ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Secular State and the Geography of Radicalism

The burgeoning scholarship on Islamist radicalisation or terrorism - both popular as well as academic - is mostly alarmist. Too often Islamist radicalisation is understood as an offshoot of some deeply entrenched values or that the culture of Islam is incompatible with modernity. This article argues that Islamist radicalisation should be seen as a political phenomenon and that it cannot be divorced from the practices and the role of the State. It focuses on the Students Islamic Movement of India and argues that its radicalisation, manifest in its call for jihad, is largely a consequence of the failure of the Indian secular State to stop the recurring violence against Muslim minority. This article also examines the premises that underpin the media's portrayal of Islam and Muslims and concludes by raising the issue of vulnerability in writing about Islam and radicalisation.

The Secular State and the Geography of Radicalism

Irfan Ahmad

The burgeoning scholarship on Islamist radicalisation or terrorism – both popular as well as academic – is mostly alarmist. Too often Islamist radicalisation is understood as an offshoot of some deeply entrenched values or that the culture of Islam is incompatible with modernity. This article argues that Islamist radicalisation should be seen as a political phenomenon and that it cannot be divorced from the practices and the role of the State. It focuses on the Students Islamic Movement of India and argues that its radicalisation, manifest in its call for jihad, is largely a consequence of the failure of the Indian secular State to stop the recurring violence against Muslim minority. This article also examines the premises that underpin the media’s portrayal of Islam and Muslims and concludes by raising the issue of vulnerability in writing about Islam and radicalisation.

I thank the EPW referee for her/his many critical and helpful comments, which greatly helped me tighten the argument of the paper.

Irfan Ahmad ( teaches politics at the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University (Caulfield Campus), Melbourne.

n recent times, the phenomenon of I slamist radicalisation or “Islamic t errorism” has received considerable attention in the media as well as in the a cademic arena. Begun in the wake of 11 September 2001, the subsequent horrendous killings and bomb explosions in Madrid, London, Bali, Casablanca and elsewhere have further led to a burgeoning interest in Islamist militancy. Most analyses are, however, usually alarmist and informed by the logic of immediacy of events. They are also predominantly coloured by what Pierre Bourdieu (2003), in a different context, calls “the national scientific field”. One may add that “national interest” is an equally important factor in the ways in which it influences, consciously or unconsciously, the scholarly analyses of “Islamic threat” or “green menace”.

1 The Argument

Universities in general, the departments of anthropology seldom being an exception, have usually been, to quote the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (2007), “propagators of knowledge useful to the modern state”. Most of such analyses verily tend to valorise the cultural- theological factors at the heavy expense of the political ones, especially the role of the state in fuelling myriad types of radicalisation in different contexts. Thus in outlining the genealogy of radical Islam, Quintan Wiktorowicz (2005), much like Emmanuel Sivan (1985) delves deep into the evolution of puritan Salafi theology (also known as “Wahabism”) in the premodern era and links contemporary forms of radicalism to the ideas of revivalist figures such as Ibn Taymiyah (d 1328) and Abdul Wahab (d 1792). Islamist militancy, so goes the argument, originates from the belief system of Islam and that contemporary radicalisation is seemingly only a new face (mutatis mutandis also a phase) of what had been recurring in the past.

This article is preliminary to a more d etailed exposition of the phenomenon of “Islamic terrorism” I plan to do in the near future. Here I have merely sought to lay bare some of its salient, albeit often overlooked, dimensions in order to initiate a more informed, critical discussion. In this article, I do not intend to elaborately map out the consequences, traits, performance or symbolism of radicalisation. Valuable though these issues are, my main objective here is to explore the causes of Islamist radicalisation in India. In so doing, I will focus on the factors, and context that went into the radicalisation of the Students Islamic Movement of India (hereafter SIMI). I will use the episode of SIMI’s a lleged involvement in a series of recent bomb explosions in Ahmedabad, Jaipur and New Delhi, as well as the serial bomb blasts that led to the ghastly killing of about 200 people in Mumbai1 on 11 July 2006 as a window to shed light on the larger issue of Islamist radicalisation so as to move beyond the prevailing sensationalism and develop a more nuanced, critical understanding.

