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Terror Groups in India

Author: Carin Zissis
Updated: November 27, 2008

Introduction

India has long suffered violence from extremist attacks based on separatist and secessionist movements, as well as ideological disagreements. In particular, the territorial dispute over India-controlled Kashmir is believed to have fueled large-scale terrorist attacks, such as the bombings of a Mumbai commuter railway in July 2006 as well as a deadly explosion on an India-Pakistan train line in February 2007. Kashmir-related terrorist violence draws international concerns about its possible link in a chain of transnational Islamist militarism. The terrorist assault on Mumbai's hotel district on November 26, claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahadeen, appears to confirm a disturbing new turn of events domestically. Recently, a group calling itself the Indian mujahadeen ( TIME ) joined the roster of terror forces, claiming responsibility for a series of blasts in November 2007 in the state of Uttar Pradesh and 2008 attacks in the Indian cities of New Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad. Their relationship with the new Deccan Mujahadeen group remains unclear. India also faces another extremist threat: A Maoist insurgency by violent revolutionaries called "Naxalites" has emerged across a broad swathe of central India-nicknamed the "red corridor"-to claim a growing number of lives.

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Does India face a serious threat from extremist groups?

Yes, experts say. The precise number of groups orchestrating attacks in India is hard to ascertain because of splintering movements, but the country faces possible violence perpetrated by dozens of extremist groups. More than 2,750 people across India died in terrorism-related violence in 2006, according to analysis by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a project of the Institute for Conflict Management, an independent, New Delhi-based think tank.

Why does India face violent extremism?

Since early in its post-colonial history, India has experienced violence related to separatist and insurgent movements, from the territorial dispute over Kashmir to a Sikh separatist movement in Punjab to a secessionist movement in the northeastern state of Assam. The mostly Hindu nation of roughly one billion people has a large number of ethnic and religious minorities that face economic subordination and often seek territorial concessions.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Naxalite threat the “ biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.”

Interethnic conflict has hit India at the highest levels, with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assassinated in 1984 by Sikh body guards. “Democracy unleashes assertive groups, particularly the segmented democracy of India,” explains Maya Chadda, a South Asia expert at William Paterson University in New Jersey. She says that different ethnic and religious groups as well as social classes often act like individual nationalities that mobilize support for a cause. If demands are not met, movements turn to extremism.

Who are the Naxalites?

The Naxalites are left-wing extremists who take their name from Naxalbari, a village in the state of West Bengal where they first staged an uprising in 1967. India nearly wiped out the movement during counterinsurgency efforts in the 1970s that left the group broken into smaller factions, including the People’s War Group and Maoist Communist Center. In 2004, these two groups aligned to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The group, now made up of a loose coalition of factions, challenges state power with violence to support its stated goal of helping the landless poor, tribal people, and lower castes.

Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, says the unequal distribution of wealth gained from India’s burgeoning economy has fed the movement. “Indian society has educated young men and young women to the point where they no longer fit into traditional society, but modern society has not been able to incorporate them,” says Cohen. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has acknowledged poverty in Naxalite strongholds as a root problem, distribution of development funds remains a challenge. “The problem is the delivery system,” says Chadda. “They’re throwing money at it but the delivery system is corrupt.”

Where do the Naxalites operate?

The 2004 realignment of Naxalite factions has resulted in a “red corridor” of activity running from the border with Nepal through thirteen of India’s twenty-eight states. The swath passes through the woods and jungles of central India, where the group takes refuge and recruits from the region’s impoverished population. The states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Orissa have witnessed high levels of Naxalite activity, but Chhattisgarh witnessed the most Maoist-related violence in 2006 with more than 360 deaths. In Chhattisgarh—a state that contains a large tribal population, suffers from some of the nation’s worst poverty, and is plagued by unequal development—the Naxalites have successfully spread their revolutionary message “by targeting the failed system of governance,” (PDF) according to a 2006 report by the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

How do the Naxalites operate?

