July-August 2008 
Year 15    No.133

Extreme reaction


The SIMI story


The identity of those behind the bomb blasts that shook Mumbai [in 2006] remains unclear. Some claim Hindutva terrorists were responsible while others suspect the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit, Lashkar-i Tayyeba, or the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) or a combination of both. In the meanwhile, scores of suspected SIMI activists have been detained by the police.

Whether or not the SIMI was behind the blasts will be known only after a fair and impartial investigation. Yet the fact remains that groups like the SIMI, although representing a tiny fringe of the varied landscape of Islam in India, do pose a grave threat not only to the country as a whole but, equally, to Indian Muslims as well. In a sense a response to growing Hindu fascism and deadly anti-Muslim pogroms, SIMI-style radical Islamism helps feed Hindutva forces, leading to further communal polarisation, with all the consequences that this has for the country’s welfare and that of the Muslims themselves, already a beleaguered and marginalised minority. In the wake of the Mumbai blasts and the allegations of SIMI involvement, many Indian Muslims are now wakening to the need to denounce not just Hindutva chauvinism but similar Muslim groups, such as the SIMI, as well that speak the language of conflict, hatred, violence and revenge.

Established in 1977 and banned by the Government of India in 2001, the SIMI’s vision of Islam derives from the voluminous writings of the Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. For Maududi, as for the SIMI, the mission of the Prophet Muhammad is seen principally as having been the struggle to establish true monotheism or tawhid. This is taken to mean not just the worship of the one god but also, and equally importantly, the rule of the one god.

Political power, in other words, is seen as central to the Islamic mission. All man-made systems of law are condemned as ‘false’, even Satanic, and Muslims are reminded that unless they actively struggle to be ruled in accordance with the Shariah their commitment to and faith in Islam is not complete and remains suspect. Struggling to establish the Islamic state, the caliphate or khilafah, is seen as a duty binding on all Muslims and one that the Muslims of India, despite being in a minority, must abide by. Muslims who are ‘comfortable living under an un-Islamic order’ are warned that they shall be consigned, rather uncharitably, to hell.

In the absence of the khilafah, the SIMI believes that Muslims cannot lead their lives fully in accordance with Islam. The khilafah is seen as a divinely ordained order and also as the only solution to the many problems of not just the Muslims alone but of all humankind. It is envisaged as a pan-Islamic polity, for all Muslims are said to belong to the same nation (qaum, millat). Islam, in the SIMI’s interpretation, does not recognise any national differences and all Muslims are brothers to each other. Hence they must be ruled by a single khalifa. Nationalism is seen as a false ‘idol’ and one devised by the non-Muslim ‘enemies of the faith’ to divide the Muslims and thereby weaken them. National as well as racial, regional, linguistic and sectarian identities are seen as a sign of ‘ignorance’ (jahiliya), which is vehemently opposed to Islam, and represent major hurdles in the path of establishing the rule of a single khalifa over all Muslims.

In line with the general Islamist understanding, the SIMI sees Islam as a ‘complete programme’, providing detailed instructions on all matters from the most intimately personal to collective affairs such as the state and international relations. Thus secularism, even in the form of state neutrality vis-à-vis religion or the separation of religion and state, is seen as inherently anti-Islamic, for to choose not to be ruled by god’s laws is a sign of rebelliousness against him. Likewise, democracy is also condemned, for to be ruled by man-made laws instead of the Shariah is tantamount to the unforgivable sin of shirk or associating partners with god.

All ideologies and religions other than Islam are condemned as false and sinful (taghuti) and their adherents as ‘rebels against god’. All non-Muslims are branded together as kafirs and no distinction is made among them. Muslims are exhorted to give up the ways of the ‘unbelievers’ and to inculcate an unrelenting hostility to ‘un-Islamic’ culture and to fully abide by the path of the prophet. Because the ‘enemies of god’ are expected to show stiff resistance to Islam, violent jihad is to be waged, if need be, against those who put hurdles in the path of the struggle for establishing the khilafah. Islam thus comes to be seen as a militaristic political programme.

