India is one of the countries in the world most threatened by extremism and terrorism. Much of this is imposed by its neighbour and rival, Pakistan, which has used jihadist proxies to destabilise India since the founding of the two states in 1947, and during the Cold War other external actors created such problems. But there are also other, homegrown issues.
One of India’s longest-running security challenges comes from a Communist insurgency in the east of the country. Beginning in 1967 in Naxalbari—hence the rebels are often called “Naxalites”—at its height the Left-wing terrorists afflicted about two-dozen states of the Indian Union; at the present time, they are largely confined to two. The conflict has killed over-20,000 people. The Naxalites are Maoists and it is no accident that their “revolution” erupted in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution: the Chinese government has supported the insurgency from the beginning, and continues even now to provide it with weapons, to provide its leaders with safe haven, and to allow the Naxals to run propaganda-recruitment activities from Chinese territory.
For a decade, between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, India’s Punjab region was racked with a violence by the Khalistan movement, a Sikh separatist organization. Proposals by some Sikh leaders for a separate state began in the Subcontinent before the British left in 1947, though this was far from a majority position in the community, and it is questionable whether the Khalistanis could have moved beyond pinprick terrorism into a full-blown insurgency without the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, whose S-Wing department manages the militants Pakistan uses in its foreign policy.
While the Khalistani terrorist campaign was suppressed within India, the other external support the movement was able to draw on was from the Sikh diaspora in the West and elsewhere, and the diaspora has sought to keep the Khalistan cause alive. Even here, however, the hand of the ISI is detectable, funding and promoting prominent Khalistani activist groups like “Sikhs for Justice”, notably in Canada, which has a large Sikh population.
The view of “Hinduism” as a religion in the sense of a belief in certain doctrines and a personal relationship with God that is separate from other aspects of life is a legacy of British rule, and the modern-day movements that many call “Hindu nationalism” or Hindutva are in effect efforts to recover the pre-colonial understanding of Hinduism as a complete life system that encompasses society and state. India’s ruling party since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is Hindutva in orientation and has historic links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the oldest such organization, regarded by some as a religious extremist group.
The Hindutva project is in direct conflict with India’s official secularism and by definition creates a problem with and for India’s Muslims, a population of 200 million people. There has been a rising tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric in India, some of it from BJP officials directly, and the police have been criticized for hesitancy in acting to prevent or punish violence by extremist Hindus against Muslims. This lack of accountability has been seen in more spectacular episodes, like the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by a Hindu mob that believed the mosque was deliberately built on the site of the birthplace of the god Rama, and the 2002 riot in Gujarat that killed 1,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Muslim.
The danger for India with the Hindutva project is that it sows inter-communal strife that weakens the country’s defences in the face of the major extremism and terrorism threat: that emanating from Pakistan. The unending war Pakistan has waged against India is ideological in conception, based on the premise of a civilizational contest between “Muslim Pakistan” and “Hindu India”, known as the two-nation theory.
As a secular republic, India could reject the terms of the two-nation theory by pointing out that it is—however imperfectly—a home for all communities. Hindutva essentially accepts the Pakistani premise, and this creates a vulnerability that might allow Pakistan to exploit India’s Muslim population. If the Indian state becomes intolerant towards Muslims, it could lead some Indian Muslims to accept the Pakistani contention that “Hindu India” can never be a safe place for them and that Muslims in the Subcontinent should regard Pakistan as their home.
If that dynamic were to take hold, and Pakistan-sponsored violence were to break out from India’s Muslims, it would feed the narratives of Hindutva extremists that portray Muslims as an inherent threat to the state and its people, and the communal and official reactions would feed the sense of Muslim persecution. Such cycles of reciprocal radicalization are depressingly common; in the West it can be seen in the mutual reinforcement the white far-Right and jihadists provide to each other. Much depends on preventing the cycle getting going, since it is very difficult to stop once underway.