Will India Face a Civil War-Like Situation in 2023?
The article analyses how the Popular Front of India is working towards creating a pan-India Muslim movement against the Modi government.
By Abhinav Pandya
India is going through a critical phase in its history. In 2014, when Mr. Modi was sworn in as the PM, at first, it seemed that it was just a one-off election that had brought an opposition leader into power to be ousted in the next election, like a standard scenario in any electoral democracy. However, post-2014, India started showing signs of some fundamental changes in its foreign policy, force posturing, internal security, terrorism policy, economic policy, and politico-constitutional set-up. The surgical strikes and Balakot air strikes of 2016 and 2019, respectively, showed that India was breaking out of its fold of a soft state which believed in strategic restraint in the face of the worst kind of terrorist attacks. After Modi’s election in 2019, the pace of fundamental changes in the aforementioned areas became faster.
India’s Muslim Question
With such fundamental changes in full swing, India, once again, comes face-to-face with its most sensitive issue with massive historical baggage, i.e., the Muslim question. The expression ‘Muslim Question’ implies the policy dilemma that the Indian state and society face vis-à-vis separatist tendencies among a significant section of Muslims because of Islam and its followers’ inability to integrate fully into India’s social and cultural mainstream after 1000-plus years of existence in the Indian subcontinent. India’s Muslim question has haunted its collective psyche and strategic subconscious for the last 1000 years, resulting in fierce military resistance by Hindus against Islamic invasions, temple demolitions and forced religious conversions, and socio-religious Bhakti reform movements to counter the spread of Sufi Islam amongst the lower caste Hindus. The dominant current of fierce resistance and conflict was, at times, interspersed by brief spells and trends of communal harmony, tolerance, and the integration of the Muslims in India’s cultural and spiritual landscape. Finally, the ‘Muslim question’ led to Jinnah’s ‘two-nation theory’ followed by a bloodied partition of the Indian subcontinent, giving birth to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Kashmir issue, a perennial bone of contention between the two nascent republics.
Though India chose to be a secular country with special rights and privileges for the Muslim minority, the Muslim question remained unsettled. In an officially secular India ruled by the Congress party, the ‘Muslim Question’ continued to simmer and grow, only to be placated by the dose of populist appeasement and accommodation of the Islamist elements within the Indian political and administrative mainstream, either for votes or as a response to security-blackmail by the extremist elements among the Muslims. On the ground, the historical animosity between Hindus and Muslims prevailed and intensified over time, manifesting in some of the most brutal riots, such as the Gujarat riots of 1969 and Bhagalpur riots (1985), and the Assam riots (1983).
Notably, all this happened when the much-reviled Hindu nationalist BJP was an insignificant political force, and India was ruled by the INC, a self-proclaimed secular entity. Simultaneously, in the late 1980s, India also witnessed the early signs of Pakistan-supported Jamaat-i-Islami’s terror activities in Kashmir and the massacre of Hindu Kashmiri pundits followed by their ouster from Kashmir. In the Indian hinterland, Islamist organizations like Laden-supporting SIMI, vowing to overthrow the Indian constitution and establish a caliphate, also started making solid inroads among Indian Muslims. Notably, SIMI is a predecessor of the now-banned PFI. In the ideological domain, fundamentalist Wahabbism and Deobandism were fast replacing Sufi Islam, radicalizing the ordinary Muslims through their Madrasa networks, lavishly funded by petro-d0llars, and alienating them from the Indian mainstream.
After the Babri mosque demolition, the communal faultlines became broader and sharper. Communalism was always a significant challenge; however, post-1992, Islamic terrorism, influenced by the foreign Pan-Islamist movements, became an all-India phenomenon, manifesting in a series of bomb blasts in major cities like Jaipur, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai, and Coimbatore.
