, the Easter Sunday attacks on April 21, 2019 in Sri Lanka exposed a network of ISIS sympathizers from Sri Lanka through South India, including the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.35 The number of ISIS jihadis was surprising, since in previous years AQIS had struggled to recruit new Indian members.36 That began to change, however, with the allegiances of Kashmiri groups, as well as the formation of the AQ-aligned Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGH) in 2017. All this allowed AQIS to establish a firmer foothold in the region.37

A January 2019 report, “Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: The Nucleus of Jihad,” published by security consultants at The Soufan Center acknowledges the widening communal divide between Hindus and Muslims. It also reports on the spread of Wahhabism in the region, which provides an exploitable opportunity for jihadi groups.38 As we shall see from Salafi-Jihadist propaganda, that communal divide remains a prime area of focus.

The Oppression of Muslims

According to some Indian ISIS sympathizers, few jihadis realize the difficulties that Indian Muslims face. As a Malayali ISIS supporter has pointed out, India was declared a Dar ul Harb by jihadi sheikhs only because of the Kashmiri conflict. “That the world’s Muslims do not know anything about the RSS/Sangh Parivar, which is an existential threat to Indian Muslims, is a failure of Indian Muslims. If they had shown one-tenth of their efforts to get Arab’s funds to let others know about the dangers they face, this wouldn’t have happened.”39

In 2017, AQIS and its affiliates regularly published various forms of propagandized media targeting India. The theme of Hindus oppressing Muslims runs throughout their videos. Between November and December of 2017, AQIS published a media series called “Saffron Terror.” The title references the controversial moniker of terrorism committed by Hindu groups against Muslims in India.40 The series was produced by a media house called “1857,” a clear reference to the failed 1857 uprising against the British East India Company.

Each video in the series follows a similar pattern. They begin with a clip of a Muslim being brutalized by Hindu nationalists, or of a Hindutva ideologue making derogatory remarks about Islam. This is followed by Urdu textual commentary or a statement by an AQIS leader.

The first video in the series shows an elderly Muslim man surrounded by Hindutva thugs.41 Several of these Hindutvadis (Hindutva members) have seized the man, with one specifically grasping the man’s beard. The elderly Muslim is forced to repeat several chants including, “__Jai Jai Sri Ram__ (Victory to Lord Rama, a major Hindu God),” “Narendra Modi is our Daddy, long live Hindustan,” and other derogatory remarks about Muslims.42 This is followed by an Arabic recitation of a Surah Al Nahl verse from the Quran, “Any one who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters Unbelief—except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith—but such as open their breast to Unbelief, on them is Wrath from Allah, and theirs will be a dreadful Penalty.”

The video then moves on to play an audio clip from BBC Urdu about an Indian Supreme Court decision allowing Sikhs to maintain a beard in the military, but not Muslims. The Supreme Court justified this by stating that Islam does not view a beard as a religious obligation. The video ends with an Urdu declaration:

Oh unbelievers! Your enemies of Islam. Making fun of the Sharia of Islam. Grabbing ordinary Muslims and pulling their beards. Then forcing them to recite the Kufr-e-Kalima will put out the fire in your hearts. The malice you have towards Islam will extinguish you. To deem the beard as Un-Islamic, means you cannot follow the Sunna of the Prophet. To call it a tradition of the Sikhs, you cannot eliminate the ummah of the Muslims from their heart.

The Prophet proclaimed,

Counter the unbelievers, grow your beards and cut your moustaches. As per the Quran it is necessary to do so. Plus as per all four schools of Islamic thoughts (Hanafi, Malii, Shafi and Hanbali) it is required.

The second video shows a clip of a young Muslim man being violently assaulted, presumably by three Hindutva men.43 The Hindutvadis threaten the young Muslim with a pistol and reveal that he was carrying meat on his motorcycle. The Hindu nationalists presume that the meat is beef, hence justifying the assault. The UN logo is then shown, accompanied by an Urdu text saying, “Where are the pig-meat eating flagbearers of human rights? This barbarism…Why are they silent about the ones who martyr Muslims. Does keeping Muslims away from God’s given halal meat not count as a human rights violation?” The second video concludes by citing a verse from Surah Al Nisa, and stating “No respect can be attained without Jihad.”