My main argument is that the reason for SIMI’s radicalisation does not lie in the socalled intolerant culture, values or theology of Islam or its putative incompatibility with modernity. I thus call into question Sivan’s assertion that Islamist radicalisation is “…a sort of holding operation against modernity” (Sivan 1985:3). I argue that the reasons for SIMI’s radicalisation lie in the field of modern politics; it is intimately connected to the role of the state in stopping the recurring violence against the Muslim minority. Put differently, it is my contention that S IMI’s radicalisation unfolded as a desperate response to the ascendance of virulent, anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism or Hindutva of which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)2 has been the chief protagonist from the mid-1980s onwards. Central to the H indu nationalism has been the mobilisation and formation of what Arjun Appadurai (2006) calls a “predatory” Hindu identity which believes in the erasure of Muslims and

o ther “foreign” elements to secure a pure, authentic Hindu nation.

Economic & Political Weekly

june 6, 2009 vol xliv no 23

In pursuing this line of argument, I am inspired by several significant recent works on collective violence in south Asia. In particular, I consider the works on H indu-Muslim violence by Amrita Basu (1995), and Paul Brass (2003), Sikh militancy by Dipankar Gupta (1997, 2005) and sectarian violence in Pakistan by Ian Talbot (2005) quite compelling. As I u nderstand, the most valuable insight of these works lies in their questioning of the primordial explanations of radicalisation (for a critique of primordialism, see Appadurai 1996). More importantly, they foreground the role of the state in comprehending various forms of collective violence. Given the importance I assign to the role and practices of the state, my argument is also a critique of Pandey (1992) who, in order to accord voice to the “fragments” of Indian society, seems to downplay the state-focused analysis of Hindu-Muslim violence as “the view from the ‘centre’”.

Before I proceed further, a word about my usage of the term “Islamist”. I am conscious in using the term “Islamist”, not Islamic. By Islamic, I mean that which relates to Islam as a constellation of varying and contending traditions, practices, and faiths. In contrast, an Islamist is one who sees Islam primarily as a political ideology, pursuit of an Islamic state being one of his prime goals (Roy 1994; Fuller 2003). Lawrence’s (1995) discerning observation that “Fundamentalism [Islamism] is an ideology rather than a theology” thus supports the framework I have adopted here. My emphasis on Islamism being an ideology rather than a theology does not, however, mean that theology is of no consequence. On the contrary, it is vital to the conceptual repertoire of Islamism, as well as to its language of mobilisation. But it would be an analytical loss not to take cognisance of the selectivity of theology at work in the politics of Islamism. Islamism tends to simplify the diversity, ambiguity and complexity of theology to fit it into its own neatly crafted ideological schemes.

2 Prejudices and the Media

It was at a critical moment of India’s postcolonial history that SIMI came into being. It was founded during the dark days of Emergency when the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had dissolved the P arliament, suspended all civil liberties and assumed, almost single-handedly, the control over India. In March 1976, a group of young, enthusiastic – “diwaane” (literally mad) in their self-perception – students gathered at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh, a university town in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), to form what later came to be called SIMI. Located at a distance of some 125 kilometres south-east of Delhi, Aligarh has a sizeable Muslim population. Historically, SIMI sprang from the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (henceforth Jamaat), an Islamist organisation founded in colonial India in 1941 by Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979).3 To compete with and counter the Marxist student organisations quite influential in the 1970s, the Jamaat floated SIMI. Only a few years after its formation, however, the Jamaat disowned SIMI because the latter refused to work under the sarparasti (tutelage) of the former. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, SIMI was barely known to the Muslim public beyond the campus of AMU. Likewise, seldom did the non-Urdu press report about SIMI’s activities. It was during the 1990s that SIMI’s image as “terrorist” began to appear in the mainstream media.4 The dastardly explosions in Mumbai in 2006 and more recent blasts in Ahmedabad, Jaipur and New Delhi have only reinforced it.

Shortly after the Mumbai blasts in 2006, both the print and electronic media flashed, rather alarmingly, the allegation of SIMI’s involvement in the explosions. One report after another in the Indian m edia stated that the explosion was the handiwork of SIMI. This is not new. In fact, even before 11 September 2001 and prior to the government ban on it in 2001, SIMI had been repeatedly accused of hatching out “terrorist” plans. As an anthropologist who has done intensive ethnographic fieldwork on the Jamaat and SIMI, I find it difficult to buy this allegation wholesale for a variety of reasons (see below). The most important one is the absence of clinching evidence.5 The allegation by the media that SIMI is a terrorist organisation continues, nonetheless.