Final ‘Showdown’ with the ‘Muslim Question’
Today amidst intense religious radicalization of Muslims and the rise of Hindu nationalism, it seems India has finally arrived at a stage of a ‘head-on collision’ or a ‘show-down’ with its ‘Muslim question,’ a question that always simmered under the surface and was either avoided or brushed under the carpet by parroting the superficial and skin-deep pronouncements of Indian secularism, which in effect became politically expedient Islamic appeasement. However, today the thin veneer of Indian secularism hiding the dark underbelly of the deep communal animosities and rising Jihadism among the Muslims stands shattered with the BJP’s strong drive against terrorism and radicalization, which is perceived and projected by Islamist organizations like PFI and a sizable section of Muslim political and religious leaders, as anti-Islamic. Since these organizations and individuals have substantial clout among the large section of the Muslim population in India, it can be reasonably argued that legitimate state action against their terrorists and radicalization activities has ended up alienating a significant chunk of India’s Muslim population.
A series of developments, including the legislation on Triple Talaq, SC judgment in favor of Ram temple, Gyan Vapi mosque-related developments, the survey of Madrasas in UP and demolition of Al-Qaeda-linked madrasas in Assam, abrogation of article 370 and concomitant internet lockdown and security crackdown, ban on Jamaat-i-Islami, toughening of positions against Pakistan on terrorism, NIA’s massive country-wide crackdown on terror funding and the foreign funding of Islamist organizations and charities have unsettled the foreign-funded and supported Islamist groups like PFI, and foiled their extraneous designs of political nature. They feel that under the BJP government, their nefarious goals, including that of making India an Islamic country by 2047, have come under threat and their activities under rigorous official scrutiny. Further, the measures like CAA/NRC have dampened the hopes of effecting a demographic change by settling Rohingyas and illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants in India.
The street-level protests against some of the perceived anti-Muslim measures began with the passage of CAA/NRC act. Initially, it seemed that protesters assembling at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi were a bunch of civil rights activists registering a peaceful protest. However, the reality underneath was much more profound, darker, and devious, involving a range of national and international Islamist groups supported by India’s state adversaries and acting in cahoots with Khalistan activists and left-liberal intellectuals, and civil rights activists. Shaheen bagh turned into a well-planned and coordinated countrywide movement, ultimately culminating in a spree of brutal and violent communal riots in Delhi coinciding with the first state visit of US President Trump to India. While he was in Delhi, the capital city was engulfed with massive rioting in which 53 people died (Feb 2020). The timing of the rioting was allegedly well planned to coincide with Trump’s visit.
Popular Front of India, an Islamic extremist organization with alleged terror links and a track record of radicalizing young Muslims to join ISIS, played a crucial role in the Delhi riots. After the Delhi riots, Islamist groups like the PFI continued their resistance and fierce opposition to the Modi government. Then came the Hijab controversy and Nupur Sharma saga, resulting in massive nationwide protests. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the deceased Al Qaeda chief, intervened in the Hijab controversy, presumably to find greener pastures for AQIS amidst the sharpening communal divide in India. The Nupur Sharma saga, an episode that interestingly transformed into a major national crisis with ripples beyond Indian borders, thanks to the machinations of some of India’s Islamist and liberal activists and their foreign benefactors and terror funders in Qatar. Nupur Sharma protests marked by “Sar Tan Se juda” slogans began the trend of ISIS-styled beheadings in India and blasphemy killings. In all these protests and country-wide riots, PFI’s name figured prominently. NIA, alarmed with the rapid country-wide expansion of PFI and its terror links and radicalization agenda, launched a massive crackdown on PFI on 22nd Sept 2022. In a nationwide raid and crackdown, the NIA apprehended its key 100 leaders after their involvement with terror groups and funding and finally banned the outfit for five years.
In today’s scenario, it can be reasonably argued that PFI has successfully created a narrative of ‘Muslims under persecution’ and ‘Islam in danger’ in BJP-ruled India. They could accomplish this with deft use of social media and by forging tactical alliances with left-liberal intellectuals and activists. However, the online news portals and mainstream media reports suggest that many Barelwi Muslim organizations have demanded a ban on PFI. PFI adheres to Salafi Islami, which is at odds with the Barelwi beliefs of the majority of Indian Muslims, which are close to relatively moderate Sufi Islam. However, PFI’s influence cannot be underestimated. It has spread its tentacles across the country in more than 20 states. PFI activities have been witnessed in North Eastern states like Assam and Manipur and extreme Western states like Rajasthan. Though ideological differences persist between Barelwis, Deobandis, and Salafis and their respective socio-political organizations, Muslims across the ideological spectrum massively participated in the recent PFI-orchestrated anti-Nupur Sharma riots in various parts of the country. Also, based on my interviews with different interlocutors among the Barelwi Muslim organizations, I can argue that PFI is not focusing on religious differences. Instead, it is making a nationwide effort to create a Pan-India Muslim movement against the current Modi government. It is imparting training to young Muslims in armed combat and unarmed combat skills. Hence, to argue that only a small segment of Salafi or Wahabbi extremist factions are behind the communal riots and anti-BJP Muslim movement is a fallacious argument.
