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Vivek Sharma asked: What is the prognosis and way forward on rising Islamic fundamentalism in India’s north-eastern states?

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  • The response to the above query is broadly divided into two parts. The first respondent provides the security perspective and the second provides the sociological perspective on the topic.

    Abdul Hameed Khan replies: The Islamic extremism in India’s Northeast is generally associated with the Islamic extremist groups of Bangladesh such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) who have expanded their area of operations into India particularly in Assam and West Bengal, where a large number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants have settled down over the years. Association of these militant groups with Pakistani agencies is well known. As these groups remain on the lookout for local recruits and to expand their bases into Indian territories, the threat to Indian interests persists. These terrorist groups as well as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have reportedly colluded with various militant groups of Northeast such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), United National Liberation Front (UNLF), etc. to carry out terrorist activities against India.

    The emergence of indigenous militant groups of Islamic orientation in the region have more to do with the general trend of formation of militant groups by most of the ethnic communities in the Northeast and from all religions, for reasons of self protection and even to acquire enhanced political weightage. For example, many of the Manipuri Muslim militant groups came up after the communal clashes between dominant Meitei and Pangal (Muslim) communities in May 1993 which resulted in the death of 150 people. Prominent among them has been People's United Liberation Front (PULF), which later was alleged to have linkages with the Bangladeshi module of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and even Bangladeshi intelligence agencies.

    Similarly, there has been sprouting of militant groups in Assam and other states where ethnic clashes have occurred and communities felt threatened. For effectiveness, these groups have accepted support from the Pakistani/Bangladeshi terrorist groups. Their collaboration with Pakistan-based terror groups poses threat as these groups want to export terror to all regions of India. Fortunately these groups have had very limited success so far, in terms of cadre and support base, as has been the case in the rest of the country as well.

    The international terrorist groups like al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have lately focused their attention to the region. Bangladesh has seen a number of terrorist acts in recent times in the form of killing of secular bloggers and liberals purportedly by ISIS or local extremist groups such as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) which draw their inspiration from global Islamism. As the extremism grows in Bangladesh, its demonstration effect may lead to increased infusion of fundamentalist ideologies on religious grounds in neighbouring Indian states as well, which may manifest in radicalisation of youth. The Bangladeshi, Pakistani as well as global terrorist groups who are on the look out to expand their bases and activities into Indian territories may therefore attempt to take advantage of the situation, which may lead to enhanced security challenges in the Northeast region.

    M. Amarjeet Singh replies: Broadly, the conflict in the Northeast could be categorised at three levels: Conflict with the Indian state; conflict between different communities considered “indigenous”; and conflict associated with illegal migration. All three are interlinked and intertwined. Illegal migration has long been a major source of concern among ethnic communities who considered themselves indigenous. They feared that the immigrants might outnumber them if illegal migration continued. In due course, illegal migration came to be viewed as a silent demographic invasion, a conspiracy to destabilise India, and a cultural and security threat. Opposition voices grew louder in the 1970s, which ultimately led to the outbreak of an anti-foreigner movement in Assam and nearby areas. The movement instead brought newer challenges as smaller ethnic communities started voicing their concerns over the growing Assamese dominance.

    At the same time, there are different views about the total population of illegal migrants as the available estimates are apparently influenced by the agenda of those reporting. Nonetheless, the target has been the Muslim migration from Bangladesh. The issue has been used by political parties as a vote bank. It has already caused division along religious lines. Higher population growth rate in Assam, more than the all India average, during much of the latter half of the 20th century was attributed to migration from East Bengal and later East Pakistan/Bangladesh and also to higher illiteracy among the Muslim migrants.

    Now almost all the communities in Northeast India feel insecure, discriminated and marginalised, which has led to increased political mobilisation among them. Even the politically dominant groups now feel insecure if they lack economic power. Incidentally, none of them enjoy political and economic clout simultaneously.

    In fact, there has been a significant decline in the political dominance of the Assamese in view of smaller ethnic groups vociferously asserting their distinct political identities. The most notable development in this regard has been the formation of a Muslim political identity, but one not backed by any demand for the bifurcation of Assam (or the other states) or for the creation of new state(s). They had allegedly suffered systematic discrimination more than the others during the anti-foreigners movement and thereafter. This had also largely halted their assimilation into the Assamese society. Thus, the campaign against illegal migration divides several north-eastern states along religious lines. Religion has been gaining prominence as a factor of political mobilisation in the Northeast, and this is particularly evident in the region’s most populous state of Assam.

    Posted on June 06, 2016