Friday, 10 May 2019

Kashmir: Radicalisation and what to do about it

The Sri Lankan army chief has thrown the cat among the pigeons. He indicated to the press that some Sri Lankan bombers visited Kashmir, Kerala and Bangaluru. The assumption is that they may have picked up their knowhow, wares or extremism from their visit. The initial response of the Kashmir police was that there is no record of such a visit to Kashmir.
Even so, it is apparent how easily Kashmir figures in the imagination as a ‘go to’ place for would-be terrorists. This should be troubling, especially since the shift to radicalization in Kashmir has found mention through this decade. Evidence touted is the Islamist affiliation of leading terrorist Zakir Musa and his attempt at wresting of the political direction of the movement; the appearance of black flags symbolizing extremism on the streets; the recent fracas by a group within the precincts of Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid after Friday prayers; the inclusion of Kashmir in the invective of the Islamic State (IS) stalwarts assigned as minders to the region; the proximity of IS affiliated outfits close at hand in Afghanistan etc.
The ascent of the IS in Iraq and Syria mid-decade witnessed eddies in the region. However, the IS influence has been greatly exaggerated, particularly as the temporary ascendance of the IS was speedily tamped down by reaction of the great powers and their local partners, such as the Kurds, in West Asia. The IS has ceased to exist as a territory holding entity, but the resurfacing of Al Baghdadi, its leader, in taking ownership of the Sri Lankan mayhem, suggests that it continues as a ideological threat-in-being. This is of a piece with the Al Qaeda, which, though considerably whittled, exists as a lodestar for radicals, not least because the geopolitical critique it propounds of the global and regional order is not about to change. In effect, both IS and Al Qaeda will not disappear till the ‘root causes’ that give rise to their line of thinking – such as (in their view) the energy security related grip of the US-led West over core Arab regimes and the suppression of the Palestinians - are not appropriately addressed.
The major point, missed in the western media mediated information on the IS, is that politics and civil society being largely absent in Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia (remember the Khashoggi case), the opposition to the reactionary regimes there takes a perverse form. It comprises ultra-right extremist religion-based organizations, aiming to outflank rightist and feudal sheikhdoms. Wahabbism – ultra orthodox, sharia-based Islam - that is the ideology of the regimes is sought to be outflanked by Salafism, an obscurantist version. The competitive religiosity leads to offshoots of sectarianism and extremism, such as the takfiris. The United Nations Security Council has set up a mission to report back on the IS depredations when it was in power.
Added to the doctrinal differences is the political aspect, political Islam. Political Islam has a component that critiques the world order in which the ‘Middle East’ is under sway of ‘Western’ hegemony. The Europeans who flocked to the IS were mostly swayed by this. This facet of the IS has been blocked from view by the media and think tanks that selectively transmit the worst of IS messaging in their translations of largely Arabic literature put out by these organisations. Some think tanks, such as MEMRI which is relied on for information is reportedly being funded partially by Zionist interests.
There is military presence of the United States in the region. The Americans last week sailed an aircraft carrier into the Mediterranean to frighten Iran. This politico-military grip has an energetic discursive counter. The Arab Spring was a manifestation of sorts in its bid for a democratic turn, but as seen over through the decade, it was either nipped in the bud or its outcome upturned for a return to conservatism. The latest instance is in Sudan, where the military regime that took over from Al Bashir is applying the brakes, with the help of the Saudis, Egypt and United Arab Emirates, against the civilian led uprising. The political backlash such retrograde action prompts is constricted, leaving political Islam as opposition and much in evidence in badlands and conflict zones now spread across the Arab lands from Iraq to Libya. This context to Islamist radicalization finds little mention.
As for the linkage of the IS with India, the potential for its minority to be radicalized has been over-hyped and deliberately so. This columnist has argued here and elsewhere that the Islamist threat and the susceptibility of Indians to it has been a Hindutva project, put forward to a degree by similarly motivated members of the intelligence and strategic communities and those bent on points scoring over Pakistan. There are stooges in the media to carry forward and amplify the fake news that IS is at the doorstep. Little else can be inferred from the din over the past five years over the numbers in a mere middle double digits of Indians in the IS fold. Most of these were from the Indian diaspora living in the Gulf region. Though it does not take more than a handful to perpetrate mayhem, the column inches were less to deter than to marginalize and ghettoize.