Game Plan-Massive Street Violence, Riots, Protests and Terror Attacks
It appears that the Islamist organizations, Islamic political and social groups, a large number of their religious leaders, and the ordinary Muslim population perceive that if BJP comes back to power in 2024, there will be a complete dismantling of the appeasement policy practiced for the last seven decades. They also fear that after the 2024 election victory, it will be near-impossible to uproot BJP out of power. Besides, they see a strong possibility of a series of perceived anti-Muslim legal and constitutional changes such as a uniform civil code, a population control bill, and amendments to laws such as the places of worship act and the waqf board act being implemented. Their worst fear is that the ongoing overwhelming tilt towards Hindu Rashtra will culminate in the death of secularism, resulting in their persecution and degradation to 2nd class citizens. Most of these fears may be unfounded, resulting from the sense of entitlement created by decades of appeasement, and the deliberate spread of false propaganda and religious hatred by extremist preachers, Muslim political leadership, India’s mainstream political parties thriving on the minority vote bank, and a section of civil rights activists and intellectuals. However, delving deeper into this is not the key focus of this article.
That said, Islamist organizations like PFI and some of the influential Muslim political and religious leaders who nourish and sustain the hateful, separatist, fundamentalist, extremist and anti-national narrative amongst the Muslim community are likely to orchestrate a massive street-level communal violence in India from mid-2023, as India moves closer to the national elections of 2024. Even a rudimentary logical analysis suggests that they are likely to see the current situation as a ‘do or die’ situation and the current regime as a humongous existential threat to their ambitions of Islamising India. To deal with the challenge, they can make a robust and strong effort to create social and political anarchy and a country-wide law and order crisis by organizing violent protests, demonstrations, and communal riots. On a parallel track, they are likely to organize lone-wolf terrorist attacks on Hindutva supporters or social media Hindu activists, organized terrorist attacks (bomb blasts/IEDs) on Hindu religious places and offices of BJP/RSS, and assassinations of famous leaders and ideologues of BJP/RSS and the top-level leadership of the country. In these terror attacks, the transnational terrorist groups like AQ and IS-K and the Pakistan-supported groups like Lashkar and Jaish will be their backbone rendering the crucial support in men, money, operations, and logistics.
In their perception, this may scare the large majority of the Hindu population and weaken their faith in BJP’s leadership, weakening its credibility. This is so because brutal and bloody communal violence or lone wolf attacks like the beheading of Kanhaiya in Udaipur are likely to scare a large segment of Hindus, particularly the middle-class and upper-class supporters of BJP, who are currently an enormous strength of the BJP, supporting PM Modi for his foreign policy, economic policy and a firm stand against Islamic extremism. However, if the violence by Islamist elements at the grassroots level escalates beyond a point, then it may discourage them, distancing them away from the BJP. For example, in the recent Bengal election, when Hindus were targeted by the Islamist goons supporting Trinamool congress, there was a huge resentment and demoralization among the Hindu supporters of the BJP, in Bengal and other states of India, for Central Government’s failure to protect the Hindus.