This understanding of Islam and the SIMI’s methods of realising its vision of the Islamic polity make no room for the particular context in which the SIMI operates, where Muslims are a relatively small and insecure minority. It is as if to contextualise the faith and that demands that it makes upon the faithful would be tantamount to cowardice, hypocrisy or deviation from Islam or even amount to apostasy. The fact that to actively and openly struggle for the establishment of an Islamic polity in the Indian context would certainly invite stiff opposition from other communities is recognised but the trials and tribulations that this would mean for Muslims are, it is insisted, to be welcomed as a true test of their faith and commitment and to have always been the lot of the true believers, from the prophet’s time onwards.

As Shahid Badr Falahi, president of the SIMI, once put it, "The Koran itself says that the kafirs will naturally oppose the Muslims. If through any of our actions the kafirs are agitated, this itself is proof that what we are doing is right [.] We have deliberately adopted the policy of the prophet in this regard. If this drives the enemies of Islam to anger, we cannot help it." An unflagging commitment to a combative and extreme understanding of the faith is thus seen as a sign of faithfulness to the prophet and for activists of the SIMI this is indeed a major source of the movement’s appeal, faced as they are with a sense of being completely besieged.

The SIMI was floated by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in the late 1970s. Although it was intended to work among Muslim students to create among them what it saw as ‘Islamic consciousness’ and to engage in peaceful missionary work among non-Muslim students, a succession of events occurred immediately after the founding of the organisation that forced it to take an increasingly hard line position. The young SIMI activists seem to have relished controversy and sensationalism, seeing it as an opportunity to present their vision of Islam as the ideal ‘solution’. Being free of the control of the more moderate and experienced older leaders of the Jamaat, whom they saw as effete and too moderate, the young leaders of the SIMI drifted in the direction of a growing radicalism.

In 1979, less than two years after the SIMI was established, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the shah of Iran and in Pakistan, the military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, set about imposing Islamic criminal laws by force. The SIMI voiced its opposition to the Soviet invasion, welcomed the Iranian revolution, seeing it as the first step in the eventual global revival of Islam, and wholeheartedly supported Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ policy. Gradually, as a result of events abroad and the consciousness of Muslims being an increasingly threatened community in India, the SIMI’s rhetoric grew combative and vitriolic, insisting that Islam alone was the ‘solution’ to the problems of not just the Muslims of India but of all Indians as such and indeed of the whole world.

This growing radicalisation of the SIMI was not looked upon favourably by top leaders of the Jamaat, who had been working to present a moderate image of their organisation, seeking to dialogue with people of other faiths and to promote democracy and secularism in the face of the rapid growth of militantly anti-Muslim Hindu organisations. Jamaat leaders demanded that the SIMI work under the Jamaat’s overall command but the SIMI refused. Accordingly, in 1982 the SIMI separated from the Jamaat which then revived its own students’ wing, the Students Islamic Organisation. Yet both the Jamaat as well as the SIMI continued to share a commitment to a common vision, as developed by Maududi, differing only on the question of the precise tactics and strategy needed in the Indian context to bring Maududi’s vision to fruition.

Following its separation from the Jamaat, the SIMI expanded considerably, setting up branches in various parts of India. It published several periodicals in different languages and formed its own publishing company to propagate its message of ‘Islamic Revolution’. By 2000 the SIMI had some 400 full-time workers or ansars and 20,000 sympathisers or ikhwans in addition to a cell for young children aged between seven and 11, called the Shahin Force. It also established a special wing to work among madrassa students and ulema, the Tahrik Tulaba-i Arabia. Most of its activists and members belonged to lower middle and middle-class families living in towns and cities. It appealed to a class of Muslim students that saw themselves as, in some sense, deprived, for whom its message of the ‘superiority’ of Islam over the ‘decadent’ and ‘immoral’ West and ‘polytheist’ Hindus struck a welcome chord.

