Al-Qaida is already here

Some time ago, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman posed the question, why do Muslims join Al-Qaida in so many Arab countries but not in India? The answer, he said, lay in India being a secular democracy.

In autocracies across the Arab world, protest against local oppressors was sublimated into protest against the US, seen as the power propping up the autocrats. This trend was strengthened by the autocrats suppressing any local press criticism of themselves, while tacitly encouraging criticism of the US (even in supposedly pro-US countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt). Thus the autocrats cleverly diverted local protest from themselves to the US, and in the process stoked international terrorism.

But India, said Friedman, was a secular democracy where Muslims could give free vent to their grievances. In this milieu of freedom, not even aggrieved Muslims became terrorists. Similar encomiums have been paid to India by other analysts, and by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. I am sure this made many Indians feel very good.

Alas, we must reject this as a myth that may have been true at some time, but has ceased to be true after the Gujarat riots last year. Bomb blasts by Muslim terrorists with international connections now occur in several states, no longer just in Kashmir or Gujarat.

In the past nine months, Mumbai alone has been at the receiving end of seven bomb blasts, culminating in the horrendous two on August 25. The suburb of Ghatkopar has witnessed two attacks, Mulund railway station suffered a major blast on March 13 when 12 people died, and other blasts took place near Vile Parle station (January 27) and Mumbai Central station (December 6, 2002). So, the latest blasts on August 25 were not an exceptional outrage, they were part of a continuing pattern of terrorist attacks. Al-Qaida is already here.

For a long time, most Indians have regarded Muslim terrorism in India as something without local roots, and basically manipulated by foreigners. In Kashmir, officials are fond of saying that local home-bred insurgency was tamed a long time ago, and the militants operating are Pakistani or international Islamic outfits like the Lahskar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul Ansar.

But after the recent blasts in Mumbai and other parts of India, we must abandon this dubious theory, and acknowledge frankly that Muslims in many parts of India have joined terrorist groups that have intimate links with some of the most feared international groups.

The 1993 Mumbai blasts could be explained away as the work of the Muslim underworld led by Dawood Ibrahim. But the latest blasts involve Muslim doctors, engineers, computer professionals and even MBAs. No longer can we explain away bomb blasts as the work of foreigners or the underground. The problem has now spread to the Muslim mainstream, including highly educated and sophisticated Muslims.

This is not the result of fundamentalist preachers misleading gullible Muslims. It is the outcome of the crassest Hindu outrages in Gujarat. These were the first communal riots to be captured live on TV, and so they had a far deeper impact than any previous conflagrations. The unabashed communal hate displayed by sundry Hindus on TV must have infuriated the most moderate Muslims.

In this atmosphere, fundamentalist groups that earlier failed to enthuse Indian Muslims are now attracting sizable numbers. The police have named the Taleegh Jamaat and Ahle Hadis among the organisations recruiting Muslim militants, and these bodies have links with the Wahabi groups that gave rise to Osama bin Laden. Osama also has links with the Lashkar and Jaish. These feared outfits are no longer confined to Kashmir but are gaining ground among Muslim communities in several parts of India.

Let me not exaggerate. The overwhelming majority of Muslims still steer clear of terrorism. But no longer can we claim that our secular democracy tames terrorist tendencies. The Gujarat riots showed that neither democracy nor secular institutions like the police and courts provided protection or redress. The party that spearheaded the mass murder was re-elected with a huge majority.

India has a moth-eaten, perverted form of democracy that looks as oppressive to some Muslims as the worst autocracies of the Middle East. The same sort of outraged Muslims that strike at American civilian targets are now striking at Indian ones. Al-Qaida is not a formal, cen-tralised movement controlled by Osama. It is a loose network of autonomous militant units spread across the globe. After 9/11, the US State Department reckoned that the network was active in 23 countries. India can now be added to the list.

Brute force alone cannot solve the problem. We must revamp our democratic and secular institutions to provide protection and redressal to all groups. We need this not to earn praise from the New York Times but for our own pride and safety.

What do you think?