Admittedly, Indian immunity to IS overtures – due to a sufistic-snycretic ethos of Indian Islam, India’s democratic traditions and positive economic trajectory - has found mention in the same breath. This is routinely trotted out, but more as a sweetner to the minority, even as in doing so – such as on occasion by the home minister – the message is on the graciousness of the majority community rather than good sense of the minority.
The ruling party has campaigned on the plank that its tenure has not witnessed any home grown terror. Pulwama was Jaish instigated. This only goes to prove that the Hindutva terrorists who are at root to some 17 bomb blasts across India (according to Ananty Patwardhan’s latest documentary, Reason) in the tenure of the previous government have been put to pasture by this one, since it did not need them anymore. In fact, it has gone on to rehabilitate all of them, one with a ticket to parliament and another back in uniform, in the secular, apolitical army. ‘Sadhvi’ Praya Thakur’s bad mouthing national hero, Hemant Karkare, served as backdrop to a new book by a former Inspector General of Maharashtra police, Mushrif, which argues that there is more to the Mumbai 26/11 terror episode and killing of the Anti Terror Squad head, Karkare.
Radicalization in the national context is not related to India’s Muslims. It is instead related to Hindutvavadis and the affiliated extremist groups such as Abhinav Bharat and Sanatan Sansthan. This in-the-face feature is elided rather dexterously in the strategic discourse. Even a change in government may not be enough to expel the majoritarian virus, given that the bombings attributed to Muslim terrorists but undertaken by Hindutva terrorists as part of black operations took place on the watch of the previous Congress-led government. The national security adviser then, an intelligence chief in his time, in his two op-ed articles for The Hindu (3 April, 20 December) on terrorism had not a single word on Hindutva terrorism. Such silence shouts out a hidden truth.
Given this rather extensive – if contrarian – background, one needs being wary of reports of radicalization in Kashmir. As with the case in Arabian countries, where there is an absence of politics, any radicalization can only be attributed to the limitation of political space in Kashmir. The space for voicing their interpretation of Azadi is constricted, since the government has gone out of its way to ignore the subject.
Its so-called interlocutor certainly draws a salary, but on what count is a state secret. On taking over his assignment he had referred to one agenda area being radicalization of the youth. The social media networked youth, seen as more susceptible to radical discourse, are sufficiently disaffected from the Indian state – seen from their stone throwing propensity - to be fertile ground for such ideologies.
Such political neglect opens up space for radicalization as a political strategy of elements in Kashmir’s rebellion. Even separatists, who once took out a march after the episode of radicals’ sudden appearance of Srinagar’s historic Jamia Masjid, have implied as much, arguing that the territorial and political problem appears to be headed southwards into radical hands. This may be tactical, to stampede the state into taking them seriously as a preventive measure. This downgrading of the radicalization thesis is not denial – as the doyen of South Asian international relations scholars Mohammad Ayoob woud have it in his column in The Hindu - as much as putting it in perspective.
That said, the potential for radicalization needs addressing. This cannot be in the form the state has adopted, such as in the recent banning of the Jamaat i Islami. The action misses the difference between orthodoxy and radicalism. There is also no call for suppression in the form of the custodial killing by torture of a Jamaat linked school teacher. Further, there is sufficient experience in south Indian police forces for methods of prevention and de-radicalisation that can be tapped for best practice. An early decision on the lead agency can preempt turf battles since other security agencies may elbow in on the action on the latest buzzword. Kashmir police is the best bet. It can create a special cell to take this head on. The army and the Rashtriya Rifles have their military task cut out and need not expand into this operational area to legitimise their continued presence in civilian spaces in Kashmir.
There is no escaping the fact that bringing back politics is the only recourse, prevention being better than cure. The radical threat has been elevated since it helped the government to keep off interfacing politically with the Kashmir issue. It legitimised the hardline in Kashmir. It helped the ruling party gain votes in the cow dust belt for being strong on security. The radicalization gimmick helped India interface supportively with Gulf regimes, enabling the prime minister to nab the highest national honour from both the Saudis and the UAE. Consequently, the purposes having been met, the radicalization line and the hardline can be abandoned by Modi if returned to power. If another government, it must upturn the Kashmir legacy of its predecessor and watch the threat of radicalization vanish in a puff.