Part three in the Saffron Terror video series begins with a man tied to a tree, forced by a group of men to recite Jai Sri Ram.44 The video concludes with audio from Maulana Asim Umar Hafizullah, the Emir of AQIS, stating:

Upon the basis strength, can tawheed followers be turned into Hindus? Through the state’s devious behavior, can the slaves of Mohammed (PBUH) be turned away from Islam? Have Hindus not read about the history of Makkah? Even the idol worshippers of Makkah would treat those who adhered to Islam like this. They used to make them lie down [sic] put rocks on their chests. Through that the fat of the body used to melt away. But this is how Mohammed (PBUH) grew to love Islam.

The final video of the series is also its longest, clocking in at nearly seven minutes.45 Unlike previous ones, the video does not dramatize instances of Muslims being assaulted. Instead, it highlights what some Hindutva-aligned politicians and other figures have said about Muslims and Islam. These include threats to eliminate Islam, calls for Muslims to leave India, and promises to restrict religious freedom for the community.

Unsurprisingly, the major incidents of Hindutva violence against Muslims, such as Gujarat or Bombay, are frequently referenced. An al-Qaeda aligned Telegram channel, @LetAmeenSpeak, spread around this message on several different occasions:

February 28, 2002 in Gujarat;

Kauser Bano (May Allah have mercy on her), was nine months pregnant that day. Hindutva fascists approached her.

Her belly was torn open and her foetus wrenched out, held aloft on the tip of a sword, then dashed to the ground and flung into a fire.

This is just one incident among many. These enemies of Islam had another intention than just to wipe Islam from the area. They came to snatch the honour by raping Muslim girls in the most indecent manner.

The riots in India doesn't stop here. When the government is ruled by the same group who carried out the above mentioned horrific massacres, there needs no further explanation how much blood will be spilling in the coming days.

There is only two choices for Muslims of India to regain the honour and dignity; Shariah or Shahadah (martyrdom)!

Various Telegram channels amplified the Saffron Terror narrative with references to other incidents of anti-Muslim violence in India. An account associated with AQIS-aligned AGH, @BattleHind1, posted a reference to the 2002 Gujarat pogroms:

Muslims were slaughtered by Brahmin-dominated Hindu Extremist groups in Gujarat in 2002.

CM of Gujarat was Modi who became Prime Minister of India Now. Without any doubt he was behind the massacre.

English Video showing ground reports from Muslims who witnessed this atrocities.

Muslims living under Modi should remember this and try to start working for the freedom from Brahmin State.

Various references to the destruction of Babri Masjid appear frequently in the propaganda. As the pro-AQIS account @LetAmeenSpeak posted,

Dec 6, 1992 - The Day Babri was Martyred! India has witnessed the most heinous crime on 6 December 1992 when a frenzied mob of hindu extremists pushed the historic Babri Masjid built by Mughal empire into the pages of history.

They stormed the Masjid in Ayodhya and demolished it with no resistance from police and para-military forces. Babri Masjid demolition also resulted in bloody riots in several major cities of the country surpassing all previous limits in brutality, killing and raping.

By any account, Babri Masjid's demolition and subsequent riots remain a shame for modern secular India.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s demise,46 AGH released a 10-minute video centered around the destruction of the mosque.47 Narrated by Mohammad Taufeeq, alias Sultan Zabul Al Hindi,48 the video connects the Babri Masjid event and its after-effects to the current attacks on Indian Muslims, as well as the assault on Lal Masjid by Pakistan in 2007.

Beginning with a narration of the Ghazwa-e-Hind hadith,49 Al Hindi assures his listeners that the Mujahideen have not ignored the oppression of Indian Muslims. Referring to Prime Minister Modi as India’s “Nimrod” (i.e, the tyrant who challenged God), he claims that:

This Hindu deceiver will keep on changing his colours until his mission isn’t complete and his mission is the murder of India’s Muslim, be it a kid or an elder, whether it is a man or woman. Be it our parent or our brother. This enemy’s enmity is with our existence. His enmity is with our faith. His enmity is with our faith. His enmity is with our kalmia. And his enmity is with aur nimaaz.

The Babri Masjid was not simply the destruction of one building, but rather the destruction of a symbol that has stood in place ever since Islam dominated the subcontinent. That Babri Masjid which was a symbol of our faith. It was a witness of a time when there was Islam’s domination. This enemy’s sights are not only on Babri Masjid, but on every Masjid in every bylane. This (referring to Modi) enemy’s sights are on every believers’ belief and it has prepared for its mission entirely.

