India: The Terrorists Within

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Indian police keep watch at one of the explosion sites in Ahmedabad, India, Sunday, July 27.

Correction Appended: July 30, 2008

A day after major Indian cities were placed on high alert following blasts in the IT city of Bangalore, as many as 17 blasts ripped through Ahmedabad, commercial capital of the affluent western Indian state of Gujarat. Some 30 people were killed, some at hospitals where bombs were timed to go off when the injured from other blasts were being brought in. (Later, in Surat, a center for the world's diamond industry, a bomb was defused near a hospital, and two cars packed with explosives were found in the city's outskirts.) Investigators pointed fingers at the usual Islamist suspects: Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul Jihadi Islami (HUJI) and the indigenous Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). But even as the police searched for clues, the Ahmedabad attacks were owned up by a group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen.

Several TV news stations received an e-mail five minutes before the first blasts in Ahmedabad. The message reportedly had the Indian Mujahideen proclaiming that they were based within the country, claiming sole responsibility for the attacks and asking other organisations like LeT not to take credit. The e-mail purportedly cited a list of grievances against India's Hindu majority and hinted at more attacks to come. The same group had claimed responsibility for blasts that killed 63 people in the northwestern city of Jaipur in May this year, as well as for serial blasts in the northern cities of Varanasi, Faizabad and Lucknow, in which 13 people were killed in November 2007.

While the credibility of the e-mail has yet to be established, the recent bombings have forced the Indian authorities to face some very uncomfortable facts. First, terrorist groups now have the wherewithal to strike at will and inflict significant damage. The targeting of Bangalore, one of the pivots of India's nascent economy, shows an ability to strategize. Second, recent efforts to spruce up intelligence-gathering and policing have been entirely inadequate. Despite the security threats festering across the country — there have been 11 major Islamist bombings in the past three years and over a dozen in the insurgency-ridden northeast this year alone — India's police stand at just 126 officers per 100,000 people. The United Nations norm is 222. The Intelligence Bureau, responsible for internal intelligence-gathering, has a sum total of 3,500 field operatives — for a country of 1.1 billion. Finally, the security establishment cannot go on blaming a "foreign hand" for these attacks. The profusion of such attacks within a short time frame cannot have been possible without local recruits. India must now face up to a brood of homegrown Islamist terrorists feeding off popular and growing Muslim resentment toward the purported injustices and atrocities of the Hindu majority. Indeed, the past three terror attacks have been in states ruled by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party — the Hindu right-wing party.

But parties across the political spectrum have contributed to the situation. Some play on the insecurities of the minority Muslim community to maintain an electoral base; others fan anti-Muslim sentiment for similar reasons. At the receiving end of decades of such politicking and social bias, the Muslim community — which forms 13.4% of India's population — remains impoverished and is increasingly alienated. A commission instituted by the ruling Congress Party–led government found Muslims underrepresented in government jobs and faring badly in social indicators like household income and literacy. "When you have a community that has been brutalized, it is inevitable that there will be a pool of ready recruits," says political commentator Manoj Joshi, noting the anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in 1993 and similar ones in Gujarat in 2002. "It is a very serious situation, which has arisen because our government has failed to accept the ground reality," says security analyst B. Raman, former head of the counterterrorism division of the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency. "A growing percentage of India's Muslim population is getting alienated. They are increasingly acquiring their own expertise, and they continue to get funding and equipment from across the borders."

Experts like Joshi believe that disgruntled Islamist extremists in India are now a part of the global jihad — "united by the Internet and cutting across class lines." Says Raman: "Over the last few years, [Indian Islamist terrorists] have expanded the ambit of their grievances from purely domestic issues to global issues like the U.S.-led war in Iraq. They are a part of the pan-Islamic agenda." Last year, two brothers, Indian Muslim doctors from Bangalore, were implicated in the abortive Glasgow attacks in the U.K.

In February, theologians from 6,000 religious schools met at the Darul-Uloom Deoband, an influential, 150-year-old Islamic school in northern India, to denounce terrorism as "un-Islamic." But moderate Muslim voices have been drowned out by cries for jihad from the extremist fringe.

While the threat of more terror attacks looms, analysts are also warning against the possibility of Hindu-Muslim riots. "But our politicians are still in denial mode," says Raman. "To be able to solve this problem, they must first realize its real nature." Rather than outside the country's borders, India's war on terror will have to begin at home.

The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Ahmedabad as the capital of the Indian state of Gujarat. While Ahmedabad is the commercial and cultural center of the state, Gandhinagar is the actual capital.