Despite the several conflicts that were taking place in and around India, Tamil Nadu in South India has been distantly associated with the threat of jihadism and the global threat of terrorism emanating from contemporary jihadist groups. This has changed over the last twenty-four months or so. The attraction that the on-going civil war in Syria holds for foreign fighters has altered this landscape of relative peace. The discovery of sympathisers, many of whom have pledged their allegiances to the various warring factions in Syria, has led to a palpable deterioration of the security perceptions in this calm state. This new phenomena has demonstrated significant security implications beyond the Indian sub-continent, particularly in Southeast Asia, home to a large South Indian, Tamil Muslim diaspora.
Jihadism in India
India is a fast-rising economic powerhouse in South Asia and an influential player in the global economy. Beneath this economic development, however, a complex undercurrent of security challenges threatens to mitigate its flourishing economic infrastructure. The internal security situation in India can be summarized into four main threat areas; (a) the threat from jihadist militancy, (b) the Maoist threat, (c) the northeast insurgency, and (d)transnational terrorist groups and or, contemporary jihadist groups such as IS.
India is only second to Indonesia, in terms of the world’s largest Muslim population. This makes it particularly vulnerable to radical Islamist influences linked to contemporary jihadist groups. India confronts a new layer of threat associated with the trend of transnational jihadism, namely from IS and Al Qaeda’s most recently formed wing, set up in September 2014 – Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS).
The phenomena of jihadism in the country can be broadly categorised according to three geographical regions, namely, (a) the threat of Islamic militancy in Jammu and Kashmir in North India, (b) the threat from Islamic groups operating along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Northeast India, and (c) the presence of anti-Hindu and anti-Western jihadi groups operating across India.
The Islamic militancy in Jammu and Kashmir has been the focal point of jihadism in India for the last five decades. The groups in this region are fighting for an autonomous independent state, while other groups in this region desire to become a part of the Pakistani state. These groups have undertaken guerrilla attacks and planting of explosives against mainly government targets and security forces. Fortunately, the violence and propaganda issuing from these militant groups do not extend beyond the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Hence, the conflict in this region remains completely localised, with little impact to the surrounding Indian states.
A small number of Islamic insurgent groups operate in the Northeast states of India (Seven Sisters; Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya), along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Groups such as the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) aim to attain an independent ‘Islamistan’ and have mobilised a number of the Muslim youth to fight for the rights of Muslims with the goal of training them to wage armed jihad against the Indian state. These groups have not only been known to draw inspiration from Bangladeshi terrorist groups, but also to have close ties with terrorist groups such as the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and the Myanmar-based Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO).
The threat from Maoist groups, also known as Naxalites such as the Peoples’ Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), Communist Party of India (CPI) and Peoples’ War Group (PWG) has rapidly declined over the last half of the decade. With their areas of operation, mainly along the “Red-Corridor” Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. This is mainly due to the rise in capitalism and foreign investments in these states and a sharp rise in literacy levels. The main threat from the Maoists are more ideologically oriented rather than militarily.
Regarding the threats from anti-Hindu and anti-Western jihadi groups operating across India, an example is offered by the Indian Mujahideen. The group that came to light in 2008 has been described by Professor Stephen Tankel as a “loosely organised indigenous Islamic network… [symbolising] the failure of the domestic intelligence agencies”, of which the current leader is unknown. This group is closely affiliated with the Pakistan-based Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT). The Indian Mujahideen’s, as well as the LeT’s stated objectives, are to target western establishments and tourists in India as well as non-Muslim Indians. As such, the Indian Mujahideen has carried out major attacks on a German Bakery in Pune, in 2010 that killed 17 people and injuring over 60 and, more recently, the serial blasts at the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya in 2013, that injured 5 people.
The fourth and more recent category: “contemporary jihadism” – which is the threat coming from external jihadi influences creeping into India, particularly via Tamil Nadu – has emerged in the country. Before IS declared its incipience in 2014, Islamic-focused or religiously driven extremism in this lower half of the country was virtually unheard of. The threat from the IS coincides with the rise of religious fervour among the Tamil Muslims. Liberal Tamil Nadu Muslims are gradually identifying themselves more with religious extremism. This is becoming clearer by looking at their appearance: for instance, it is now very common to see women wearing the burkha and men sporting beards in Tamil Nadu, something that has never been seen before.
Comparatively speaking, even if Al Qaeda’s presence in the South Asian region lasted longer than IS’s, it did not achieve the same results.Before 2014, there were various Al Qaeda-linked jihadist factions operating in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. However, IS has been the first transnational terrorist group and indeed the first contemporary jihadist group, which has succeeded in appealing to the Tamil Muslim sentiments in South India.
The Tamil Muslims have not been taking part to the traditional conflicts due to their strong ties with the Dravidian culture and the non-adoption of Hindi as a national language in Tamil Nadu. This acted as a protective barrier against the threat of jihadism spreading into Tamil Nadu over the decades. IS has broken the protective “barrier” that is perceived to have been safeguarding the Tamil Muslim youth from jihadist ideology. IS has taken steps to ensure that their propaganda reached the Tamil Muslim community, by translating many of their videos and posts on social media into Tamil.
Threat Beyond The Region
For IS, this is seen as a huge victory for the simple reason that their ideology will spread beyond South India, into Southeast Asia, perhaps even after their demise. This has already been witnessed in Indonesia and even the Philippines where the so-called Southeast Asian IS-backed caliphate was announced by the now deceased Isnilon Hapilon in mid 2016.
The historical network of merchants and traders between South India and Southeast Asia have evolved into broader social networks, through which exchanging cultural and religious ideas. The channels have hitherto kept out ideas that underpin the propaganda of global jihadism. However, the recent IS penetration of extremist ideas into Tamil Nadu’s social milieu have changed this pattern.
Although, the Tamil Nadu Muslim community’s response is laudable as it behoves governments, religious and community leaders to actively anticipate any extremism and to prevent any descent into violence, the pressure to keep up an equally effective counter-narrative is challenging. The jihadi ideology will continue to spread and take on various characteristics of the region it spreads in.