The Marathwada region of Maharashtra is buffeted by a new wave of Islamist radicalisation, Ullekh NP reports from Aurangabad and Beed
ON QUILA ROAD in the Bir area of Beed in central Maharashtra, a number of star-and- crescent flags on electricity poles flutter in the morning wind as burkha-clad women walk past, chaperoning their children to school, and men, mostly wearing skull caps, ride motorbikes, slowing down every few moments to give strangers hostile stares. There are several such flags that resemble Pakistan’s less than 500 metres ahead, opposite the Miliya College of Art and Science, swinging wildly to the astonishment of visitors. Not far from here is Hathikhana Muhalla, an address that has attracted much interest thanks to it being the home of Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, who has other aliases: Riyasat Ali, Asif, Zabi, Sameer Hasan, Aazam Khan and so on. But the one that has an immediate recall value is Abu Jundal, theKarachi-based handler of 10 Lashkar-e-Toiba operatives who launched the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai that left 188 people dead. A handful of people we speak to in Hathikhana Muhalla are uncooperative: they refuse to offer any help with directions towards the home of Ansari (Jundal), who has been in Indian custody ever since 2012, when he was deported to the country by Saudi Arabia, where he had gone on a Pakistani passport.
While Hathikhana Muhalla seemed like a locality in denial about a former resident as notorious as Jundal, locating the home of Fayyaz Kagzi—because of whom Beed has resurfaced in newspaper headlines—was a breeze. Kagzi was the one to indoctrinate his friend Jundal to join the Indian Mujahideen (IM), an entity formed by a section of former SIMI activists sworn to waging a jihad against the Indian state, and later the LeT. He would have been 36 now had he not died in Saudi Arabia. Some weeks ago, Saudi authorities concluded after comprehensive DNA tests that the man who blew himself up outside the US consulate in Jeddah on July 4th, 2016, was Kagzi. The DNA samples collected by the Arab country matched those dispatched to its investigators by India.
Kagzi’s name has kept cropping up again and again thanks to a large number of plots and conspiracies he has been a part of in India and abroad. Before the Jeddah blasts that brought his name to the fore, finally culminating in Saudi Arabia recently confirming his role in the foiled terror attempt of July 4th, 2016, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) and several other security agencies had identified him as the mastermind—as well as the fund-raiser—behind several bomb blasts and an arms-haul case. His name figured prominently in the 2010 German Bakery and the 2012 JM Road blasts in Pune. He had allegedly also trained in Hindi the LeT’s 26/11 operatives, including Ajmal Kasab, who was later found guilty in court and executed.
Kagzi’s was Jundal’s mentor and the duo had recruited youth for the LeT to launch terror strikes in various parts of India. Both were involved in the 2006 Aurangabad arms haul case, which had arms and ammunition being procured to target key spots in India with terror attacks. They had to flee India after security forces got wind of their plan and went after them. They fled to Pakistan via Nepal or Bangladesh and then, shortly after 26/11, shifted base to Saudi Arabia, from where they continued to remote-control the operations of the IM and LeT in India. Kagzi was reportedly also part of the 2006 Mumbai train blasts that killed 200 people. That incident, officials say, confirmed that central Maharashtra, from where many of the conspirators hailed, had become a hotbed for Islamist terror activities in India. Kagzi is survived by his parents, sister and brother, who still live there.
Riyaz Ahmed Kagzi resides in a middle-class home in Beed’s Shenshahnagar, close to Aqsa Masjid, which he is known to frequent. A former principal at Miliya, he still spends a lot of time with students who visit him seeking help with their studies. His neighbours are fond of him and he is popular in the area. One of them was keen to direct me to his home, saying he is the father of ‘Shaheed’ Kagzi. Kagzi Senior may be an avuncular figure among his neighbours, but he comes across as bitter and combative about radicalisation that is rising at a fast clip among Muslim youth. In a brief conversation with Open that ended with him asking us to leave his home, he, like his neighbours, referred to his son as shaheed (martyr), displaying no sense of pity whatsoever for the victims of terror. Instead, he sought to blame the media for chasing the families of “martyred souls”. He retorted furiously when asked what community leaders can do to contain the menace of radicalistion through the internet and offline: “I can give no answer for that. It is a problem, just like rapes and suicides in this country. Delhi is the rape capital of India. What can one do about it?” In the background, his other son called out to warn his father against talking to the media. Piqued and reticent, they both ended the conversation abruptly. To be fair, reports in the regional media said that Kagzi Senior is afflicted with various ailments while his son is being treated for a mental illness.