It seems to me that the mainstream m edia’s portrayal – bordering almost on paranoia – of SIMI as a terrorist outfit

o ften conceals more than it usually

june 6, 2009

r eveals. Such a portrayal masterfully hides media’s own anti-Muslim prejudices which on many occasions seem like Islamophobia.6 During my fieldwork, I met several key leaders and activists of SIMI. Contrary to media’s depiction of them as scary, they themselves were scared. I began the first phase of my year-long fieldwork in October 2001, only a few weeks after the Hindu nationalist government presided over by Atal Behari Vajpayee had banned SIMI following 11 September 2001. In the beginning, SIMI activists deeply suspected my academic interest. With the passage of time, when I gained their confidence, they told me how laughable media’s canonisation of SIMI was. According to documentary evidence, in 1996, SIMI had only 413 core members called ansar (Ahmad 2005a: 330). In 2002, SIMI activists told me, the number of ansars was well below 1,000. However, the print media, particularly the rabidly communal (read anti-Muslim) Hindi Amar Ujala and Dainik J agran published from Aligarh, gave the impression that they were in thousands.

Tainting the Community

As a matter of fact, the number of “terrorists” arrested and imprisoned till now may already have exceeded the total number of SIMI’s core members – ansars.7 If my sources of data are correct – and I trust they are – is not SIMI’s numerical and symbolic cano nisation, then, a tool to tarnish the image of an entire community as terrorists? When the Mumbai bomb blasts took place, I was in India. A journalist from one of the Delhi-based English weeklies interviewed me about SIMI’s involvement in the bomb blasts. He portrayed SIMI’s spread as if it had engulfed the whole of India. Notwithstanding such a concern, journalists like him, however, are often ignorant about SIMI. For example, most journalists do not even know; or worse, they do not care to know, what the term ikhwan (literally, brothers), an Arabic word, SIMI employs to refer to its second rank affiliates, means. One such journalist in Aligarh, which was the primary site of my fieldwork and where also SIMI was headquartered till the early 1980s, told me that a fter the ban SIMI had reorganised itself under a new name, Ikhwan. He shared this “fact” with me to underscore how

vol xliv no 23


well-organised was SIMI’s terrorist network and how rock-solid the determination of its activists. To be sure, barely a few of the journalists have ever met any of the SIMI members. However, seldom do they have a sense of discomfort in writing long features or r eports on SIMI’s terrorist plots.

Notwithstanding its tiny size as my sources of data attest, we ought to scrutinise why the media continue to portray SIMI as a terrorist outfit. A plausible explanation is that such a portrayal conceals the violent anti-Muslimness of Hindu n ationalist forces led by the BJP against which SIMI actually began to radicalise; particularly after the destruction of the Babri mosque in the winter of 1992 (do we need to add that the state was complicit in the work of destruction?). More importantly, it conveniently shifts attention away from home to abroad, especially P akistan. For the allegation of terrorism against SIMI entails that it “naturally” has connections with radical organisations of Pakistan. The alarmist depiction of SIMI as terrorist thus becomes an ultimate weapon to stigmatise the entire Muslim community as the demonic “other”, and “foreign”, and thereby the quislings of the I ndian nation (Appadurai 2006: ch 4; Hansen 2001). In the dominant discourse of this kind of nationalism, can there be any sin graver than the treason against and disloyalty to the nation?

The episode of Delhi police’s parading in front of the media the three arrested Muslim youth (following the dastardly blasts in Delhi in September 2008) with their faces covered with Palestinian style scarves in red-and-white checks may also be seen against this wider backdrop. The employment of the Palestinian scarves by the Delhi police, which they initially d enied but later admitted (The Hindustan Times, 23 September 2008) certainly went into projecting a stereotype of Muslims, and thereby displayed the bias of the authorities. Many commentators raised their objections saying that this way of depicting the arrested individuals hurt Muslims’ sensibility as abaaya/kifayah is regarded as a religious symbol. One may also add that the objective was perhaps not merely to portray the arrested youth as Muslims, but as Arab Muslims. The resort to the particular scarf was an act of rendering the symbol religious and foreign at once. In a report “Is There a Police Mindset?”, R ahul Tripathy, in The Times of India, was somewhat ambiguous in telling his readers whether or not the police had bought these scarves. However this is how he “ reported” the controversy: “Whatever the truth, the fact remains the kifayah is considered foreign to India” (Tripathy 2008).