To fight Prime Minister Modi and the Hindutva movement, it is necessary for Muslims to take the path of jihad. This requires more than simply protecting the lives of India’s Muslims, but also guarding their honor and beliefs….

Jihad isn’t only defending our lives, but the safeguarding of our honour and safeguarding of our beliefs. If we don’t start making preparations quickly, then you better believe that this enemy will not stop. Our enemy wants that in every Muslim household there should be a Akhlaq, a Junaid, and Pehlu Khan [the names of Muslim individuals who were lynched by Hindu mobs]. Hence, it is necessary that we as one should become a wall and bring together our strength. Our belief and our honour only lie in Jihad. Life is only in Jihad.

Al Hindi argues that Modi and his allies wish to bring about Ram Rajya, or the Kingdom of the Lord Ram, and that such Hindu majoritarianism would be disastrous for India’s Muslims.50 The only solution to this is “the promulgation of Sharia for which God has given the order for Jihad.”

Blog posts in Malayalam (a Dravidian language spoken in the state of Kerala) by ISIS supporters also highlight the “crimes” of Hindutva forces against Indian Muslims stating, “The Sangh Parivar doesn’t want any reason to kill people, they just need a Muslim name.”51 Later in the same post, the author says,

Aren’t Modi Ministers challenging everyday that India would be made a Hindu Rashtra? They know you are helpless. They are spitting on the face of believers. Waves of Islamophobia. Their enemy is your tauhid….We see daily reports on how a people who worship only Allah and want to live according to his laws are being tortured because of their faith. Realise that it’s our responsibility to do jihad against the kafirs who destroyed hundreds of Allaha’s [sic] homes, including Babri Masjid, and raped Muslim sisters and did Holi-dance on the graves of our brothers and sisters in Bombay, Gujarat and several other towns and villages.

The necessity for India’s Muslims to make hijrah (migrate) to the Islamic State and to “choose Islam” over all its purported enemies is made clear in a message distributed across an ISIS Telegram channel, @theanfal1:

India Muslims need to either make hijrah (perhaps to Kashmir) or start jihad including lone wolves. Don't they see how many members of RSS are there in different branches who learn war tactics and fighting skills? They are preparing for war against Muslims. They have 100s of 1000s members. Even their women and children are learning to fight. Have they not heard their leaders spit venom against Muslims? They even call for raping dead bodies of Muslim women.

The theme of Muslim oppression by the Hindutva organizations make clear that, in Islamists’ eyes, jihad is more than a religious obligation. It is a sacred necessity to protect the lives and honor of the Muslim community.

Indian Democracy

The ISIS and al-Qaeda discussions on Indian democracy reflect earlier debates among Indian Islamists. As explained by anthropologist Irfan Ahmad of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, the rise of Hindu nationalism and its capture of state institutions in the late 1990s and early 2000s caused anxiety among India’s Muslims, including Islamist organizations.52 The Jamaat Islami reacted to Hindutva’s rise by putting its support behind the secular principles of the constitution, which aims to protect all religions. Meanwhile, other groups, like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), reacted to Hindutva’s rise by radicalizing.

In many ways, the Salafi-Jihadist debate about Indian democracy has similar contours to the one within the Jammat Islami of the early 2000s. But today’s debate differs in two ways. First, for Salafi-Jihadists, there is no room for accepting the Indian constitution or its liberal and secular principles. Second, Salafi-Jihadists assert that the rise to power of Hindutva is the natural outcome of an inherently oppressive democratic system. Zawahiri stated the following during the creation of AQIS:

As for our brothers and our people in Kashmir, Gujarat, Assam, and Ahmadabad who are living under the dark shade of Hindu occupation, I would like to say that perhaps the crimes that you have witnessed, and that are still taking place before your eyes, expose the extent of deception and falsity of the nationalist democratic way, which calls for your participation, side by side with the Hindus, in a national democratic system that brings together Hindus and Muslims. Perhaps you would have realised by now that this system brings Muslims and Hindus together, only to present the Muslims as an easy prey to the Hindus.