“That they are not getting justice is the common refrain of those people who try to lead Muslims astray either on the Internet or outside” – Faiz Syed, founder, Islamic Research Centre
A local police officer tells me that following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and as a result of riots in the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of Muslims became radicalised, especially under the umbrella of SIMI. They soon found a sanctuary in Beed and several others areas in the Marathwada region that was once under the Nizam’s reign. Besides Beed, places such as Latur, Parbhani, Nanded and Aurangabad remain fertile turf for radical outfits such as the IM. Intelligence reports suggest that lately they have become an easy recruitment ground for Islamist entities and terrorist groups such as ISIS. Indian security officials have stated in various interviews that they believe Kagzi to have joined the ISIS in 2014 before he was asked to carry out suicide strikes in Saudi Arabia, a country that, ironically, is home to financiers of Islamism worldwide. As teenagers, both Kagzi and Jundal were part of the hardline Ahl-i-Hadith group. Kagzi later pursued an undergraduate course in science and then did his BEd from Maulana Azad College in Aurangabad.
“The anger that you perceived at Kagzi’s home is typical of the anger that many others from the community feel in Marathwada and, of course, many other parts of India where Muslims believe they are being victimised and treated as second-class citizens, especially after 2014 when Hindutva parties came into power,” a police officer in Aurangabad says. “Whether their grievance has any merit is another matter,” he adds, “But the perception is rampant, especially in the Marathwada region where polarisation along religious lines is deep and where Muslims account for a good chunk of the total population.”
A section of pundits and intelligence officials also say the rise in anti-India sentiment and an affinity towards ultra-Islamist groups in Marathwada are a result of a series of factors, including its backwardness as a drought-prone region, the sway that Islamic clerics hold, and other historical and political reasons. Apart from the region having had Islamic administrative influence in the past under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad, it became a nerve centre of discussion around nationalism and Islam in the 1980s and 1990s. It was in Aurangabad and Beed in the aftermath of the Ayodhya crisis that SIMI leaders made incendiary speeches that came to attract sedition charges. It was again in Aurangabad that SIMI and later the IM recruited new hires from among students through their anti-India speeches and videos.
In his book Islamism and Democracy in India, Irfan Ahmad argues that a masculine, exclusivist majoritarianism masquerading as democracy was behind the hardline stance that SIMI began to adopt in the 1990s. ‘The point is that Hindutva’s agenda of the Hindu state and its fierce anti-Muslim nature spurred SIMI’s radicalization. Worth noting is that over fifteen per cent of its total members came only from the state of Maharashtra where the Shiv Sena, a constituent of the Sangh Parivar, had been in power and involved in one of the worst riots ever in Bombay. This also explains SIMI’s diatribe against polytheism and Hindutva,’ he writes. He emphasises that ‘as long as the Nehruvian project of a plural, non-monopolistic, secular and democratic India was hegemonic, Islamist radicalisation was almost non-existent. Even a party as rigid as Jamaat underwent moderation.’