3 Hindutva’s Mirror Image

I am not suggesting that SIMI may not have foreign connections. Historically speaking, indeed it had forged and maintained ties with Islamist activists outside India. For instance, during the 1970s it developed linkages with the Islamists from Saudi Arabia, Iran and many countries of the Gulf. Moreover, SIMI as well as the Jamaat had sustained ties with the international Islamic organisation such as the Meccabased World Muslim League (established in 1962) and the Riyadh-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth (founded in 1972). It is a well-known fact but perhaps needs to be stressed here that the founding president of SIMI is currently a university employee based in the United States. As it is well-recorded,8 the transnational links like these actually played an important role in the decade-long, conflict-ridden processes leading to the formation of SIMI. Before it is construed once again as a unique instance of Islam’s extraterritorial loyalty, as it is usually done, it is important to point out that such transnational connections are not unique to SIMI.

Arvind Rajagopal (2000) and Peter Van der Veer (2005), among others, have noted that the transnational solidarities and funding have immensely contributed to the making of Hindutva. However, the transnational connections of Hindutva a ctivists are never called into question because they are assumed to be “natural” and an asset for making the Indian nation robust on the international plane. Here it is quite relevant to mention that an influential ideologue of Hindutva, Veer Savarkar (1939) saw Muslims as definitionally traitor of the Indian nation because their holy land, unlike that of Hindus, lay outside of India. In his view, their religion thus predisposed Muslims to nurse transnational loyalties. Savarkar, however, did not apply the same logic to the status of thousands of Hindus living outside of India and who did consider (as, for instance, many Dutch Hindus of the Surinamese extraction do) India as their holy land. By contrast, the transnational connections of Indian Islamists at once evoke a looming fear of and suspicion about their disloyalty to the nation. In popular discourse relating to Muslims, “transnational connection” is actually often employed to signal sinister and, above all, ties with foreign armed groups, particularly those in Pakistan which the Hindu nationalist imagination has historically construed as the anti-thesis of Indian nation. My research does not offer credible evidence to validate such a “foreign connection” thesis.

What I am certain about, however, is that SIMI’s radicalisation is predominantly indigenous. Shocking as it might sound to the nationalist virtuosos of every shade, it is home-grown, pucca swadeshi. By radicalisation, I don’t mean “acts” of violence. I rather mean a radical “language” of selfdefence born out of an interaction with and directed at a dominant socio-political force, Hindutva in this case. Since its inception through the mid-1980s, SIMI’s primary constituency was the student community. And the issues it raised were largely, though not exclusively, educational and religious-moral. From a puritan, reformist Islamic framework, for example, it campaigned against immorality, obscenity and the use of hard drugs. Removing semi-nude film posters from public walls was one example of SIMI’s crusade against immorality. It also launched campaigns to raise educational awareness. I make this argument based on the content analysis of SIMI’s Urdu organ, Islamic Movement, from 1982 up to September 2001 (when its publication ceased due to the government ban), and the extended interviews with the first generation SIMI activists.9

It was with the onset of the Hindu nationalists-led Ayodhya movement – “the greatest mass movement” (Kanungo 2002) in the words of L K Advani who was its principal architect – to build the Ram temple exactly on the spot where the historic Babri mosque stood that SIMI’s radicalisation began to unfurl. And the key catalyst was, what Paul Brass (2003) has accurately described, institutionalised riots that the Ayodhya movement unleashed almost

Economic & Political Weekly

june 6, 2009 vol xliv no 23

throughout the country. As it is well known, in most instances the state authorities also sided with rioters against helpless Muslims. For instance, during the month-long communal horror (in 1989) in Bhagalpur town in the northern state of Bihar more than 800 people were slaughtered in cold blood and the state authorities watched such a macabre dance as no more than a mere spectator.10 In the wake of the Ayodhya movement, so grave was the climate that in November 1990, 32 towns of the state of UP, the epicentre of BJP’s mobilisation, were under curfew due to such riots.

It was in this fear-ridden context that in 1991, in Mumbai (then Bombay), SIMI

o rganised a fairly well-attended conference titled Iqdaam-e-Ummat (Action for Muslims). The singular significance of this conference lay in the fact that SIMI for the first time issued a call for jihad. The justification it offered for the call of jihad was indelibly linked to the failure of the secular state in stopping anti-Muslim violence and treating its citizens without discrimination and prejudice. In the January 1992 issue of Islamic Movement, SIMI offered the theological justification that jihad was the only option left for Muslims to defend themselves against the violent onslaught by Hindu nationalists and the complicity of police and the state authorities therewith. With large-scale anti-Muslim riots of Mumbai and Surat (in the western state of Gujarat) that followed the destruction of the Babri mosque, SIMI added the theme of martyrdom to its call for jihad. It is to be noted that its call for martyrdom was an exhortation to the Muslim youth to get ready to lay down their lives so as to save them. It was at this critical political juncture that SIMI also gradually began to shift its orientation from student issues to the Muslim community at large. Concomitantly, it also increasingly began to a ssume a far more interventionist role in direct politics (Ahmad 2005a).

