Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s announcement of an Indian wing of the jihadi group may seem like an ageing terrorist trying hard to remain relevant in the face of the rise of a more youthful, more barbaric and more determined rival in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Perhaps at some subconscious level it is Zawahri’s way of reminding an upstart about who started it all. However, the formation of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) or the Islamic State in the Indian Subcontinent (ISIS) or whatever else they want to call their new venture is fraught with some real political and cultural consequences for India.
Apart from its own internal jihadi calculations and jostling for supremacy over their own bunch of misanthropes that have led to the formation of the Indian wing, it is hard to escape the impression that it is also a calculated response to the emergence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, running away with the jihadi agenda and attracting a large number of young recruits, Zawahri may have seen an opportunity in sowing disaffection among young Muslims in India now that Modi is at helm. It is no surprise that in his video he makes a specific reference to not just Gujarat, the state of which Modi was the chief minister for over 12 years, but even Ahmedabad, the city where the bulk of the 2002 bloody riots played out. Of course, he has also thrown in the old favorite Kashmir to illustrate the oppression of Muslims in India.
The announcement of the Indian wing, which the video says has been in the making for two years, has the potential to sharpen and perhaps even deepen the exclusivist rhetoric used by the many pro-Hindu affiliates of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). So far the prime minister has tried to cast himself as someone above the fray when it comes to some of the extreme Hindu pronouncements made by both his party’s members as well as members of the extended rightwing Hindu groups. While the real effectiveness of the AQIS is prone to hyperbole and exaggeration by both its proponents as well as the media and politicians, it is certainly capable of warping thinking in India. For one, no one should be surprised if India’s close to 180 million Muslims may feel the extra burden of proving their commitment to the country against the assertions of a pan-Islamic caliphate made by Zawahri. It is in this context that the rightwing Hindu groups could increase cultural pressure on the Muslim community to clearly voice their opinion.
The idea of a caliphate is an old one and may seem real in light of the ISIS advances. It would be a historic mistake to think that merely because someone with an automatic weapon by his side has said a caliphate is coming that it is indeed coming. There is so much that stands in the way of a caliphate, including a large majority of Muslim themselves not to mention massive non-Muslim world, that we should consider before according the latest announcement more seriousness than it deserves. It is not my case that we dismiss the India wing because Al-Qaeda’s ability to still cause mayhem on a regular basis cannot be underestimated. In fact, it is entirely possible that in order to prove its own terrorist credentials against the rise of the ISIS it may try something unnerving in the coming months and years. But the notion that it can come anywhere close to its delusional objective of a caliphate that stretches over India, Bangladesh and Myanmar is absurd. There is that little detail of over 1.2 billion Indians standing in the way.
In the narrow Indian political context, for the Modi government in general and the prime minister in particular the announcement is definitely unsettling as they go about projecting their so-called nonpartisan, nonsectarian economic and social development and growth agenda. It is clearly a serious distraction. At a time when national security considerations tend to trump everything else the India wing could be a factor in the way the Modi government functions. One does not really know what it means in real terms other than stepping up its terrorist attacks and generally causing sociocultural unrest. India has withstood centuries of attacks. To that extent, the new threat is unlikely to challenge the core of the Indian civilization. The important thing would be realistically and intelligently peg its threat potential.