If such a scenario arises, then the state reprisal under the strong-willed Modi government is likely to be harsh and tough against the perpetrators of the violence. Some of the recent measures, like the bulldozing of the houses of rioters in UP and Madrasas with Al Qaeda links, and the arrests of PFI activists, have amply demonstrated this. To counter this might and psychologically break the morale of the Indian state, the Islamists have already been running a global campaign to strengthen the fabricated narrative of ‘Muslims facing genocidal conditions under the fascist Hindutva regime.’ Reportedly, in this global anti-India and anti-Hindu propaganda war, they are ideologically and financially backed, mainly by Pakistan, followed by some state actors like Turkey and Qatar. Also, the Islamists are joined by an array of intellectuals, journalists, civil rights activists, Islamist religious leaders, politicians, and extremist ideologues echoing the above-mentioned narrative in the international, particularly the western print and electronic media, social media, academic circles, universities, civil society groups, think tanks and influential human rights watchdogs. A close and nuanced observation reveals that the said discourse is being propagated with extreme fervor, abuse, and vitriol against PM Modi. Notably, the idea behind this exercise is much more than tarnishing India’s global image and harming its economic interests by portraying it as a bad investment destination. The Islamist conspirators believe that once this said narrative is firmly embedded in the global perception of India, say by mid-2023, then the heavy state reprisal against the planned Muslim protest resulting in the casualties of the violent protesters will reinforce and prove the said narrative with substantial empirical evidence. Ultimately, as the Islamists expect, it will lead to tremendous global diplomatic, media, and civil society pressure on the Modi government to buckle down. The conspirators have a strong faith in this strategy because, in the past, they could successfully use it to paralyze the state machinery during the anti-CAA/NRC riots of Delhi (Feb 2022) and put the government on the backfoot in the case of CAA/NRC, farm laws, and anti-Nupur Sharma agitation, by roping in support of the global left-liberal cabal and Islamist state and non-state actors.
The impact of the global anti-Hindu campaign can be witnessed in the form of fast-rising racist and hate crimes against Hindus in the US, Canada, and the UK. Recently, after an India-Pakistan cricket match, gangs of Pakistani thugs attacked Hindus and desecrated their temples in Leicester (UK). The Muslim mobs, including a large number of illegal immigrants, threatened to kill Hindus and Jews in a wild rampage in Leicester. The MEA (India) has issued an advisory to Indians warning them against traveling to Canada in the wake of rising hate crimes against them. Interestingly, in this anti-Hindu and anti-India propaganda and violent hate crimes against Hindus, the Islamists are also joined by the Khalistani supporters. They realize that in India, the Khalistan movement is dead, and attempts to revive it continue to fail despite Pakistan’s vigorous efforts in the more recent past to pump in huge amounts of cash, drugs, and weapons; hence, to make up for their failures in India and sustain the deceitful narrative of Khalistan separatism, they have joined Islamists of all hues.
The likelihood of large-scale violence is also accentuated by the hardening of the Hindus’ stance against Islamic extremism and the rapidly expanding tentacles of extremist organizations like PFI. The recent brutal killings of Kanhaiya, Umesh Kolhe, and several cases of love jihad have jolted the faith of relatively moderate and liberal middle-class and elite segments of the Hindu society in the so-called notion of secular India and forced them out of their pacifist and ‘politically correct’ standpoints on the issue of Islamist terrorism and radicalization. Also, as observed in the mainstream media and social media, Hindu society is going through a kind of cultural renaissance where they are rediscovering their cultural, religious, and social past and questioning the historical and political narratives established by Marxist and secular-minded historians. Besides, they are questioning constitutional provisions such as articles 25-29, the places of worship act (1991), and institutions like the Waqf board created under the pretext of providing special privileges to minorities but allegedly ended up being tools of minority appeasement, pandering to Islamic extremism. One can see the young generation questioning the role of Gandhi and Nehru and paying tributes to relative unsung heroes like Subhash Chandra Bose and Sawarkar. There is a rejuvenated sense of self-pride amongst the Hindus in their roots and extreme revulsion against British colonizers and medieval-era Islamic invaders. As a result, if a section of present-day Muslims display fanaticism, sympathize with extremist and terrorist elements, and eulogize the bigoted rulers like Aurangzeb as heroes, Hindus of the present day show a strong outburst. So far, it seems that the animosity, frictions, and socio-political churning are confined to the shrill