4 Geography of Riots and Radicalism

With the ascendance of the Hindu nationalists to power at the centre from the mid1990s, SIMI’s radicalisation only intensified. One person that virtually every SIMI member that I spoke to disliked was A dvani. Members of SIMI likened him to Abu Jehel, the man who routinely tortured Prophet Muhammad in Mecca. Quite u nderstandably, this analogy is rooted in Islamic theological history. And such a theology also informed the distinct vocabulary and stylistics of SIMI’s protest. In

o rder to mobilise public opinion, after the demolition of the Babri mosque, SIMI b egan to frequently quote a verse from the Qura’n (2:114) which stressed the sanctity of the mosque. As depicted on the cover of its monthly magazine Islamic Movement (dated December 1993), it read, “who else will be a greater tyrant than he who forbids [believers] from reciting Allah’s name in mosques and who is determined to bring about their ruin” (author’s translation from Urdu).

As I noted, SIMI’s vocabulary bears deep imprints of theology. However, beneath this theology lies the violent materiality of everyday politics set in motion by the Ayodhya movement. During my second phase of fieldwork (January-May 2004), I interviewed SIMI’s national president who was just released after serving a three-year term in New Delhi’s Tihar jail.11 In course of conversation with me, he frequently stressed the need for jihad. When I asked him why he placed so much of an emphasis on jihad, he said:

We have been regularly killed in riots, our property destroyed and chastity of our sisters and mothers violated in broad daylight. Don’t you know what happened to the Babri mosque? How many Muslims were killed in Bombay, Surat, and elsewhere? Muslims were massacred in Gujarat. It [the wanton killing of Muslims] happened just recently [reference to riots in Gujarat in early 2002]. What do you expect us to do? We must wage jihad to defend ourselves.

This quotation vividly demonstrates that SIMI’s radicalisation bears an organic connection with communal riots and Muslims’ sheer helplessness arising therefrom. To arrive at an objective analysis, one should not overlook this connection as it will definitely not enhance our understanding of aetiology of radicalisation. It is in the midst of such helplessness and the state’s active collusion with the organised rioters that in the last 10 years or so Muslims have formed organisations like Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force, Muslim Defence Force, Islamic Defence Force and

june 6, 2009

so on (Vij-Aurora 2006). Clearly, these organisations, all founded in the wake of gory riots orchestrated by Hindu nationalist forces to reap the political harvest, are outside the precincts of the law. My point is that it is in the void left by the non-action of the state against the rioters that these organisations have come into being.

Compliance of the State

Furthermore, in the eyes of these organisations, as well as many Muslims unaffiliated to them, the state is not only, to say the least, reluctant in effectively checking such acts of violence, but it is also complicit, in one form or another, first in staging them and later indirectly shielding the culprits under the thick veneer of neverending judicial processes. The anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat in early 2002 further demonstrated the extent to which different layers of administration – civil as well as police – were involved, overtly or covertly, in communal riots. Almost 20 years after the brutal anti-Muslim riots of Meerut, a small town not very far from New Delhi and located in the state of UP, in which the state authorities openly took part, the v ictims are still waiting for justice.12

The formation of such illegal groups by a segment of Muslim population also points towards an affinity between the geo graphy of riots and cartography of I slamist radicalism. As an illustration of it, consider the following. Over 15% or 20% of SIMI’s members came from Maharashtra, Gujarat and UP, states where the masculine, virulent Hindutva has far more impact and which have a history of worse riots during the last two decades. In contrast, SIMI had no more than a dozen members from the state of Bihar because the state did not witness any major riot since 1990. Notably, a majority of those few members from Bihar were immigrants living in UP, Maharashtra or other Indian states. To pursue this argument, first let me introduce a qualification. Given the confiscation of SIMI’s offices and libraries in the wake of the government ban and the unusual post-11 September 2001 climate in which I did my fieldwork, I was unable to procure documentary records of the exact regional break-up of SIMI’s membership. The figure of over 15% or 20% of SIMI’s members being from the riots-affected

vol xliv no 23


states or areas is derived from interviews with SIMI activists. For my argument to be more plausible, one has to wait until SIMI’s archive becomes accessible to researchers. However, as I do not propose here a m echanical causal correlation but an analytical affinity to be corroborated by further research and data, the point, I submit, is analytically worth pursuing.

