The Bhopal-Ujjain train incident and the events that followed warrant attention on two counts. First, they speak about the nature and dimension of the IS threat. Second, India must move resolutely to neutralise the threat
The explosion in the Bhopal-Ujjain train, which injured 10 persons, on March 7, and the events following in its wake, merit attention. Carried out by a group of young men owing allegiance to the Islamic State’s (IS) Khorasan module, the incident warrants reflection on two aspects. The first is what the incident indicates about the nature and dimension of the threat India faces from this Islamist terrorist outfit. The second is the devising of a strategy to neutralise it.
The IS has been targeting India for some time. On May 19, 2016, it had launched a video campaign in which half-a-dozen or so Muslim youths from India, purportedly fighting for the organisation in Syria, threatened to launch a jihad against this country. Earlier, in an interview with the group’s online magazine Dabiq in April, 2016, Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al-Hanif, “Amir of Khilafah in Bengal (read Bangladesh)”, had said that once the outfit had managed to build bases in Bangladesh, it would conduct raids on the eastern and western parts of India. Shaykh who, according to Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion sources, died after jumping off a five-story building in Ashulia, in Dhaka’s suburbs on October 8, 2016, had also said during the interview that Wilayat Khurasan being to India’s west, and Bangladesh to the east, a strong jihad base in Bangladesh would enable the IS to simultaneously launch guerrilla attacks in India from both directions. This, with the help of local Mujahideen, would create fear and chaos in the country.
The importance of Shyakh Abu Ibrahim’s statement becomes clear on recalling that Saifullah, the terrorist killed on March 8, after a prolonged confrontation with the police in Thakurganj, a suburb of Lucknow, belonged to the IS Khorasan module. Reinforced by jihadists from Pakistan and other areas and an active social media presence, the Khorasan module, an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spawn based near the Afghan-Pakistan border, has become an umbrella organisation of Islamist terrorist groups spreading out to new areas and conducting terrorist strikes.
In the video released on May 19, 2016, the IS showed Indians fighting for the organisation. One of the fighters mocks at Indian Muslims living in harmony with Hindus and asks them to travel to IS-held areas where they can “get to have hatred for the kuffar” and “perform jihad,” Another fighter says: “We will come back, with the sword, to free you, to avenge Babri mosque, Gujarat, Kashmir.”
All this and reports of groups of young Muslims slipping out of India to join the IS, and some of them getting killed, give a clear idea of the potentially serious terrorist threat from the IS emerging in India, so does the fact that the police found eight pistols, 650 rounds of ammunition; 50 rounds that had been fired, explosive materials, bomb-making instruments, pellets, timers, wires, 45 gms of gold, foreign currency, passports and SIM cards in the house were Saifullah was killed.
This takes us back to the question: How can one neutralise the IS? The first thing to do is to defenestrate the belief, articulated by some in authority, that the IS does not pose a serious threat to India. It does, notwithstanding the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in India abhor terrorism and are loyal citizens of the country — an aspect poignantly illustrated by Saifullah’s father Sartaj Ahmad’s refusal to take his son’s body and statement,
“A traitor cannot be related to me, let alone be my son.” He doubtless later demanded a judicial inquiry into the encounter leading to his son’s death, saying that his first pronouncement was a response to media reports and information provided by Uttar Pradesh police’s anti-terrorism squad, but he wanted to know exactly what had happened. He said that he had from the beginning wanted a judicial inquiry but the media did not report it.
A son’s death is a terrible thing, particularly under the circumstances in which Saifullah died. One can hardly blame Sartaj Ahmad for demanding a judicial inquiry if, on reflection, he had thought that media reports and the police version may have been wrong and a judicial inquiry alone could establish the truth. Significantly, even while demanding a judicial inquiry he did not claim that his son had been framed and murdered.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in India have no time for terrorism, however, does not rule out terror attacks by isolated groups. Even 20 terrorists working together can set off a number of explosions leading to large-scale loss of lives and damage to property. Nor, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, is the physical presence of an organisation necessary for terror strikes to be made in its name. A trend toward self-radicalisation and the emergence of groups comprising self-radicalised leaders and followers, has been increasingly in evidence in this age of the Internet and propaganda through websites and messages containing detailed instructions on how to stage terror strikes and make various kinds of explosive devices. Significantly, some reports suggest that the explosive device set off in the Bhopal-Ujjain train was manufactured according to instructions downloaded from the web.
Equally significantly, as pointed out by Daljit Chaudhary, Uttar Pradesh’s Additional Director-General of Police, Law and Order, Saifullah might have been self-radicalised. Chaudhary had further told the media that though the police found plenty of IS literature in Urdu and English in the house in which Saifullah died and lived for two-and-a-half months or so prior to that, “We have no here was no evidence yet of any IS link.”
Clearly, a large part of the effort to neutralise the IS’s presence in India must involve devising ways to counter self-radicalisation. It has also to address the phenomenon of educated Muslim youth, some with jobs and professional qualifications and coming from middle class families, constituting a significant proportion of those becoming affiliated to organisations like the Indian Mujahideen and IS Khorasan module. This, of course, is hardly surprising. It is this category that has historically been at the van of revolutionary or violent, militant mass movements. As Vladimir Lenin said in his book, What Is to Be Done?, the working class by itself could only develop trade union consciousness. Revolutionary consciousness had to be brought to it by “revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.” The proposition has a universal applicability because members of the intelligentsia have the education to place a given situation in its historical context, enunciate, articulate and propagate ideologies and/or theologies, and the ability to mobilise people and the management capability to run organisation.
To prevent educated young Muslims from joining terror outfits, there must emerge a political and religious counter-narrative to reductionist, regressive and intolerant militant Islam. It must focus on the libertarian aspects of the faith and on its harmonious practice in modern democratic societies celebrating human freedom. This will not be easy. But without it, fundamentalist Islamist terror, even if militarily defeated, will retain an appeal with a potential to attract followers.