From time to time, the spectre of 'growing Islamic terrorism' is raised in India. Most recently, two incidents -- on November 19 in Mangaluru and on October 22 in Coimbatore -- sparked brief agitation in the media regarding a 'rising threat'. In both, however, the outcome demonstrated the ineffectiveness and incompetence of the perpetrators.
In Mangaluru, Mohammad Shariq was grievously injured, while he was transporting an Improvised Explosive Device in an autorickshaw (the driver was also injured), while in Coimbatore A Jamesha Mubeen was killed when his car exploded outside the Arulmigu Kottai Sangameshwarar Thirukovil temple. Explosive and bomb-making materials were recovered from his house. Investigators have subsequently uncovered a wider network of 'conspirators', all 'inspired' by the Islamic State.
While such incidents are to be expected, the reality is that the threat of Islamist terrorism in India has been marginalised. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, two civilian fatalities in 2022 -- the 'lone wolf' killings at Amaravati and Udaipur, as a purported reaction to 'blasphemous' remarks by the BJP’s Nupur Sharma -- were the highest in a year in this category since 2014. Between 2015 and 2021, just one civilian killing was reported on November 7, 2016, when a powerful blast at a community club killed a passerby in the Bardhaman district of West Bengal.
Crucially, no established terrorist group was involved in any of these incidents, all of which were executed by 'self-radicalised' individuals and groups. The last incident in which an established terrorist group was involved occurred on October 27, 2013, when eight persons were killed and another 63 injured in serial bomb blasts near Gandhi Maidan, the venue of the BJP's then Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's rally in Patna. The serial explosions were orchestrated by the Indian Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
While these are positive developments, tremendous risks persist. In an environment where the politics of hate and competitive communalism flourish across the country, there can be no confidence that these will not abruptly spill over into mass violence. Majoritarian extremism, today, is growing and receives significant support from ruling dispensations at the Centre and in the states. Lynchings, rape and other acts of orchestrated violence are not only tolerated but encouraged and even rewarded by political formations. In such an environment, minority radicalisation will inevitably secure some support.
The success of the People's Front of India (PFI) is a case in point. Over 570 persons were arrested across the country, followed by the ban on the group, in September 2022. A dossier prepared by intelligence agencies indicated that PFI had a 'presence' in 17 states. While PFI proclaims itself a social and political organisation and denies allegations of terrorist activities, there can be little doubt that the ideology it propagates is extreme, and includes the declaration of an intent to transform India into a Sharia-based Islamic state.
In the present and polarised environment, another minority is moving towards radicalisation. Khalistani activities have received a fillip in Punjab, largely fuelled by provocations and resources from
a radicalised section of the Sikh diaspora. This has resulted in occasional manifestations in explicit incidents of terrorism, overwhelmingly executed by mercenary gangsters. Other enduring theatres of mass-armed violence -- the Northeast and the erstwhile 'Red Corridor' -- have dipped to a fraction of peak levels.
The troubling reality, however, is that the conditions that resulted in the many movements of anti-state militant mobilisation in the past have worsened on many parameters. As the state adopts policies that have sharply accentuated inequalities and inequities; where state agencies act in a visibly partisan, often transparently communal, manner; where the justice system is increasingly subverted; and where the democratic discourse is reduced to shrill abuse, deception and falsification, there can be no guarantee that the current and positive trends in internal security will continue.
Across the world, many of the most stable societies are today witnessing instability and social turmoil. Established equations of global and regional power have been subverted, and a new 'global disorder' is emerging. These trends will have inevitable consequences for India's internal security as well, and unless the quality of domestic governance improves dramatically, the enveloping chaos will inexorably seep across borders, infecting and undermining the social, economic and political order in India.
(Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal. He can be reached at Ajaisahni@gmail.com.)