Real Challenge is defeating Mawdudi’s ideas, not policing
Sadiq Sheikh’s testimony on 7/11 necessitates a reconsideration of the Indian Mujahideen phenomenon.
Days after the July 11, 2006 bombing of Mumbai’s suburban train system, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went on national television to assert that he was “certain that the terrorist modules responsible for the blasts are instigated from across the border.”
Last week, television audiences got to see a different account of events. In a videotaped police interrogation that was leaked to the media, Mumbai resident Mohammad Sadiq Israr Ahmad Sheikh confessed that he and four other men carried out the bombings on behalf of an organisation that has since become well known: the Indian Mujahideen.
Back in November 2006, a 10,667-page charge sheet filed by Maharashtra prosecutors alleged that seven Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives, each paired with an Indian partner, had planted the bombs. Sheikh’s testimony raises the possibility that the unidentified Pakistani perpetrators were in fact five Indians — and, more disturbing, that the Indians now being tried for planting the bombs may have had a peripheral role in the attacks or none at all.
None of the doubts raised by Sheikh’s testimony is new. Back in October 2006, Frontline recorded that “although both the Government of India and the Mumbai Police appear convinced that an unassailable case has been built up, serious questions remain on both the integrity and content of the evidence.” Critics noted that much of the evidence was derived through narco-analysis, a discredited interrogation technique involving the use of barbiturates like sodium pentothal. In their hurry to close the case, some argued, the Maharashtra police investigators had cast peripheral conspirators as actual perpetrators.
Now the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad has set about re-examining the evidence in an effort to settle the debate. Either way, the investigators are likely to find that the Prime Minister’s assertion was not wholly off the mark. The police in the several States who investigated IM bombings have alleged that Sheikh as well as other key commanders of the outfit acquired their skills at Lashkar camps in Pakistan.
But Sheikh’s testimony necessitates a critical reconsideration of the rise of the IM. Can Indian jihadists simply be cast, as the Prime Minister appeared to do in 2006, as unthinking agents of Pakistan-based terror groups? Or, must the IM be seen as a response to the scorching communal crisis that has shaped our lives?
Minutes before the bombs went off in three trial court complexes in Uttar Pradesh on November 23, 2007, the IM issued the first of a series of manifestos explaining its actions. It pointed to “the pathetic conditions of Muslims in India, [which are such] that idol worshippers can kill our brothers, sisters and outrage the dignity of our sisters at any time and place.” It discussed the Babri Masjid demolition and the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, noting that the Indian state had done little to punish the perpetrators of violence against Muslims.
But the manifesto went on to make a far broader point, characterising the IM’s bombing campaign — surprisingly — as “a war for civilisation.” Its authors said the organisation wanted to “empower society from injustice, corruption, etc., which is prevailing in society nowadays. Only Islam has the power to establish a civilised society and this could be only possible in Islamic rule, which could be achieved by only one path, Jihad-Fee-Sabilillah.”
From where did the IM get these ideas? For an answer, one must turn to its roots in the Jamaat-e-Islami — the organisation which gave birth to the Students Islamic Movement of India, from which the IM in turn drew much of its cadre.
Jihad Fee-Sabilillah — Jihad in Islam — was the title of a 1939 essay by Maulana Abul Ala Mawdudi. Sheikh most likely chanced upon the text at a Hyderabad seminary named after Mawdudi, the Jamiat-ul-Sheikh Mawdudi. It was there, investigators allege, that Sheikh was recruited to the jihadist movement by Mujahid Salim — the son of the controversial cleric, Maulana Abdul Aleem Islahi.
Mawdudi argued that the pursuit of political power — rather than what he called “a hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals” — was integral to the practice of the religion. “Islam,” he insisted “is a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals.” It was therefore imperative for Muslims to “seize the authority of state, for an evil system takes root and flourishes under the patronage of an evil government and a pious cultural order can never be established until the authority of government is wrested from the wicked.” Indeed, Mawdudi insisted that the word ‘Muslims’ referred not to a religious community but to a politically-bound “international revolutionary party.”
