Early this month, the Ministry of Home Affairs called a meeting of the Directors General of Police and Home Secretaries from 12 states to discuss the cases of young Indians who, intelligence agencies suspect, have either joined the Islamic State or are headed to its strongholds.
This has begun to ring alarm bells in a government that only in November said the threat from the Islamic State was “negligible”.
Lists exclusively accessed by The Indian Express show 17 Indians are now missing, reported by Indian and foreign intelligence services to be active with the Islamic State or rival organisations like Jabhat al-Nusra.
In addition, up to a dozen Indian Mujahideen cadre are also believed to have joined the Islamic State, while police have stopped at least 22 volunteers from travelling.
The Indian Express reporters visited the homes and families of the 17 in an effort to piece together what drove them to join the world’s most savage regime.
The 17 — all young men, barring a woman who has returned home — were educated, most hailing from middle-class or affluent families with conventional aspirations. Few had known links to Islamist political groups, and none to terrorism.
Last year, The Indian Express had first revealed that four Thane youth had joined the Islamic State. Only one, Areeb Majid, has since returned home and has been booked under terrorism-related charges. Three other Indian nationals, not in the list of 17, are thought to have been killed.
Though photographs valourising Indian fighters have appeared on Islamic State websites, the Indian presence in the Islamic State is tiny compared with the hundreds that have gone from other countries in the neighbourhood or even the West.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new counter-terrorism czar, former Intelligence Bureau chief Asif Ibrahim, has been tasked with preparing a thorough counter-radicalisation programme, government sources said.
Even though the numbers are small, government sources said, the action plan is based on mounting evidence that the Islamic State propaganda has found resonance among some young Muslims disenchanted with the community’s traditional religious and political leadership and angered by growing communal violence.
Islamic State flags have come up at protests in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Jammu Kashmir; pro-Islamic State graffiti has been reported in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
Perhaps most important, support for the Islamic State is blossoming in underground blogs and chat-rooms. Islamic State propagandists have, in particular, been calling for educated volunteers, especially engineers and doctors, to help build an Islamic utopia.
Islamic State online propaganda targeting India feeds on these fears, using Quranic-era prophecy to give their call legitimacy. Evidence that this propaganda is reaching out to some alienated young people isn’t hard to find. In one Islamic State-linked blog, a pseudonymous commentator from Mumbai asserts that “the only choice before is to do hijrat, and prepare for jihad, if we do not want to be slaughtered as our parents were”.
The idea of hijrat has long antecedents in Indian history, little remembered today. In 1920, thousands from northern India migrated to Afghanistan, responding to clerical declarations that British India was Dar-ul-Harb, or land of war, which Muslims ought leave for the abode of Islam. The migrants hoped to find an Islamic utopia awaiting them — and some hoped to use Afghanistan as a base to wage war against the colonial power.
Frontier officials recorded, on August 14, 1920, a column of over 7,000 crossing the town of Landi Kotal into the Khyber Pass. The protesters were chanting religious slogans and hymns, all the while marching, ironically enough, to British military bagpipes.
The affair ended in tragedy: pillaged by the tribes whose territories they passed through, the muhajirin, or migrants, were looted and killed. Hundreds more died of hunger and heat-stroke. The Khyber Pass, a British administrator recorded, was “littered with corpses”.