Terror links

Terror links

 

PRAVEEN SWAMI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“MOHAMMAD is our commander; the Quran our constitution; and martyrdom our one desire,” ran the principal slogan of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

Although it was proscribed in 2001, the organisation remains the largest platform for radical Islamists in India. The serial bombings in Lucknow, Faizabad and Varanasi on November 23, the evidence so far available suggests, were organised by networks raised from SIMI’s ranks. So, too, were at least half a dozen recent attacks in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Despite SIMI’s emergence as the principal platform for Islamist violence in India, neither the history nor the objective of its worship of the bomb and the assault rifle is well understood.

As is the case with many other South Asian Islamist movements, SIMI’s genesis lies in the Jamaat-e-Islami. Established in 1941 by the influential Islamist ideologue Syed Abu Ala Maududi, the Jamaat-e-Islami went on to emerge as a major political party in Pakistan, fighting for the creation of a Sharia-governed state.

In India, however, the Jamaat gradually transformed itself into a cultural organisation committed to propagating neoconservative Islam among Muslims. It set up networks of schools and study circles devoted to combating the growing post-Independence influence of communism and socialism. In 1956, it set up its student wing, the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), with its headquarters in Aligarh. But as Muslims in north India were battered by communal violence the Jamaat slowly began to abandon Maududi’s dogmatic hostility to secularism. Its leaders began arguing that the secular state needed to be defended, since the sole alternative was a Hindu-communalist order.

In April 1977 SIMI was formed in an effort to revitalise the SIO – a response from the hardliners to the reformism of the Jamaat mainstream. Building on the SIO’s networks in Uttar Pradesh, SIMI reached out to Jamaat-linked Muslim students’ groups in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Kerala.

Several other small Islamist organisations emerged at around the same time, notably the Darsgah-o Jihad e-Shahadat in Andhra Pradesh, but none of them ever wielded the kind of influence that SIMI eventually did.

From the outset, SIMI made clear its belief that the practice of Islam was essentially a political project. In the long term, it sought to re-establish the caliphate, without which, it felt, the practice of Islam remained incomplete. Muslims who were comfortable living in secular societies, its pamphlets warned, were headed for hell.

Winds from the west gave this ideology an increasingly hard edge. Its leadership was soon drawn to the Islamist regime of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan. SIMI threw its weight behind the United States-backed mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union and the socialist regime in Afghanistan, and the forces of Sunni reaction in West Asia. “SIMI’s rhetoric,” the scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, “grew combative and vitriolic, insisting that Islam alone was the solution to the problems of not just the Muslims of India, but of all Indians and, indeed, of the whole world.”

Alarmed at this course of action, elements of the Jamaat leadership sought to distance themselves from SIMI. Others in the Jamaat, incensed at what they saw as the organisation’s betrayal of Maududi’s authentic Islamism, resisted the moderates. In 1982, a compromise was reached: the Jamaat formally distanced itself from SIMI and revived the SIO, but in practice both organisations retained a cordial relationship.

Part of the reason for SIMI’s spectacular growth after 1982 lay in the support it gained from Islamists in West Asia, notably the Kuwait-based World Association of Muslim Youth and the Saudi Arabia-funded International Islamic Federation of Student Organisations (IIFSO). Generous funding from West Asia helped it establish a welter of magazines – Islamic Movement in Urdu, Hindi and English, Iqra in Gujarati, Rupantar in Bengali, Seidi Malar in Tamil and Vivekam in Malayalam – that propagated the idea of an Islamic revolution.

SIMI also set up the Tehreek Tulba e-Arabiya, a special wing to build networks among madrasa students, and the Shaheen Force, which targeted children between seven and 11 years of age.

Much of SIMI’s time was spent in persuading its recruits that Islam alone offered solutions to the challenges of modern life. In 1982, for example, it organised an anti-immorality week, when supposedly obscene literature was burned. A year later, SIMI held an anti-capitalism week in Kerala in an effort to compete with the organised Left in the State, but held out Islam, rather than socialism, as the solution. It also worked extensively with victims of communal violence and provided educational services for poor Muslims in many riot-hit cities.

SIMI’s emphasis on rigorous religious observance appealed to many lower-middle-class Muslims. Like their Hindu counterparts, young Muslims living in decaying inner-city neighbourhoods or slums had been hit hard by alcoholism, drugs and crime. To parents, their wards’ new-found interest in religion appeared to hold out hope. SIMI was, in many neighbourhoods, welcomed as a saviour – much as the Hizb ut-Tehrir was among the Pakistani and Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Mafia connection

 

Interestingly, many mafia-linked young men joined SIMI, providing the organisation with a resource base that was to serve it well in decades to come. Mafia groups, in turn, often threw their weight behind SIMI, seeking to represent themselves as defenders of a vulnerable community – not criminals.

SIMI’s polemic had a special appeal to lower-middle-class and middle-class urban men who felt cheated of their share of the growing economic opportunities opening up in India. Hit by communal bias and educational backwardness, this class of disenfranchised youth were drawn to SIMI’s attacks on Hindu polytheism and Western decadence.