“The party of the Muslims,” Mawdudi concluded, “will inevitably extend the invitation to citizens of other countries to embrace the faith which holds out the promise of true salvation and genuine welfare. At the same time, if the Muslim Party commands enough resources, it will eliminate un-lslamic governments and establish the power of Islamic government in their place.”
As scholar Seyyed Vali Raza Nasr has observed, Mawdudi’s position was “closely tied to questions of communal politics and its impact on identity formation, to questions of power in pluralistic societies, and to nationalism.” His world view, Nasr notes, was “informed by the acute despair that gripped the community [Muslim]” in the early decades of the twentieth century. Mawdudi saw the Arya Samaj’s religious revivalism as an existential threat, “a proof of the inherent animosity of Hindus towards Islam.”
Mawdudi’s Jamaat never acquired great electoral support in Pakistan. His ideas remained a minority current in South Asian Islam, criticised by religious conservatives as an almost heretical attempt to overthrow mainstream theology. But his words fired the imagination of Islamist ideologues like Sayyed Qutb and Hassan al-Banna — the ideological progenitors of the al-Qaeda’s worldwide jihad.
Like them, Sheikh used Mawdudi’s world view to navigate the communally-fraught landscape he lived in. In 2001, he was alleged to have left for the first of his two training stints in Pakistan, using funds provided by ganglord Aftab Ansari. Later, he spent several months working at an Ansari-owned electronics store in Dubai. On his return to India, the investigators say, Sheikh made contact with key SIMI-linked figures in Mumbai. Among them were his IM co-founders Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri and Qureshi as well as several figures linked to the Mumbai train bombings, including Ehtesham Siddiqi, and Feroze Deshmukh.
Formed in 1977, SIMI was set up to revitalise the Emergency-battered Jamaat. Its leadership enthusiastically embraced Mawdudi’s message — a message the Jamaat itself had long abandoned, understanding that a secular state was essential to secure Muslims’ rights in India. Embarrassed by SIMI’s support for the dictatorship of Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and the anti-Soviet Union jihad in Afghanistan, the Jamaat distanced itself from its offspring in 1982.
But after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the massacres which followed it, growing numbers of young Muslims became disenchanted with India’s claims to secularism. SIMI’s leadership capitalised on the mood. 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 Mahmood of Ghaznavi, and appealed to god to send down an avatar of the 11th century warlord to avenge the destruction of mosques in India. When SIMI held what was to be its last convention in Mumbai in 2001, the al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin-Laden, was extolled as a “true mujahid.”
In the wake of the Gujarat pogrom, which closely followed the proscription of SIMI, several of those in Sheikh’s circle followed in his footsteps to the Lashkar camps — just some of the dozens of young people nationwide who did so. Like Mawdudi, Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed believed that the oppression of Muslims was inherent in Hinduism. Saeed bluntly asserted that “the Hindu is a mean enemy and the proper way to deal with him is the one adopted by our forefathers who crushed them by force.” From 2003, when Lashkar-trained Hyderabad resident Asad Yazdani assassinated pogrom-tainted Gujarat politician Haren Pandya, the new Indian jihadists set about acting on that advice. Appalled at the carnage he helped to inflict, Sheikh has told the police interrogators, he played only a marginal role in the IM’s subsequent bombing campaign.
That hasn’t been the typical response of IM leaders. Qureshi, Shahbandri, Ansari and Rahil Sheikh are among a host of fugitive jihadists who are working to revive the IM’s campaign. India’s police and intelligence forces have an important role in preventing them from succeeding. But the real challenge involves politics, not policing: defeating Mawdudi’s ideas involves demonstrating that democratic struggles against communalism can succeed. Bar a few honourable exceptions, no politician appears either able or willing to take up this challenge.