On 17 July, as Friday prayers ended on the cusp of Eid, Nowhatta, a town near Srinagar in J&K, witnessed a dramatic shift in temperament. As a separatist protest broke out, Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba flags were raised. Islamic State flags, representing perhaps the most sinister movement in operation today, were also seen. Slogans in solidarity with Palestine were directed at the Indian state in demonstrations which quickly devolved into violence. After making arrests, the police dismissed the display of terrorist symbols as the attention-seeking methods of "13-14-year-old boys". Yet, similar protests, IS flags included, were observed in J&K on 12 June, 26 June, 18 July, 21 August, 11 September and 2 October .
Clearly, these are not isolated incidents. In addition, it is a grave mistake to trivialise these protests as the shenanigans of teens - young men and women are, in fact, most prone to radicalisation. The fact that early teens are identifying with the IS should raise alarm, not indifference, since it tests the government's theory that Indian Muslims are and will remain largely immune to violent fundamentalism. This is not to say that the theory has no merit: it does, and it is crucial that it sustains itself. The reasons behind the perceived moderate leanings of Muslims in India, in contrast to the rampant indoctrination plaguing so many countries, need to be located too.
"There are Muslims in India with much in common with Hindus of their own region, and little similarity with Muslims elsewhere in the country."
Secular, Hindu-majority India has a mammoth Muslim population of 172 million or so, spread all over the country's geography. Historically, politically and culturally, the Muslim identity dictates a significant part of the national fabric. Deep roots and sheer numbers within a religiously diverse space make the potential radicalisation of the Indian strain of Islam a uniquely troubling, if minute, possibility. From the easy availability of IS's high-definition torture videos that double up as recruitment tools to last year's unveiling of Al-Qaeda's Subcontinental wing or Wahhabi, to Saudi-funded mosques and madrassas, the efforts to radicalise are on. Their success in India remains to be seen.
Why efforts at radicalisation rarely work in India
There is a tendency in those who seek to mix Islam and violence to appeal to Muslims as a wholly homogenous grouping -- this is evident in everything from a loaded communal comment on YouTube to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri calling for jihad. They attempt to fuel sentiments or trigger a violent response through a narrative which retains only religious identity, thereby rendering region, ethnicity, cultural difference, language and the like secondary to their envisioned agenda for all Muslims.
This is where an impasse is reached with regard to India. Religious identity is not easily divorced from regional or national ones, due to a wide cultural overlap. There are Muslims in India with much in common with Hindus of their own region, and little similarity with Muslims elsewhere in the country. It is unimaginable to band together Muslims from the Northeast, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Delhi or Kerala within a single "religious" purpose.
Pralay Kanungo, in his essay in Muslims in Indian Cities (p240-41), writes:
"...Hindu-Muslim socio-cultural integration endured beyond Muslim rule. The two communities continued to actively participate in each other's religious festivals. Cuttack, which celebrates Dussehra with great gaiety, has puja committees in each sahi/mohalla. Muslims are not only the members of these committees, some of them are also active office-bearers... Similarly, Hindus also take part in Eid celebrations and Muharram processions... As Hindus have deep faith in the Sufi and Pir tradition, they flock to many Muslim shrines in the city such as the Qadam-i-Rasul... Some Muslims even believe in Hindu astrology and make horoscopes for the newborn child..."
Sufism deviated sharply from more orthodox Arab forms of Islam and enabled a kind of humanist, trans-religious philosophy. In India, Sufi saints often preached in local dialects. And Sufi silsilas had a major role in the spread of Islam in South Asia. The Sufi movement speaks of India's historical ability to assimilate different cultures and give rise to new, syncretic socio-cultural entities.
This syncretism, experienced across India in various regions' own local variations, can provide immunity from tried-and-tested models of fundamentalist indoctrination in the name of Islam which met with success in say Syria or Iraq (countries with, unlike India, a regular and brutal sectarianism within Islam -- escalating Shia-Sunni clashes and terrorist attacks). Radical Islam, like any other form of communal brainwashing, is narrow and one-dimensional. India's composite heritage poses a problem for it as far as any large-scale mobilisation of Muslims is concerned.
"When quality education, upward social mobility, equal economic and political opportunities are missing, impressionable youth with a sense of being denied can turn to radical elements..."
Policy may achieve what fanatics couldn't
The trail towards indoctrination is more often than not driven by financial strife or lack of mainstream opportunities that feed idle attendance to propaganda. When quality education, upward social mobility, equal economic and political opportunities are missing, impressionable youth with a sense of being denied can turn to radical elements, which too gain fodder for their divisive activities. These elements, some well-funded, systematically feed on the marginalised speak in that stream of broad aphorisms which has come to define extremist propaganda.
In its 2006 report, the Sachar Committee drew attention to the fact that a large number of Muslims are self-employed, owing to the trouble they encounter in finding jobs in both the public and private sector. It said the representation of Muslims in government-related employment was staggeringly low. The committee found that areas with low Muslim concentrations had better roads, houses, drainage and the like. Conversely, it said that a disturbing number of villages with high Muslim population did not have educational institutions and medical facilities. The committee recommended, among other things, a procedure to increase minority participation in public institutions and affirmative action. Eight years later, the Amitabh Kundu Committee Report echoed the woeful socio-economic condition of Indian Muslims and termed official actions based on Sachar recommendations as inadequate.
An uneasy climate
The country's Muslim clergy, through a widely endorsed edict, has distanced itself from jihadi ideology. In rejecting bloodshed as a means, Indian Muslims legitimise their largely "moderate" disposition. However, even though India may be uniquely placed to dilute Islamic terrorism, there exist circumstances within the nation that could help foster it.
Economically, socially and politically, Muslims do face discrimination at both an informal and systematic level. With the NDA government at the Centre, the country's Right Wing entities are much more confident in their agenda. The UP Shiv Sena offered Rs 2 lakh to each Hindu family which has five or more children to counter the "rising percentage of Muslims". The RSS and VHP, with their "ghar wapsi" programme, have openly stoked communal tensions, as have several BJP leaders with their incendiary statements (see here, here and here, for example). With the continual raising of the issue of cow slaughter and resulting bans, beef has become a communal buzzword. The anti-beef frenzy has also proven itself to be deadly, as seen in the sickening case of Mohammad Akhlaq in UP.
" India has the opportunity to consolidate an image of Islam that could be viewed in juxtaposition to Saudi Arabia."
The aforementioned factors contribute to what Vice-President Hamid Ansari recently called Indian Muslims' "culturally defensive posture". They add to the kind of rhetoric often used to indoctrinate young people into a violent, "wronged" reading of Islam. In this light, what must be avoided at all costs is a collective disillusionment of a 172 million-strong entity.
The Sachar report needs to be revisited; Muslims need to join the narrative of India's upward economic trajectory. The promotion of an inclusive, heterogeneous national identity, which does not see religion as a territorial or divisive claim, is required. It should be a government initiative backed by policy. Such an initiative may work well as an anti-communal tool if it is advertised and funded with the same zeal as was, for example, International Yoga Day or Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. A sustained broadcast.
Islamic extremism cannot be viewed with complacence. India has the opportunity to consolidate an image of Islam that could be viewed in juxtaposition to Saudi Arabia. It can define itself as a secular state, with huge minority populations, which endorses religious harmony through social initiatives and equal opportunity. For this, swift steps are needed along with a revised interpretation of nationalism. The power to govern cannot be hijacked by vested communal agendas, because future versions of Nowhatta's IS flag-waving 13-year-olds are a much more unsettling prospect than any street named after a Muslim ruler from a bygone era.