Star and crescent flags flutter in the morning wind. There are several such flags that resemble Pakistan’s in the Bir area of Beed
AVICTIM MENTALITY HELPS nobody, asserts Faiz Syed, a lawyer and founder president of the Aurangabad-based Islamic Research Centre. Seated in his office at the city’s Rohilla Galli area, he says the life of Prophet Muhammad offers enough on how Muslims should live in a place where they are a minority. Syed, 38, who organises tuitions for school students, laments that the biggest scourge of Muslims in the Marathwada region is the educational backwardness within the community that makes them vulnerable to the blandishments of extremist groups. He works in tandem with state officials to dispel negative notions harboured by Muslim families in the region. “That they are not getting justice is the common refrain of those people who try to lead Muslims astray either on the internet or outside,” he says, adding his team makes videos imploring members of the community not to fall into the trap of subversive groups. “I give talks against radicalisation and distribute them among social-media groups. We try to reach out to as many people as possible,” he says. Trained in computer science, Syed later studied law before becoming a businessman (he sells watches). He is of the view that India offers Muslims social mobility and opportunities to come up in life. He has incurred the wrath of a section of clerics for discussing matters such as sexuality, women’s rights, etcetera, on social media. His argument is that the Prophet himself had shown Muslims the way by allowing his wives to train in horse and camel riding, and that his first wife was famously adept in business.
Like Syed in Aurangabad, in many other parts of the country, influential Muslims have come out to fight the curse of young people being lured by organisations such as ISIS. In Mumbai, M Suhail Khandwani, vice-president of the Memon Chamber of Commerce, has hired cyber security experts and joined hands with official agencies to monitor the ‘online’ behaviour of fellow Muslims. As reported by Open earlier, the security experts especially observe the youth who are likely to be led astray by self-styled jihadists preying on the gullible to wage a war against the country—or to die in overseas conflicts in places like Syria and Afghanistan. Dr Abdur Rahman Anjaria, who heads the Islamic Defence Cyber Cell of India, has volunteers across the country scanning social media—from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and beyond—for objectionable content, jihadist appeals and hate speeches on so-called ‘kaafirs’ (infidels).
But then, terrorism is a hydra-headed monster that can attract even the most educated folks from privileged backgrounds. In several parts of India and the world, Muslim youths have joined organisations like ISIS and others for ‘humanitarian reasons’— for instance, after watching the hardships of immigrants from troubled countries like Syria and Iraq on TV or video clips.
Tufail Ahmad, senior fellow for Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC, has travelled widely in the country to assess various degrees of radicalisation among Muslims and to find its causes and consequences. He believes that teachings by Islamic clerics, the celebration of historical wars by Muslim leaders, and propagation of Islamist ideas by Urdu and other Islamic media contribute to a gradual radicalisation of youths.
Notably, in Latur, during Ramadan—the holy month of fasting— Islamic leaders organised a conference to mark Ghazwa- e-Badr, the first Islamic battle fought by Prophet Muhammad. Speeches were delivered by Muslim leaders lauding the victory of Muslims over mushrikeen (idolaters) in Ghazwa-e-Badr on the 17th of Ramzan in March 624 CE, Ahmad points out. “Such events lead to reverse radicalisation of Hindu youths against Muslims and encourage radical Hindu groups such as Bajrang Dal, Hindu Yuva Vahini and others,” he notes.
The next step, according to him, is a militant outlook towards social life and politics. Due to religious radicalisation, Muslim youths tend to pick up guns, he says. “Fortunately, in India the number of such youths is not high. The police and intelligence agencies can certainly contain such radicalisation if community leaders are roped in to help,” Ahmad adds.
Fayyaz Kagzi was the mentor of Abu Jundal (Left). The duo had recruited youths for Lashkar-e-Toiba and were both involved in the 2006 Aurangabad arms haul case
According to him, however, it will be erroneous to say Islam alone is a source of radicalisation. “Any conflict or war is essentially rooted in two sets of causes: long-term, fundamental and historical causes; and short-term, associated and transient causes. For example, radicalisation in Kashmir is backed by the Pakistani state and is historically rooted in India’s Partition,” he opines.