To return to my argument about the a ffinity between the geography of riots and cartography of radicalisation, the case of Bihar illustrates how the state’s failure is a key factor in fuelling or stemming radicalisation. Viewed from this perspective, Ashutosh Varshney’s thesis on religious violence is simply unconvincing as it fails to explain the absence of communal riots in Bihar. Varshney (2002) thoroughly bypasses the crucial role of the state in (mis)handling religious violence. If the i nter-religious civic/associational network is a sure, final bulwark against violence, as he repetitively argues, we need to pause and ask: have such networks been stronger and denser in Bihar as a result of which there was no Hindu-Muslim violence there during the 1990s and later? Or, alternatively, was not Bihar free from communal riots because of the firm determination of the state under the dispensation of its chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, to immediately stop violence whenever the right wing civil society networks sought to manufacture it (as indeed they did on many an occasion)?13

The same state, however, was quite disinterested in combating violence of another kind: inter-caste (and in many ways caste in Bihar has strong elements of class as well) violence. Throughout the 1990s, private armies of the rich upper castes perpetrated a series of brutal massacres of the landless labourers and peasants organised under various left streams, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI-ML) (Ahmad 1999). The different responses to communal and caste violence of the state under Yadav’s rule raises an interesting question: while it did not allow communal violence to take place, why did it fail to stop the violence by private armies against the landless poor? Several explanations have been

o ffered. For example, many critics of Y adav have argued that he did not let any communal violence take place because he did not want to alienate Muslims whose electoral backing was crucial to the victory of his party. In contrast, he did not expect any support from the landless peasants as they were electorally committed to the CPI(ML). One can question the ideologicalmoral position that the state displayed towards caste and communal violence. This dual stance of the state, however, only shows how its role is pivotal to the enactment or curtailment of violence.

In the light of this argument I have sought to develop here, the sensationalist headlines that describe SIMI as a dreadful terrorist organisation brackets out an important question. Writing about 11 September 2001, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Zizek (2002) argues that the larger issue at stake is not what the so-called backward, traditional, fundamentalists are doing but what the supposedly modern, well-meaning, reasoned strategists behind them are doing. I consider this observation quite forceful. Following Zizek, I thus wonder when will the larger story of the virulent anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism and the state-mediated communal riots of which SIMI is only an episode – an unpleasant one, though – be narrated. Put differently, in attempting to understand the causes and context of serial bomb blasts in Mumbai 2006 or more recent ones in Ahmedabad, Jaipur and New Delhi, should we not move beyond crass sensationalism and also soberly pay attention to the massive undermining of India’s secular democracy whose unhappy, nay angry, child SIMI is?

5 Conclusions

In the wake of the dastardly blasts in different parts of India last year, the leading English daily (The Times of India, 28 September 2008) ran a story with a curious title “Is There a Muslim Mindset?”. The newspaper further asked its readers to express their views about it. This article attempted, inter alia, to call into question the banality of such journalistic stories to arrive at a more nuanced understanding. Here I have attempted to offer an antialarmist analysis of Islamist radicalisation in India. By focusing on the case of SIMI, I have stressed the need for critically re-examining the popular theories of r adicalism or terrorism. Against the dominant explanations which privilege cultural or theological factors, I have argued that radicalisation can adequately be comprehended only in conjunction with the practices and the role of the state. I have described, preliminarily, how SIMI’s radicalisation unfolded in response to the Indian state’s failure in stopping the large-scale, anti-Muslim riots aided, overtly or covertly, by different layers and institutions of the state. It was due mainly to the failure of state in ensuring the lives, property and dignity of its (Muslim) citizens during the communal riots that a segment of the I ndian Muslim population began to gradually radicalise and invoke jihad. Barber (1992) seems to be right when he says that “the atmospherics of jihad have resulted in a breakdown of civility”. However, it is equally true, as the case study of SIMI and its call for jihad illustrates, that it is the breakdown of civility and law which fashions the atmospherics of jihad.

Furthermore, I have argued that SIMI’s radicalisation was reactive insofar as it was a desperate response to the virulent Hindu nationalism which portrayed Muslims as its quintessential “other”. In particular, the series of large-scale communal riots that the Ayodhya movement unleashed throughout the country – Muslims always being the main target and victims thereof

– worked as a key catalyst inaugurating SIMI’s radicalisation. Clearly, my argument is derived from the trajectory of Islamist radicalism in India. However, it may possibly be fruitful for scholars to understand the phenomenon of Islamist radicalisation in other contexts as well.

