Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma made an alarming revelation earlier this month: that his state has become a “hotbed of jihadi activities”.
Sarma was not indulging in scaremongering. Far from it. The busting of five modules of the Al-Qaeda In Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) in Assam and the arrest of 43 activists of the jihadi outfit since March this year are irrefutable evidence of the alarming state of affairs in Assam.
Two hardline Imams (clerics) who were involved in radicalising youngsters through their sermons and acting as recruiting agents for the AQIS were arrested from two districts of Assam earlier this week.
Abdus Sobahan, the Imam of Tinkonia Shantipur Masjid under Mornoi police station and Jalaluddin, Imam of Tilapara Masjid under Matia police station (both in lower Assam’s Goalpara district) were arrested on Monday (22 August).
The two, descendants of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, have been preaching the radical Wahhabi (or Salafi) versions of Islam which aim to establish an Islamic Caliphate and kill ‘non-believers’.
They had reportedly succeeded in radicalising some young men and had facilitated their establishing links with the AQIS and the Bangladesh-headquartered Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) that has spread its wings in Assam and Bengal.
The AQIS, ABT and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which has also established a strong presence in Assam and Bengal, have close links with each other and the 43 arrested so far in Assam have intimate ties with all the three terror outfits.
Assam Police Director-General Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta said that more arrests and busting of more AQIS-ABT-JMB modules are imminent.
Intensive interrogation of all the arrested is on and they are reported to be revealing the involvement of more Islamist radicals in planning terror strikes in Assam, said the state police chief.
But why has Assam turned into a hotbed of Islamists and become a safe haven for jihadists even from neighbouring Bangladesh?
The primary reasons for this are:
Congress patronage of largescale illegal influx of Muslims from Bangladesh
Successive Congress regimes have, since 1947, actively encouraged the illegal influx of crores of Muslims from erstwhile East Pakistan--Bangladesh since 1971--for their political interests.
These illegal Muslim migrants, who were granted citizenship, turned into loyal vote banks for the Congress and kept the party in power for many decades.
The population of Muslims thus rose exponentially in Assam from a little over 24 per cent in 1951 (as per the census that year) to over 40 per cent in 2021.
From 19.95 lakh in 1951, Muslims number nearly 1.5 crore today, a 652 per cent rise in six decades.
Islamists becoming assertive
Of the 33 districts of Assam, Muslims have become a majority in as many as 13 districts and form over a third of the population in five other districts.
This increase in numbers has triggered an assertion by Muslims who are now demanding a large chunk of government jobs and a lion’s share of welfare and development funds on grounds of their social and economic backwardness.
Many Muslims have also started demanding implementation of the Sharia law, especially in the districts where they have become a majority.
Radicalisation of Muslims
This assertion by Muslims, especially in the lower and central Assam districts where they are concentrated, has also triggered radicalisation amongst a growing section of the community, especially the youth who are being indoctrinated into Salafi Islam in the madrassas.
Congress’ policy of appeasement of Muslims
The Congress governments had, for obvious reasons, followed a policy of appeasement of Muslims in order to keep the community happy and ensure their political support.
This appeasement led to successive governments in Assam turning a blind eye to the proliferation of madrassas and mosques funded by Salafi charities and institutions in the Middle East.
These madrassas and mosques have been attracting radical preachers from other parts of the country and even Bangladesh who have been propagating radical and extremist Salafi Islam and brainwashing young men and also women.
Successive Congress governments of the past had prohibited the state police and security agencies from mounting any vigil on the activities of these radical imams and even preventing the illegal entry of jihadist clerics from neighbouring Bangladesh into Assam to preach the radical version of Islam.
The state had also extended patronage to the radical clerics in return for these clerics ensuring that the mostly poor, uneducated and backward Muslims voted for the Congress.
This cozy arrangement led to the radical clerics becoming powerful and getting a free hand to further their radical agenda.
Withdrawal of patronage by the BJP government since 2016
The BJP, which came to power in Assam in 2016, ceased all patronage to the radical clerics and stopped the policy of appeasement followed by the past Congress regimes.
The state police and security agencies were also ordered to mount a strict vigil on these clerics, unregistered madrassas and other Islamist institutions as well as individuals.
All this angered the radicals, who issued the ‘Islam in danger’ call in order to attract more youths to Salafi Islam.
The closure of government-funded madrassas by the BJP government, and a series of measures ordered by CM Sarma over the past one year to curb radicalisation and halt the activities of Islamists also angered the radicals, who stepped up their efforts to create trouble in Assam.
The geo-political importance of Assam to Islamism
Assam‘s location to the north of Bangladesh and south of China, and adjoining Myanmar, puts the state in a critical geo-political position.
If Islamists succeed in radicalising a large section of the Muslims in lower and central Assam, they will be successful in creating a large body of anti-nationals who will become the ‘fifth column’ working against India’s geo-political and security interests in Assam and the entire Northeast.
Trouble created by the Islamists--bomb blasts, attacks on security forces and other subversive activities--especially in their strongholds in lower and central Assam can potentially cut off the state and the entire Northeast from the rest of the country.
The sinister gameplan of the Islamists
Assam Police says that this is exactly what the Islamists aim to do.
They want to trigger small acts of subversion which will inevitably lead to a strong response from the state security apparatus.
Collateral damage and even a degree of state repression, which is inevitable in a conflict situation, can then be leveraged to radicalise more young men and turn them into jihadis.
The Islamists’ aim is to turn lower and central Assam into a highly troubled and conflict zone that slips out of the grasp of the state.
Their utopian dream is to ‘liberate’ and then establish Islamic rule in lower and central Assam. And then spread their tentacles into and overwhelm the rest of the region.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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