India’s Vulnerability to ISIS Recruitment Very Low, but Divisive Domestic Politics Could Change That

The aggressive nationalism fostered by the BJP, accompanied by minority bashing and the vicious nature of the politics around the beef ban can lead to the kind of alienation that could attract youths to organisations like ISIS in the longer run.

What is Narendra Modi thinking? Credit: PTI

What is Narendra Modi thinking? Credit: PTI

The bombings in Brussels once again brings out the vulnerability of the EU against terror attacks by ISIS. The fact that the attack came within days of the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a main accused in the Paris bombings, shows that the ISIS networks are able to easily overcome, indeed overwhelm, the elaborate security apparatus of a modern state. Brussels is the headquarter of European Commission and ISIS knows the significance of hitting this city.

While the EU appears most vulnerable to ISIS given that an unusually large Muslim youth population from Europe (about 4,000) are known to have been ideologically attracted to the terror outfit, India seems to be placed in a positively rare category where only 23 cases have surfaced of Muslims youths actually joining the ISIS fight to establish a world caliphate. According to security expert Ajay Sahni, the founding director of Institute of Conflict Management, the bulk of the 23 Indians who joined ISIS did so after spending a few years in other countries as NRIs. This means those recruited directly from among India’s Muslim community has been less than 10 so far, says Sahni. He also says another 27 youths have been arrested in recent times on the suspicion of developing potential links with the ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq.

The real perspective that Sahni wants to offer is that India’s Muslim population feels virtually no affinity with the ISIS cause of establishing a world caliphate through violent means.

It was not surprising, therefore, that most security and strategic affairs experts who spoke on Indian TV channels after the Brussels attack concurred that India must have done something right to keep its Muslim youths from getting psychologically and emotionally attracted to ISIS’s grand plans. But some of this may get endangered with the ongoing polarisation of the polity along communal lines under the NDA regime, which could eventually alienate Indian Muslims.

Even American scholars today agree that India is by and large free from being infected by the ISIS ideology. A recent report by the Heritage Foundation, a well-known US think tank, gave data for over 30 countries from where ISIS had attracted nearly 25,000 foreign fighters to join its ranks in Syria and Iraq. These include over 4,500 fighters drawn from western, mainly European, nations. The biggest numbers are of course drawn from ISIS’s immediate neighbourhood – Tunisia (6000), Saudi Arabia (2275), Jordan (2000), Russia (1700), France (1550), Turkey (1400) and Morocco (1200).

India does not figure among the 30-odd countries mentioned in the article.

Credit: Heritage Foundation

India doesn’t figure on this table because it is statistically negligible – only about 23 Indians have joined ISIS and another 27 were in the process of joining and subsequently arrested; just 50 members from a country of 1.2 billion. Compare this with about 4000 EU citizens from a population of about 500 million.

This clearly brings out the relatively negligible vulnerability of India at present. But it may not remain so for ever.

Many political analysts feel that the Sangh Parivar is promoting policies that seem aimed at reinforcing the institutional bias against the Muslim community. The aggressive nationalism being fostered by the BJP, accompanied by minority bashing and the vicious nature of the politics around the beef ban are but examples that can lead to the kind of alienation that could attract youths to organisations like ISIS in the longer run.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi must also resist the temptation of playing an anti-ISIS white knight on the global stage by needlessly committing India disproportionately to the war on terror in the West Asia. A top home ministry official told this writer that India’s interests are best served by keeping a low profile because Europe is possibly paying a price for a messy partnership with the US in their war on terror for over a decade.

Currently, there are some think tanks close to the Modi establishment who are building a case for upping the ante against the potential threats to India from ISIS. The Rajasthan government recently organised a closed-door conference in Jaipur in collaboration with the India Foundation and Vivekanand International Foundation, at which National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar were present. Those who attended the conference came out with the feeling that an influential group advising Modi wanted to greatly exaggerate the involvement of Indian citizens in the ISIS project in West Asia.

Ram Madhav, the BJP general secretary, stunned everyone by suggesting that 537 Indians had already joined ISIS and for each person who has been recruited another 10 were in the process of being enrolled. By his calculations, over 5000 Indians have already joined or are in the process of joining ISIS.

Sahni, who was present at the conference, rejects this figure outright. “We don’t know where this figure is coming from,” he says.

Most other scholars and security experts present at the conference, including those from the US, did not agree with the figures presented by Madhav. As shown in the table published with this article, even American security sources puts Indians recruited by ISIS at well below the three-digit figure.

Why are people around Modi exaggerating the participation of Indian Muslims in ISIS? Is this meant partly to feed the domestic political constituency, putting the Muslim community on the back foot and fuelling the narrow nationalism campaign? The real and present danger is that if India bites more than it can chew in the global war on ISIS, it could become as vulnerable as Europe is today. One only hopes that men around Modi who want to build him up as a major player in the war on ISIS are aware of these risks.

  • ashok759

    Looking at Europe, we realise what a miracle India is to be one nation. Let us work diligently to keep it that way.