By way of a final remark, I wish to say a word about the complexity and vulnerability of writing about a theme such as this one. In my engagement with “liberals” – in India, mostly, though not exclusively, with English language journalists and opinionmakers, and in the west during conferences and seminars – I have been occasionally accused of, to put it rather politely, being “soft” on the fundamentalists. I wonder how “liberal” is that liberalism which denies the freedom to question its binary language of “us” versus “them”. The story gets further complicated as a few SIMI activists barely concealed their distrust of me as working for the western power.

Economic & Political Weekly

june 6, 2009 vol xliv no 23


1 See, reports on the blasts in Frontline (29 July- 11 August 2006) and Tehelka: The People’s Paper (29 July 2006). See also Swami (2006); Katakam (2006); Gupta Ray (2006).

2 Here, I mention only the BJP. However I use it as shorthand to connote the whole stream of Hindu nationalism and its confederation of multi-layered organisations headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountain head of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism.

3 For a rich biographical account of Maududi, see Syed Vali Reza Nasr (1996). On the Indian Jamaat see, Mohammad Shafiq Agwani (1986), ch IV, and Irfan Ahmad (2005a). On the Pakistani Jamaat, see Syed Vali Reza Nasr (1994), and Kalim Bahadur (1977).

4 For a historical-anthropological account of SIMI’s formation see, Irfan Ahmad (2005a), chapter 5.

5 On the violation of constitutional rights by the Mumbai police in nabbing the suspected culprits, see Joyti Punwani (2006).

6 See the incisive analysis by Pnina Werbner (2005).

7 In the aftermath of the blast, in Mumbai alone 1,500 Muslims were picked up by the police for interrogation. See Punwani (2006), p 3841.

8 For an elaborate treatment of transnational links of SIMI and the Jamaat, see Irfan Ahmad (2005b).

9 Iinterview of the first SIMI President “The SIMI I Founded Was Completely Different”. http://www. Accessed on 9/30/2003.

10 See the investigative report by People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Bhagalpur Riots (New Delhi, 1990).

11 To protect the identity of my informant, I have chosen not to name him.

12 On the involvement of state’s authorities in the communal violence in the state of Uttar Pradesh, see the penetrating analysis by Lance Brennan (1996). Also see Asghar Ali Engineer (1991, 1996).

13 Varshney’s study is based on the case study of six cities, two each in the states of UP, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. It is puzzling as to why he did not include Bihar in his study. Might it have been because the absence of riots in Bihar did not fit his thesis?


Agwani, Mohammad Shafiq (1986): Islamic Fundamentalism in India (Chandigarh: Twenty-first Century Indian Society), ch IV.

Ahmad, Irfan (1999): “Private Armies Ruling the Roost”, The Pioneer, 1 February, p 11.

  • (2005a): “From Islamism to Post-Islamism: The Transformation of the Jamaat-e-Islami in North India” (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Amsterdam).
  • (2005b): “Between Moderation and Radicalisation: Transnational Interactions of Jamaat-e-Islami of India”, Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs, Vol 5( 3): 279-99, July .
  • Appadurai (1996): Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), ch 7.

    Appadurai, Arjun (2006): Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham and London: Duke University Press), Public Planet Books Series, p 51.

    Bahadur, Kalim (1977): The Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan: Political and Political Action (New Delhi: Chetna Publications).

    Barber, Benjamin R (1992): “Jihad Vs McWorld”, The Atlantic Monthly, March, p 61.

    Basu, Amrita (1995): “Why Local Riots Are Not Simply Local: Collective Violence and State in Bijnor, 1988-1993”, Theory and Society, Vol (24)1: 35-78, February.

    Bourdieu, Pierre (2003): “Participant Objectivation”, Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute, 9 (2): 284, June.

    Brass, Paul R (2003): TheProduction of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India (Seattle and L ondon: University of Washington Press).


    Brennan, Lance (1996): “The State and Communal V iolence in UP” in John McGuire, Peter Reeves and Howard Brasted (ed.), Politics of Violence: From Ayodhya to Behrampada (New Delhi: Sage), pp 127-41.

    Engineer, Asghar Ali (1991):Communal Riots in Post-Independent India (Hyderabad: Sangam Books), second edition.

