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Delhi’s bombs: landscape of jihad in south Asia

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
2 November 2005

The three coordinated bomb blasts – two of them in crowded markets – in New Delhi on 29 October have brought home once again that terrorism is not a distant rumour. The bombs exploded on the eve of Diwali and Eid-ul-Fitr, two major festivals of Hindus and Muslims, killing sixty-two people and injuring over 200. There is reason to believe that they were intended to create a rift in the sensitive social balance between the two communities. True, many of the notorious jihadi groups in Pakistan have refrained from claiming credit for the blasts, and Pervez Musharraf has offered unstinting cooperation with the inquiry to trace the perpetrators; but doubts remain about the good faith either of the Pakistan-based jihadis or of President Musharraf himself.

Meanwhile, Indian intelligence agencies, like their counterparts in the western world, are more desperate than ever to conjure the familiar ghosts; in the Indian context, this means constructing conspiracies involving the known jihadi groups, including the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba. But they are not yet in a position to nail the guilty with any amount of credibility.

Also by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr in openDemocracy:

“The end of ideology in India?” (June 2004)

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These agencies, and India’s government as a whole, are under constant political and media pressure to explain the causes of the blasts. In responding, they fall back on theories and information which may have been true at earlier moments but which may not be relevant to the current specific episode. That leaves enough leeway for the Islamist militant groups to play terrorism’s cat-and-mouse game. Thus, there is a real and critical gap between the strategies of the Islamist terrorists and that of the state agencies which confront them. It is a dangerous gap, and it is turning out to be a serious failing in the fight against terrorism both in India and in the rest of the world.

India and Pakistan, the eternal rivals, find themselves on the opposite sides of the fight against terrorism. It is not right to call it a “war against terrorism” because a war can happen only between states. This is more than juridical quibbling. The non-state terrorist actors are not in a position to carry out their plans successfully over time without a territorial base. It appears then that competing states can use the terrorists to wage a proxy war.

Pakistan may be part of the United States-led global alliance against terrorism, and a trusted US ally in this ideological enterprise, but it cannot wish away the jihadi groups operating from its territory. The Pakistani foreign-office spokesperson said that the Indian government should produce hard evidence of the involvement of militant groups operating from its territory. But incontrovertible evidence is hard to come by. No wonder the Indian government is frustrated in its dealings with the Pakistan establishment.

A change in the air

Meanwhile, India’s liberal intelligentsia – with covert support from pro-Pakistan lobbies in the United States – are pressing hard for closer ties between India and Pakistan. The US is keen that the nuclear-armed south Asian rivals overcome their mutual distrust and become part of the global alliance led by Washington. There are also attempts to convert the tragedy triggered by the 8 October earthquake to open up the borders dividing the two Kashmirs. The separatists in Indian Kashmir, supported by the Indian peaceniks, want to wipe out a political border that was devastated by the quake, which hit a small part of the Indian (and Muslim-majority) state of Jammu & Kashmir and a far larger portion of Pakistan’s Azad (Free) Kashmir.

Also in openDemocracy on Kashmir:

Muzamil Jaleel, “Kashmir’s bus ride to peace” (April 2005)

Maruf Khwaja, “Pakistan’s mountain tsunami” (October 2005)

Jan McGirk, “Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake” (October 2005)

Musharraf is quite enthusiastic about this whole venture, for it dovetails neatly with a key Pakistani argument: that the unresolved Kashmir question is the source of Islamist militancy in south Asia, and that the militants would pack and go home if India were to settle it. This argument may find its echo in the sweet dreams of weak-kneed Indian liberals, but it is misconceived. The Kashmir question does not admit of a simple answer: it is as tortuous as the Schleswig-Holstein question that troubled European statesmen in the 19th century.

Pakistan, recognising that the Kashmir question is unlikely to be settled any time soon, also regards as unrealistic India’s demand that it liquidates the Pakistan-based militant groups. Pakistan cannot or will not give up its tacit support for Islamists who claim to be fighting for the cause of Muslims in Jammu & Kashmir. As a result, India will have to deal doggedly with the kind of terrorism displayed on 29 October – probably for years to come. Indeed, even if the US and its European allies manage to contain Islamic terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and in other parts of west Asia, it is unlikely that it will disappear from south Asia.

But the Delhi blasts evoked a different kind of impact on ordinary Muslims in India. Indian Muslims are afraid that a continued Islamic terrorist onslaught in India will leave them more vulnerable than ever. Many in this group were favourable towards the jihadis who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and have been unable to differentiate between their sympathy for the Palestinian cause in general and the policies of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in particular.

Closer to home, Indian Muslims have long entertained a secret sympathy too for the militants in Jammu & Kashmir because of the perceived injustice being done to Muslims there. The latter sentiment at least has shifted. Middle-class Indian Muslims are afraid that continued Islamist terrorism in India will leave them more vulnerable than ever. They are convinced that jihad has no future, and that they have better prospects in an economically vibrant India.

Moreover, in the wake of the earthquake relief operations carried out by the Indian army in Jammu & Kashmir, the ordinary people of the province have discovered that being part of India has its advantages. These Indian Muslims are suddenly feeling revulsion for the terrorists who claim to be fighting for the Islamic cause. The experience may be painful and no consolation to the bereaved, but some tragedies have beneficial results.

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