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India’s ‘other’ war: Jihadi paranoia and ethnic militancy

By Nilim Dutta

The December 23 carnage

It was between 17:00 and 17:50 hours when a series of calls came. It was Dec 23, 2014 and I was in Guwahati, Assam that evening where I was born and have grown up.

“Sir, our people have been killed in an attack in at least two villages in Ultapani area. Their homes have been burnt down.”

“Sir, all our people have been killed. All of them.”

I asked, “Calm down. Where has this happened?”

“Sir, in Sonajuli in Pabhoi area. Sir, Phulbari 9 & 10.”

I immediately communicated it to the top echelons of the security establishment whose responsibility it is to respond to such terror attacks. The calls, however, kept pouring in.

“Sir, another attack in Serfanguri. Our people have been killed there too.”

In another hour, it became apparent to me from the steady stream of direct information from the places of occurrence that casualties would exceed 50 and many would be children. India’s national media was still oblivious.

For the next 48 hours, I would have little time to sleep or even eat as not only did I continue to manage a steady stream of ‘critical’ information directly from the ground to help deal with the aftermath, but also responded to numerous calls from terrified villagers across a 300-km stretch of remote border villages, reassuring them or aiding them in any way possible.

One of the worst terror strikes in India in this decade thus took place on Dec 23, 2014 in the North Eastern state of Assam. In a coordinated, near-simultaneous attack on five locations, the farthest of which were at least 300-km apart, terrorists brutally gunned down 81 unarmed civilians belonging to the Adivasi community.

While India’s security establishment was preoccupied with creating an alarm about possible terrorist strikes from the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or even Pakistan’s ‘good terrorists’ the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the past few months, this terror attack embarrassingly didn’t come from any Islamic Jihadi groups. The carnage was perpetrated by India’s own ‘good terrorists’ who had been treated with kid gloves for decades in spite of being responsible for some of the worst terror attacks India has suffered in the last three decades.

The manufactured paranoia of ‘Jihadi’ terror

It was in July 2014 that an important minister of Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet and a very senior bureaucrat in India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were both honoured guests to ‘launch’ a monthly magazine in New Delhi’s Press Club of India. No national newspaper appears to have carried this as news and it would have even escaped our attention had it not been for the ‘cover feature’ of the first issue of the magazine: “Al Qaeda begins hiring in North East”.

The ‘cover feature’ went on to claim that it was in possession of a highly classified intelligence report that recruiters from Al Qaeda were targeting Muslim youth from Manipur and Assam, two of India’s North Eastern states, to join the global Islamic terror network. It claimed that in the first batch, Al Qaeda had recruited 17 Muslim youth from Manipur to join the global jihadi network and fight in India, Syria and Iraq. In the second batch, the magazine claimed, 10 Muslim youth from Manipur were recruited.

What made the report believable to even an informed reader was that it carried the names of the 17 Manipuri Muslim youth from Lilong in Thoubal district in Manipur who had reportedly joined Al Qaeda.

What naturally aroused my curiosity was how did a nondescript magazine come into possession of such a ‘highly classified intelligence report’? Why did an important member of Modi’s cabinet as well as a very senior bureaucrat in charge of ‘internal security’ in India’s North East happen to launch this magazine?

Events took an even more curious turn when people in Lilong, from where Al Qaeda had reportedly recruited the Muslim youth, broke out in protest and burned copies of the magazine. When threat of appropriate legal action was conveyed to the magazine, the publisher and the editor hastily apologised and conveyed that they may have got the names wrong and that they had only published the names based on an intelligence report. They also categorically clarified that they had no intention of casting aspersions on the people of Lilong, particularly its Muslim community.

Months later, many so called ‘experts’ would cite this dubious report as ‘proof’ of how Al Qaeda has already made inroads into India’s North East, among them the Director of the South Asia Programme of the Washington DC based ‘Middle East Media Research Institute’ or MEMRI in a piece he had written for The New Indian Express.

The fear regarding India’s North East, particularly Manipur or Assam, becoming the hotbed for recruitment by Al Qaeda and sundry jihadi group’s intensified after Al Qaeda released a video early in September 2014 where Ayman Al-Zawahiri announced the formation of ‘Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’ and mentioned that it “would be good news for Muslims in Myanmar (Burma), Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Assam, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir, where they would be rescued from injustice and oppression.”

With a Hindutva Right government in power at the Centre, this was all that was needed to now ratchet up the fear of ‘jihadi terrorism’ targeting India even though any such threat had not increased radically by any standards of objective professional assessment.

Imagine offering ‘general amnesty’ to the terrorists who carried out the Mumbai suburban train blasts on July 11, 2006. Imagine giving those terrorists an ‘autonomous council’ to rule as reward.

Exactly a month later, on Oct 2, 2014, in a nondescript town called Burdwan in Assam’s neighbouring state of West Bengal, a bomb went off in a house killing the bomb makers. India’s premier terror investigating agency, National Investigation Agency (NIA) soon took over the case and revealed that the suspects, including the deceased, were active members of Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Some of them were allegedly Bangladeshis living illegally in India.

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