    – (1996): “Communal Violence and the Role of Law Enforcement Agencies” in Praful Bidwai, Harbans Mukhia and Achin Vanaik (ed.), Religion, Religiosity and Communalism (New Delhi: Manohar), pp 127-42.

    Fuller, Graham (2003): The Future of Political Islam (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), pp xi-xiii.

    Gupta, Dipankar (1997): The Context of Ethnicity: Sikh Identity in a Comparative Perspective (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    – (2005): Learning to Forget: The Anti-Memoirs of Modernity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press). Gupta Ray, Shashwat (2006): “How Much More Can Mumbai Take?”, Tehelka, 22 May.

    Hannerz, Ulf (2007): “The Neo-liberal Culture Complex and Universities: A Case for Urgent Anthropology”, Anthropology Today, Vol 23(5): 1-2, October.

    Hansen, Thomas Blom (2001): Violence in Urban I ndia: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’, and the Postcolonial City (New Delhi: Permanent Black).

    Islamic Movement: From 1982 up to September 2001, various issues, (a monthly urdu organ of SIMI).

    Katakam, Anupama and Praveen Swami (2006): “Silent Partitions”, Frontline, Vol 23(15), 29 July- 11 August.

    Katakam, Anupama (2006): “Tired of Violence”, Frontline, Vol 23(14), 15 July-28 July.

    Kanungo, Parlay (2002): RSS’ Tryst With Politics (New Delhi: Manohar), p 204.

    Lawrence, Bruce B (1995): Defenders of God: The F undamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press), p xxvi.

    Nasr, Syed Vali Reza (1994): The Vanguard of Islamic Revolution: The Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan (Berkeley: University of California Press).

    – (1996): Maududi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (New York: Oxford University Press).

    Pandey, Gyanendra (1992): “In Defense of the Fragments: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in I ndia Today”, Representations, Vol 37, Winter, p 29.

    People’s Union for Democratic Rights (1990): Bhagalpur Riots (New Delhi).

    Punwani, Joyti (2006): “Mumbai Bomb Blast-1: Denial of Constitutional Rights”, Economic & Political Weekly, 9 September, pp 3841-43.

    Rajagopal, Arvind (2000): “Hindu Nationalism in the US: Changing Configurations of Political Practice”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 23(3): 467-96.

    Roy, Olivier (1994): The Failure of Political Islam (London: I B Tauris), translated by Carol Volk, pp 24-27, 39-41.

    Savarkar, Veer D (1939): Hindutva (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Publications).

    “Scarves Spell Trouble for Delhi Police” (2008): The Hindustan Times, 23 September. Available at Page.aspx?sectionName=&id=c4b003e0-84354b2e-b716-17875d343f57&&Headline=Scarves+s pell+trouble+for+Delhi+police&strParent=strP arentID. Accessed on 15 January 2009.

    Sivan, Emmanuel (1985): Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press).

    Swami, Praveen (2006): “Maximum Terror and Its Mechanics”, Frontline, Vol 23(14), 15 July-28 July.

    Talbot, Ian (2005): “Understanding Religious Violence in Contemporary Pakistan: Themes and Theories” in Ravindar Kaur (ed.), Religion, Violence and P olitical Mobilization in South Asia (New Delhi: Sage Publications), pp 145-64.

    Tripathy, Rahul (2008): “Is There a Police Mindset?”, The Times of India, 28 September. Available at police_mindset/articleshow/3535386.cms, Accessed on 15/1/2009.

    Van der Veer, Peter ( 2005): “Virtual India: Indian IT Labour and the Nation-state” in Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat (ed.), Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants, and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

    Varshney, Ashutosh (2002): Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India (New Delhi: O xford University Press).

    Vij-Aurora, Bhavna (2006): “Made in India: Terror Is Getting Increasingly Homegrown in Small, Local Forms”, Outlook, 31 July, pp 26-28.

    Wajihuddin, Mohammed (2008): “Is There a Muslim Mindset?”, The Times of India, 28 September.Available at Is_there_a_Muslim_mindset/articleshow/3507711. cms.Accessed on 10/20/2008.

    Werbner, Pnina (2005): “Islamophobia: Incitement to Religious Hatred – Legislating for a New Fear?” Anthropology Today, 21(1): 5-9, February.

    Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005): “A Genealogy of Radical Islam”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol 28(2): 75-97, March-April.

    Zizek, Slavoj (2002): Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London and New York: Verso).

    june 6, 2009

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top