A message from @BattleHind1 from AGH conveyed a similar sentiment. Condemning the Indian Muslims who celebrated the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, the group pointed out the hypocrisy of India’s “independence,” as extremist Hindus in Kashmir and elsewhere continue to oppress the community. Expanding on that, the message goes on to say,

To the Muslims in India! How long are you going to sleep and dream about the peace and harmony by which Hindus are trying to enslave your mind? How long are you going to obey the so called holy book “The Constitution of India” which contradicts the Holy Quran of Allah (swt)? Why do you want to be the slave of this constitution, while Allah has ordered us to reject these man-made laws?

The deepest analysis of the relationship between Indian Muslims and the state comes from a Malayalam pro-ISIS social media post.53 In their words, India is part of the Dar ul-Harb, so jihad by India’s Muslims is an obligation. According to this ISIS supporter, there are two things that would allow a Muslim to prevent a jihad: the peace pact between Indian Muslims and others, and completion of hujjat (proof).

One argument for a peace pact could be that India’s Constitution serves as such a pact, if Indian Muslims are willing to accept a peace pact with India’s non-Muslim communities. However, the ISIS commentator views the Indian constitution as an invalid peace pact. First, the constitution requires recognizing India’s sovereignty in return for protection and safety. This would mean that Muslims are breaking tawhid and accepting another’s rule instead of Allah’s rule, and thus it would compromise their faith.

The second objection is straightforward: the promises of India’s liberal constitution are not kept. “Indian Muslims are facing discrimination and injustice across the country. In other words, even if Indian Muslims have made maximum compromises on the deen, they still haven’t got the safety and peace which the constitution promises.”54

Referring to the Hindutva forces as fascists, the objections continue: “Even after 70 years of getting independence, Indian Muslims have not got equal justice, equal opportunity or protection from the fascists. This is Allah’s punishment for leaving his deen.”55

Opinions about whether India’s Muslims actually have a peace pact with non-Muslim communities is decidedly more mixed. The Malayali ISIS supporters acknowledge that a significant portion of the non-Muslim communities want to live in peace, so this should be seen as an informal peace treaty and these people should not be harmed or hurt.56 However, there are two segments of Indian society with which an informal peace treaty is simply not possible: the Sangh Parivar and the Jabras (a reference to Malayali atheists active in social media debates). As the ISIS supporter wrote, “Sangh fascists do not want peace with Muslims. They are in the forefront of annihilating Muslims. So jihad against them is compulsory for Muslims. All Sanghi members theoretically accept and support that Muslims should be eliminated. Therefore, Muslims should wage jihad against the Sanghi.”57

As all of these statements affirm, Salafi-Jihadists perceive democracy as a tool for the oppression of Muslims in India and beyond. Furthermore, democracy also compromises Islamic belief in God’s laws, and meanwhile the promises of Indian democracy have failed. This democratic oppression, they argue, will only increase with Hindu Nationalists in power.

Conclusion

ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent have maintained similar narratives on Hindu Nationalism. Their propaganda highlights the violence and discrimination faced by some of India’s Muslims, while Indian democracy is blamed for causing this oppression. Salafi-Jihadism’s overall goal in India is to shatter the “grayzone,” to destroy religious co-existence, and to incite an Islamist insurrection against Indian democracy.

However, despite increasing communal tensions, relatively few Indian Muslims have so far joined either group. Likewise, Hindus who support the Modi government do not necessarily support the goals of extremist elements in the Hindutva movement.58 Indeed, some Indian Muslim commentators have even taken the challenges posed by the social and political ascendancy of the Hindutva movement as a call to improve their own material and societal conditions.59 Moreover, despite the real threats posed by Salafi-Jihadism, Indian institutions and civil society have shown great resilience.

After the BJP’s sweeping victory in the 2019 elections, Prime Minister Modi stated the core task for the government ahead must be to establish trust with all Indians, regardless of their faith. The Hindutva movement today comprises a wide spectrum—from those who support democratic co-existence and pluralism rooted in Hindu principles, to others who are seeking to advance majoritarian and jingoistic politics, or far more extreme and violent agendas. But while the now more powerful than ever Hindu nationalist movement grapples with all this, communal tensions in India will continue to be exploited by Salafi-Jihadist groups. As ISIS and AQIS strive to eliminate the grayzone and incite greater conflict, a wise response from Indian statesmen and India’s citizens will be essential to defend democratic co-existence and secure the nation.

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