The Naxalites recruit and, in some cases, coerce new fighters to join their armed struggle. Their followers use small arms and homemade explosives, including landmines, according to a Human Rights Watch report. They raise funds through extortion or by setting up parallel administrations to collect taxes in rural areas where local governments and the Indian state appear absent.

Do the Naxalites pose a major threat to Indian security?

In April 2006, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Naxalite threat the “biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.” The Naxalite forces, estimated at between ten and twenty thousand strong, wage a campaign of violence and kidnapping against Indian security personnel and vigilante groups. Clashes between the Maoists and the government have forced thousands of villagers to seek refuge in temporary government shelters or in Naxalite forest camps.

Although more than 740 people died in Naxalite-related violence in 2006, almost twice as many lives were claimed in relation to the territorial dispute over Kashmir, with more than 1,100 people killed in the state of Jammu and Kashmir as well as nearly two hundred deaths in the July 2006 Mumbai train bombings linked to Kashmiri extremists.

Are Naxalites involved in the Kashmir conflict?

The Kashmir conflict is a separate extremist movement. Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between the nuclear states of Pakistan and India. The two nations began a peace process in 2004 to resolve their differences, including the issue of Kashmir, which subsequent terrorist attacks have failed to derail. Groups active in Kashmir and listed by the State Department as terrorist organizations include Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat ul-Mujahadeen, and Jaish-e-Muhammed. The group suspected of playing the central role in terrorist attacks on Indian soil since 9/11 is Lashkar-e-Taiba.

What is Lashkar-e-Taiba?

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or “Army of the Pure,” is the armed wing of a Pakistani-based religious organization founded in 1989. During the 1990s, the group received instruction and funding from Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in exchange for a pledge to target Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir and to train Muslim extremists on Indian soil. After 9/11, when the United States named LeT a terrorist group and Islamabad banned it, the group went underground, splintered and began using different names, and stopped claiming responsibility for attacks. However, LeT is suspected of involvement in the December 2001 attack of New Delhi’s Parliament, the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, and the February 2007 blast of a train running between India and Pakistan.

A little known group called Lashkar-e-Qahar avowed it was associated with LeT and orchestrated the Mumbai bombings, reports the Jamestown Foundation. New Delhi has also accused the Student Islamic Movement of India of connections with LeT and the Mumbai blasts, as well as terrorist attacks in August 2003.

What is the Student Islamic Movement of India?

The Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), founded in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 1977 to promote the teachings of Islam, became increasingly radical in the 1990s. The original founder, Mohammad Ahmadullah Siddiqi, now a professor of journalism at Western Illinois University, told India’s Rediff that SIMI “has been hijacked by elements in other countries” and is “completely different” than the group he established. The jihadi group reportedly reinforces LeT efforts by helping it expand its activities within India. New Delhi banned SIMI in 2001, labeling it a terrorist organization after several Indian states said it was inciting riots and violence. A large number of its core members were jailed and the group went underground at that time. The organization continues to lobby for the lifting of the ban outlawing its activities but as recently as February 2007 the Indian Supreme Court labeled SIMI “secessionist” (Mumbai Mirror) and refused to end the ban. The Indian police suspects SIMI has links to the Indian mujahadeen, the group that claimed responsibility for several bomb attacks in 2007 and 2008.

How has the nature of terrorist groups related to the Kashmir conflict evolved?

Terrorist groups using Kashmir as a rallying cry have increasingly tied their activities to a larger Islamist movement in which India is seen as an anti-Muslim state. “There is a common belief that India is a part of the enemy with the West and that India must be attacked,” explains Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who says Islamic terrorist groups view India as “harming Muslims and Muslim interests.”

