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The jihad in “God’s Own Country”

Praveen Swami

Islamist groups are gaining both followers and influence in Kerala


Within Kerala, politics has contributed to the empowerment of Islamists

Islamist groups able to market religious message as an answer to problems of young people


THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: One morning 17 years ago, C.A.M. Basheer walked into work at Mumbai’s international airport and handed in his resignation.

Since then, he has become one of India’s most-wanted terrorists: a key figure the Islamist terror networks that have, since 2003, struck cities across southern India. Basheer’s story raises a critical question: why residents of States with no history of large-scale communal pogroms, like Kerala and Karnataka, are contributing cadre to Islamist terror groups.

Born into a middle-class family from Aluva, Basheer was an improbable Islamist. After finishing his studies at the Aeronautical Engineering College in Chalakudy, he joined a flight training institute in Bangalore. He then moved to Mumbai, and encountered the movement that would transform his life: the Students Islamic Movement of India.

In 1990, angered by the religious discrimination he encountered in Mumbai, Basheer joined SIMI full-time. A year later, he helped organise one of its largest-ever rallies, at the Bandra Reclamation grounds in Mumbai, where more than 10,000 supporters gathered. And after the demolition of the Babri Masjid 1992, Basheer joined the ranks of SIMI radicals calling for violence

After SIMI was proscribed in 2001, Basheer played a critical role in ensuring funding for the terror cells it had began to spawn, drawing on connections in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Cash channelled to an old SIMI comrade-in-arms, Saqib Nachan, is thought to have paid for the 2003 serial bombings in Mumbai.

“God’s Own Country,” as Kerala’s tourism advertisements call it, hasn’t seen a terrorist strike — an exception among the major southern States. But Islamist groups are gaining both followers and influence. Last year, the State government said SIMI now operates through twelve front organisations, mainly in the districts of Malappuram and Kondotty.

Most of these front organisations aren’t directly linked to SIMI. Groups like the Tahreeek Tahaffuz-e-Sha’aire Islam [Movement for the Protection of Islamic Symbols and Monuments], the Muslim Youth Forum or the Karuna Foundation do however help propagate chauvinist Salafi-sect ideologues who advocate violence, and provide a forum for SIMI talent-scouts.

Over the years, SIMI has had not a little success in funnelling recruits to terrorist groups, notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Kamakutty, a computer engineer-turned terrorist held in Bangalore last month, is known to have worked closely with Lashkar commander Muhammad Faisal Khan, a key organiser of bombings in Mumbai during 2002-2003.

Hard questions

How does one account for the growth of Islamist terror networks in Kerala? One important point is that most of SIMI’s key leaders in Kerala worked or studied elsewhere — thus encountering communal discrimination of an intensity unknown in the State itself. Highly educated, their access to the internet enables them to link local grievances to the larger, global jihadist movement.

Within Kerala itself, politics has contributed to the empowerment of Islamists. In recent years, the Jamaat-e-Islami’s traditional control of Muslim votes in north Kerala has weakened, as the Left has taken control of the region. Religious neo-conservatism has been seen by some Jamaat-e-Islami ground-level leaders as a means of fighting the secular tide.

Islamist groups have been able to market their religious message as an answer to the problems of young people, like drugs and alcoholism. Parents often welcome their operations, believing their wards’ religious interests keep them safe from modern vices. Elements of Kerala’s West Asia-based Muslim diaspora have often unwittingly funded these enterprises.

In the imagination of Kerala Islamists, SIMI-linked terrorists are inheritors of an unbroken line of Islamist resistance dating back to struggles against Portuguese imperialism. Recruits are told of Zayn-ad-Din, a Malabar coast resident who in his 1580 book, Tuhfat al-Mujahideen, called on “the Faithful to undertake a jihad against the worshippers of the Cross.”

Kerala jihadists, with their close link to the worldwide Salafi-jihadi movement, claim their struggle forms part of the same tradition. Kerala’s government is alive to the threat. Last year, clashes between Islamists and Hindu fundamentalists in Malappuram led police to make several hundred arrests. But the resilience of SIMI’s networks shows no quick-fix solution exists to the growing problem.

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