The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) submission to the Delhi High Court, defending travel restrictions on Shia volunteer organisations it believes wish to fight alongside militia in Iran against the Islamic State (IS), demonstrates the extraordinary obtuseness of the Centre’s thinking on the issue. The MHA, in its affidavit submitted earlier this week, has informed the court that it does not want Indians to fight against the IS, as this might “directly result in sectarian conflict in India”. The implicit suggestion is that Shia volunteers against the IS might provoke Sunni religious reaction. Even leaving aside the fact that the politics of Shia and Sunni contestation in India is fundamentally different from the communal carnage that now characterises it in West Asia, this is a gross misreading of reality. Though the IS has, indeed, engaged in savagery against Shia Muslims, as well as other religious minorities, sectarianism is not the source of its legitimacy. Though there is, no doubt, a reactionary Sunni element in India supportive of the IS, it resides on the far-right fringes of the community. The Sunni mainstream in India is deeply hostile to the IS, correctly understanding its neo-fundamentalism to be a radical challenge to orthodoxy. Iran’s Shia establishment, notably, is not alone in its opposition to the IS: Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan are all among its adversaries.
The MHA’s peculiar characterisation of the problem offers some important insights into the anxieties that have crippled India’s responses to the IS crisis in West Asia. Even though the IS and its allies have killed Indian citizens, and repeatedly threatened the Indian state, New Delhi’s response has been practically nothing. For all its pretensions to be a regional power, India is yet to offer medical resources to armed forces combatting the IS. Nor has it committed what aid it can to the millions of refugees the terrorist organisation’s savageries have sent fleeing across the region. This disengagement threatens the long-term interests of Indians whose livelihoods depend on the stability of the nation-states in West Asia where they now live and work.
The core purpose of the MHA’s affidavit is that Indians ought not to be allowed to participate in armed groups overseas — a point that is unexceptionable. No nation-state, after all, is served by private citizens acquiring the arts of war. But to argue that action in support of Shia resistance is illegitimate, because of its presumed potential to provoke a Sunni backlash at home, is to reduce what ought to be a genuine national concern to a narrow Muslim communal issue. Delhi’s concerns will be best addressed by laying out an Indian agenda for action on the genuine consensus that already exists against the IS — a consensus that includes both Sunni and Shia Muslims.