Muslims make up the country’s largest minority group and India has the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. Yet a controversial report released by New Delhi’s Sachar Committee in November 2006 found that India’s Muslims lag behind (CSMonitor) the rest of Indians in terms of literacy, employment rates, and income. “Kashmir at this point is not even just a Kashmir issue,” says Christina Fair of the United States Institute of Peace. Fair calls Kashmir a demonstration of the “failure of the Indian state” to address the Muslims’ disadvantaged status in India. The Sachar Committee offered several recommendations to boost Muslims’ standing, including increased educational opportunities, but the report and its proposals were tabled indefinitely at the end of November 2006.

How does India combat extremist groups?

In spite of ongoing insurgencies and terrorist threats in India, experts credit New Delhi’s historical stance for effectively dealing with extremists through a combination of deploying heavy military force and addressing grievances through negotiations. The Brookings Institution’s Cohen describes the process as: “You hit them over the head and then you teach them how to play the piano.” The ongoing problem of insurgencies in India relates to “protracted and resilient movements,” that New Delhi manages through its “willingness to sit at a table and talk with them,” says Gunaratna.

But domestic and international human rights groups protest the Indian state’s often heavy-handed approach. Human Rights Watch reports that Indian security forces operating in Kashmir abuse state laws allowing lethal force and details multiple cases where police or the military killed innocent civilians. The report calls torture in India “endemic” and quotes an Indian lawyer who calls the practice “routine” but says “most people are so glad to be out of interrogation alive, they don’t really complain.” Amnesty International documented similar abuses of power by security personnel in the northeastern state of Assam. The New Delhi-based Asian Center for Human Rights says security forces and a state-backed paramilitary group killed 330 people during 2006 anti-Naxalite campaigns.

Does India have an antiterror law?

No. When Singh took control of Indian parliament in 2004, one of his government’s first actions was to repeal the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act. Passed in 2002, the law was lambasted by human rights groups, who said its vague language gave police the freedom to harass religious and ethnic minorities.

“ There is a tradition in South Asia: You train the groups in your neighboring countries,” says Gunaratna.

Singh’s government has not enacted a revised law to replace it, but the government can ban extremist groups for criminal activities under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, passed in 1967 and amended in 2004. A South Asia Analysis Group report on India’s efforts to combat terrorism says, “The weakest link of India's counterterrorism capability is deterrence through legal action against terrorists.”

Are extremist groups in India subject to foreign influence?

Yes. Foreign terrorist groups infiltrate India to stage attacks. “There is a tradition in South Asia: You train the groups in your neighboring countries,” says Gunaratna. He points out that India itself participated in this “tradition” when it helped train the Sri Lankan extremist Tamil Tigers during the 1980s who later allegedly orchestrated the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in a 1991 suicide attack. Extremists in India also receive training in other countries.

Which countries host groups that play a role in terrorism in India?

 

  • Pakistan. Pakistan-based extremists have long played a part in the conflict over Indian-controlled Kashmir. Experts say that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency supported Kashmiri militants in the past, and Indian media as well as Indian officials contend the intelligence agency continues to do so. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made a post-9/11 pledge to clamp down on terrorist groups operating in Kashmir, forcing the groups to evolve, splinter, and go underground.
  • Bangladesh. The rise of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh near the Indian border, covered in a New York Times Magazine article that was refuted by Dhaka (Daily Star), has caused fears of spillover into India. In a United States Institute of Peace report, Indiana University’s Sumit Ganguly discusses Indian concerns over the matter. He writes that India accuses Dhaka of “ exacerbating tensions in India’s Northeast by turning a blind eye to growing illegal immigration” from Bangladesh and cooperating with Pakistan’s ISI in “nefarious designs against India” (PDF). Bangladesh has long served as a sanctuary and training ground for northeast separatist militants such as the United Liberation Front of Assam, according to an article by the Power and Interest in the News Report.
  • Nepal. There are indications that the success of Maoist rebels in neighboring Nepal has bolstered left-wing extremist groups in India. Nepalese and Indian Maoists offer each other ideological and possibly military support. The Terrorism Knowledge Base reports that the two groups launched their first joint attack in the Indian state of Bihar in April 2005.

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