The organisation’s claims that there could be justice for Muslims only in a Sharia-based order resonated with communities battered by decades of communal violence, often backed by the Indian state. As Yoginder Sikand noted perceptively, the organisation provided “its supporters a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives”. By 2001, SIMI had over 400 Ansar, or full-time workers, and 20,000 Ikhwan, or volunteers. It was not until 1991, though, that SIMI began its turn towards terror. Soon after the tragic events of December 6, 1992, and the pogroms which followed it, SIMI president Shahid Badr Falahi demanded that “Muslims organise themselves and stand up to defend the community”. Another SIMI leader, Abdul Aziz Salafi, demanded action to show that Muslims “would now refuse to sit low”.

Turn to terror

 

What that meant in practice was self-evident to some SIMI members. On the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, SIMI-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives Jalees Ansari, Mohammad Azam Ghauri, Abdul Karim “Tunda” and Mohammad Tufail Husaini – the last now wanted for his possible role in the November 23 serial bombings in Uttar Pradesh – carried out a series of reprisal terror strikes across India. Their organisation, the Mujahideen Islam e-Hind, is thought to have been a precursor to the Indian Mujahideen, which claimed responsibility for the serial bombings in Uttar Pradesh.

Growing numbers of SIMI members followed in their footsteps, making their way to Lashkar, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI) training camps, but SIMI leaders continued to insist that their organisation itself had nothing to do with terrorism.

SIMI’s polemic, however, became increasingly bitter. In a 1996 statement, it declared that since democracy and secularism had failed to protect Muslims, the sole option was to struggle for the caliphate. Soon after, it put up posters calling on Muslims to follow the path of the 11th century conqueror Mahmood Ghaznavi, and appealed to Allah to send down a latter-day avatar to avenge the destruction of mosques in India.

By the time of SIMI’s 1999 Aurangabad convention, the ground-level manifestations of this ugly polemic were only too evident. Many of the speeches delivered by delegates were frankly inflammatory. “Islam is our nation, not India,” thundered Mohammad Amir Shakeel Ahmad, one of over a dozen SIMI-linked Lashkar operatives arrested in 2005 for smuggling in military-grade explosives and assault rifles for a planned series of attacks in Gujarat. Among those listening to the speech was 1993 bomber Azam Ghauri who, by the accounts of some of those present, was offered the leadership of SIMI.

When 25,000 SIMI delegates met in Mumbai in 2001, at what was to be its last public convention, the organisation for the first time called on its supporters to turn to jihad. Soon after the convention, Al Qaeda carried out its bombings of New York and Washington, D.C. SIMI activists organised demonstrations in support of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, hailing him as a “true mujahid”, and celebrating the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

It was clear by now that this was no idle polemic. Just eight months earlier, eight SIMI workers had been arrested for attempting to bomb the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur.

Investigators discovered that they had trained with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen in Pakistan. Soon after, evidence surfaced on SIMI cadres’ links with Uighur secessionists in China and Islamists in Bangladesh.

Writing in 2001, in an article published just after the convention, the commentator Javed Anand recalled seeing stickers pasted “in large numbers in Muslim shops and homes, [with] a thick red ‘No’ splashed across the words democracy, nationalism, polytheism. ‘Only Allah!’ exclaims SIMI’s punch-line.”

By the time SIMI was proscribed, its intent had become clear even to the most obtuse; the slogans were being drawn in blood, with Kalashnikovs and RDX.

Proscription, though, has done little to disrupt SIMI’s networks. Several key leaders succeeded in escaping ill-planned police sweeps against the organisation and continued to work out of camps in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Some States flatly refused to cooperate with police action against SIMI, pointing to the Union government’s failure to act against Hindu fundamentalist groups, such as the Bajrang Dal, involved in violence.

As early as 2002, SIMI operatives Sayeed Shah Raza and Amil Pervez were arrested in Kolkata with large supplies of explosives. In 2003, Intelligence Online reported that as many as 350 Indians working in West Asia had been recruited by SIMI sympathisers to fight the United States. SIMI’s name again featured in investigations of the 2006 serial bombings in Mumbai, when key suspects, notably Rahil Ahmad Sheikh, were found to have had links with the organisation. In Uttar Pradesh, too, SIMI linkages were thrown up during the investigations into the 2005 serial bombings – just as they have been thrown up in the course of the recent attacks.

For Indian secularists, the real significance of the rise of political Islam – and the need to combat it – has long been evident. A decade ago, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat had noted that Hindu communalism had strengthened because of “the willingness of the secular bourgeois parties to appease minority communalism”. “The Shah Bano case and [Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi’s unscrupulous compromise,” he observed, “was a boon for the Hindu communalists.”

Fundamentalisms, as Karat’s observations suggest, feed on each other – the rise of one inexorably fuelling the other. For the most part, Indian public discourse casts Muslims as either victims or villains, glossing over the intense ideological contestation within the faith and failing to intervene in it. However, the struggle to defend secularism makes resistance to all forms of religion-based chauvinism imperative.

Fighting SIMI, then, will take more than arrest warrants and intelligence work: a coherent strategy to clean up the toxic political landscape from which it arose is desperately needed. •

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