The short-term, associated causes for radicalisation include global geopolitics in which some youths is radicalised to fight against big powers, says Ahmad. And some states step in to help such young men with money and arms. “In the 1980s, Afghanistan, the US and Saudis backed the [anti-Soviet] jihad, now the Pakistani state is backing the current jihad against the US and allies in that country. Similarly, in the Middle East, some countries initially backed the Islamic State (ISIS),” he points out.
Like Irfan Ahmad, he also believes that in India, some Muslim youths were radicalised over the years due to Hindu-Muslim riots. Such youths feel alienated and aggrieved because a number of Hindu leaders associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party tell them to ‘go to Pakistan’ or foster communal politics and anti-Muslim hatred from time to time to win votes.
Tufail Ahmad goes on: “I recently travelled through Gujarat where the Disturbed Areas Act, introduced by the Congress and now used widely by the BJP, ensures Muslims cannot buy land in Hindu areas and vice versa. The use of this Act is being encouraged by the BJP to create a Hindu political community to win votes. This fosters ghettos and alienation that will certainly result in the radicalisation of Muslims in future. Unless India gets a political leader whose intentions, not just promise, are to take along all communities together, some form of radicalisation will remain in society.”
What we must keep in mind, he says, is that Muslim radicalisation can always be contained effectively by the police and intelligence agencies because Muslims are in minority, but radicalisation of Hindu youths will be difficult to contain because it is not easy to crack down against the majority community, especially not in democracies where some leaders so openly and shamelessly depend on youth zealotry to win votes.
In India’s context, thus, Muslim and Hindu radicalisation feed each other.
A RATHER TEPID AND frivolous argument put forth by certain sections of anti-terror experts is that one cannot dictate policies based on the requirements of a particular region. They insist on targeting the ideology responsible for the trouble. By this logic, the armed forces should have been pulled out of Kashmir. Besides, a section of intelligence agencies are already watching areas with a potential for turning into terror hubs. Kerala, Assam and Marathwada are some of them. “That these areas are watched closely stems from the realisation that Muslim youths from these places have left the country in large numbers in response to ISIS’s call to arms. Certainly, security agencies have to follow a geography-oriented policy in order to crack down on crimes and to track down wrong-doers and suspects,” says a senior Home Ministry official. He adds that in some places with high religious polarisation, there is hardly any case of recruitment from outside, which, he says, means that it is sometimes geographical proximity and historical links that spur radicalisation. Thankfully, as a proportion of India’s Muslim population, the country’s jihadist-inspired terrorists are among the fewest globally.
Yet, to not be on the guard would be a mistake that the country would live to regret, warn pundits and Islam scholars, including Washington DC-based Michael Kugelman and Mumbai-based Zeenat Shaukat Ali. After all, Marathwada was a haven for SIMI activists and it is where the police seized 43 kg of RDX, AK 47s and ammunition on May 10th, 2006. It was in Parbhani that the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) busted a module of ISIS two years ago for communicating with IS handlers. The likes of Nasir Bin Yafi Chaus and Sheikh Iqbal Sheikh Kabir Ahmed were charged with inciting youths to join ISIS, which, though it has lost territory over the past four years, continues to draw Muslim youths under its spell. ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had established a so-called ‘caliphate’ and grabbed hold of Iraqi and Syrian territory in June 2014 before the group began to lose its occupied territory.
Near Aqsa mosque, a shopkeeper named Asif prescribes a piece of advice for young Muslims whom he says are “excited” to hear the story ofFayyaz Kagzi and his martyrdom. “In the Middle East, Arabs don’t consider Indian Muslims as equal to them. Which is why they always use you as cannon fodder even if you join the ranks of the most ferocious organisation. You die like a dog, that is it. Nothing more, nothing less,” he says; 9/11 and the 2002 Gujarat riots, he believes, have altered Muslim minds everywhere.
In localities where star-and-crescent flags outnumber those of political parties, even such realistic remarks about Indian Muslims being despised by Arabs don’t seem to dissuade youths from being inspired by a shaheed like Fayyaz Kagzi, who, many have apparently been schooled to believe, will be rewarded with 72 black-eyed virgins in heaven.