and abusive TV debates and social media posts on Hindu-Muslim issues like the Gyanvapi mosque, CAA/NRC, raids on PFI, etc.; however, it is just a matter of time when they spill over to the Indian streets. As regards the capability of PFI to unleash mass violence and terror attacks, I would argue that with its tentacles spreading over more than 20 states and strong links with widespread global Islamist networks and a range of front organizations spread across the country, it should not be underestimated. In the past, they have been majorly involved in radicalization and terror attacks in Southern states. Their alleged role in facilitating ISIS recruitment and links with ISIS recruiters has been well-documented. More recently, the PFI played a crucial role in instigating riots in multiple cities of India in different states. Even after the arrest of their 230 coordinators, Delhi Police foiled a major attempt by PFI to unleash mass protests and violence in the capital city. For now, because of the preemptive arrest of the key masterminds and coordinators, PFI’s morale may be damaged; however, its grassroots base, 2nd rung leadership, and deep-rooted network constitute its core strengths. The situation is quite similar to Jamaat-i-Islami in Kashmir. The organization is banned; however, its cadres and base are intact and continue to mobilize and operate through proxies. Another factor accentuating the threat is the weak operational capabilities, poor skill set, and low morale of the state-intelligence departments and the police. In the recent Kanhaiya murder case and a series of PFI-orchestrated riots, intelligence failure was clearly evident. The state intelligence wings are more or less defunct because mostly the officers are given such assignments as punishment postings or those who fail to perform well in the field postings. Hence, it is highly likely that PFI, with its local cohorts, off-shoots, proxies, and transnational terrorist supporters, will attempt to orchestrate massive violence.
To conclude, it can be argued that despite its lofty ambitions, PFI may not be as successful as it aims to be because the central government has taken a calibrated approach rooted in a nuanced strategic understanding of the Islamist radicalization threat. PFI, realizing that its adherence to strict Salafism may damage its outreach efforts to Barelwi and Deobandi Muslims, started galvanizing Muslims of the issue of their religious identity and opposition to the Modi government, keeping aside its sectarian views for the time being. However, the sectarian rivalries continued to simmer. PFI could never be popular among the Barelwis and Deobandis. After the recent arrests of its workers and the ban, several Barelwi groups have welcomed the ban and criticized the outfit. Many others, like Jamiat Ulema e Hind, have distanced themselves from PFI and its narrative. Besides the sectarian faultlines, caste, economic and ethnic divides are also rampant among Muslims. Historically deprived and discriminated against by the 15 percent elite Ashraf Muslims, socio-economically backward Pasmanda Muslims, constituting 85 percent of the Muslim population, have shown a warm response to BJP’s outreach. In addition to the aforementioned hurdles, India’s robust diplomatic position also compounds the problems of Islamist groups like PFI. In the emerging geopolitical scenario, where the West is busy dealing with Russia and expansionist China, it desperately needs India’s support and can hardly afford to alienate India by pressuring New Delhi on human rights issues. Hence, in the event of any major street violence and terror attacks, the Indian state has much more leeway and freedom to deal with such situations ruthlessly.
Lastly, for Pakistan and India’s perennial adversaries in the Western strategic and intelligence world, widening and sharpening Hindu-Muslim faultiness resulting in some kind of a civil war aligns well with their objectives of halting India’s economic growth and rising global geopolitical footprint. It is so because China, due to its dictatorial governance model and internal suppression, appears unsustainable beyond a limited time period, say 15-20 years. After that, India remains the prime rival to challenge and uproot the western hegemony. Therefore, it is highly likely that over the next four to five years, the internal security challenges emanating from communal issues and jihadist radicalization will be the topmost security concern. India’s state and society will put immense effort into redefining the social and political parameters vis-à-vis its Muslim minority, redlines, nature of the polity, and establishing the ‘new normals.’ The Muslim minority will also witness internal churning through this phase of resistance and reconciliation. Finally, good sense and pragmatism will prevail, making them understand the changed realities and ‘new normal,’ and the foundations of a new India will be laid.
The article is the individual scholastic contribution of the author and does not necessarily reflect the organization’s viewpoint. The article was originally published by Firstpost in a two-part series 1 - How PFI is just the tip of the Islamist problem in India Series 2 - India should be on alert as Islamists plan big before 2024.