India and "Islamic State"

Indian Muslims not heeding the siren call of IS

IS's recruitment of fighters for the "holy war" in Syria and Iraq has long been an international problem. In India, home to the world's second largest Muslim population, the security forces are also alert to the issue. By Ronald Meinardus in New Delhi

It was recently announced that the government in New Delhi has taken formal steps to ban "Islamic State". A press release stated that the organisation is aiming to "radicalise and recruit" young Indians and constitutes a security threat.

According to "The Times of India", Saudi Arabia is, with 3,000 recruits, the most prevalent country of origin for foreign IS fighters, followed by Russia and Morocco with 2,755 and 2,500 respectively. India is at the bottom of the league table with a mere two recruits. This is an astoundingly low figure for a country with over 1.2 billion inhabitants, some 180 million of whom are Muslims. The only country with more Muslim inhabitants is Indonesia.

It seems that IS propaganda is falling on deaf ears among India's Muslims. There are now IS recruitment videos on the Internet with subtitles in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil, and in a speech last summer, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the head of IS, declared India part of the territory for the projected global caliphate. Yet according to official figures, less than half a dozen Indian citizens – a mere four, to be exact – have followed the IS calls. Only two of these are currently in the crisis region, a third was allegedly killed in fighting and the fourth has returned home and is in police custody, newspapers report.

Not much pull

India's Interior Minister Rajnath Singh (photo: UNI)
Alert to the threat posed by IS jihadis: India banned all IS activities on its territory in December 2014. Authorities are also monitoring the Internet to prevent IS from using it for propaganda purposes, explained India's Interior Minister Rajnath Singh (pictured above)

"ISIS doesn't have much pull in India," says the former head of the country's foreign intelligence agency Alok Joshi. The authorities, he says, have managed to intercept a number of young people who intended to travel and prevent them from travelling to Arab countries. These young people were not punished, according to Joshi, but treated with kid gloves. After lengthy consultation, the "wannabe jihadis" are, he said, sent home to their parents.

India follows western models in dealing with potential IS recruits. The Austrian method of de-radicalisation seems particularly popular. The Indians are discussing setting up a hotline for young people who are at risk or seeking advice. The plan is that it will not be run by the police but by an NGO. The aim is to mete out advice rather than punishment.

Social media: a gateway for IS recruitment

The Indian authorities don't want to rely on persuasion alone, however. They regard the Internet as the main source of the Islamist threat. Social media in particular are seen as a hotbed of terrorist propaganda and a gateway for IS recruitment attempts.

The Israeli defence minister Moshe Jaalon's recent visit to New Delhi did not focus solely on arms deals. Co-operation between the two countries' intelligence services was also on the agenda. The Indians hope to learn from the Israelis how to better monitor the Internet and neutralise Islamist propaganda.

US President Barack Obama's official visit at the end of January also focused on combating terrorism. While New Delhi misses no opportunity to denounce violent attacks originating in neighbouring Pakistan (the country's arch-enemy), India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never uttered the words "Islamic State" in public.

Muslims praying in the Great Mosque (Jama Masjid) in New Delhi (photo: Reuters)
Muslims praying in the Great Mosque (Jama Masjid) in New Delhi. India has over 1.2 billion inhabitants. Some 80 per cent are Hindus, with around 180 million Muslims. Approximately 24 million Indians are Christians, just over two per cent. Fear of religious polarisation has grown since Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an outspoken supporter of Hinduism, took office in May 2014

Treading softly

New Delhi is deliberately treading softly where this issue is concerned. Some seven million Indians live and work in the Gulf region, three million in Saudi Arabia alone. The country's priority is to protect these Indian citizens.

Last summer showed the potential dangers when advancing IS militias in Iraq captured first Indian nurses and later Indian construction workers. The nurses were freed after brief negotiations; the 39 construction workers, however, are still being held inside IS territory. Their release has since been one of the main goals of India's Middle East diplomacy.

As long as there are Indian citizens under the control of the Islamist militia, it is unlikely that New Delhi will play an active part in the international front against terrorism. The fear remains unspoken: Indian workers could fall victim to the same fate as other foreign IS hostages.

Ronald Meinardus

© 2015

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Dr Ronald Meinardus is the head of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation's South Asia Regional Office in New Delhi.

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