The SIMI’s evolution from the 1980s onwards was dictated almost entirely by events taking place in India and in the wider world, these being interpreted as attacks directed against Islam and Muslims by the ‘enemies’ of the faith. Inevitably, then, the SIMI was driven to an increasing radicalism that won it support among a small number of Muslims in India who saw themselves as increasingly beleaguered, victims of both Hindu chauvinism and the Indian state that was seen as representing essentially ‘upper’ caste Hindu interests.

The SIMI organised protest demonstrations against attacks on Muslims, both in India and elsewhere, which provided it publicity as well as possibilities for new recruits. It sought to intervene in and generate public support for its stand on other issues of major concern to the Indian Muslims, such as efforts to do away with the separate Muslim personal law, moves to dilute the Muslim character of the Aligarh Muslim University and the Hinduisation of textbooks in government-run schools. Its activists were also involved in relief work among Muslims affected by anti-Muslim violence, which helped bolster the image of the organisation as being seriously committed to the rights of the Muslims. It also provided other services such as libraries and free coaching classes for Muslim students from poor families.

The SIMI sought to propagate its message through mass contact programmes, lectures, seminars and rallies as well as through its abundant literature, mainly the writings of Maududi himself. A regular feature was its special week-long campaigns aimed at creating an awareness of the Islamic ‘solution’, in which, inevitably, the intention was to ‘prove’ that Islam alone had the solution to all problems afflicting humankind. Thus, for instance, in 1982 the SIMI organised an ‘Anti-Immorality’ week in the course of which ‘social evils and general immorality’ were condemned and ‘immoral’ literature was publicly burnt. In 1983 the Kerala unit of the organisation held a special ‘Anti-Capitalism’ week in which it was sought to be stressed that the ‘Islamic economic system’ alone could provide genuine social justice. In an effort to win the support of ‘low’ caste Dalits in its attacks on Hinduism, in 1994 the SIMI organised the ‘Anti-Varna Vyavastha’ week all over India, in the course of which, through public lectures and the distribution of leaflets and posters, it was stressed that the salvation of the Dalits lay in conversion to Islam, demanding, rather simplistically, an ‘immediate end to the caste system’.

Although a forceful champion of what it called ‘Islamic Revolution’ ever since its inception, the SIMI witnessed a further radicalisation of its rhetoric from the 1990s until, by 2000, the organisation was proclaiming the need for Muslims to engage in armed jihad in India. The radicalisation of the SIMI since the 1990s must be seen in the context of, and as a response to, the growth of Hindu militancy, particularly in the North Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the SIMI also had a noticeable presence.

The destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 and the subsequent massacres of Muslims in various parts of India proved to be a major watershed in the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India. While some Muslims now insisted that the only way forward for the Muslims was to work together with Hindus to isolate both Hindu as well as Muslim militant groups, some fringe others, such as the SIMI, stressed that the time had now come for Muslims to wage jihad against the Indian state or the Hindus, as, it argued, their lives and their faith were now under grave threat. As Shahid Badr Falahi, the president of the SIMI, asserted, the Muslims and Islam were now being targeted by Hindu militants in league with agencies of the state. Hence, he declared, "It is high time that Muslims organise themselves and stand up to defend the community."

By early 1991 the SIMI had begun mobilising Muslims to struggle against Hindu militants, censuring Muslim leaders who advised restraint or dialogue. In February 1991 the SIMI organised the ‘Babri Masjid’ day all over India, holding demonstrations against the efforts of Hindu militants to destroy the disputed mosque in Ayodhya. SIMI leaders issued appeals to the Muslims to ‘stop thinking in defensive terms’ on the question of the mosque and the growing wave of attacks on Muslims. Its rhetorical opposition to the campaign led by Hindu groups to destroy the mosque made for an increasing popularity of the SIMI and indeed it was only after the SIMI took up the issue of the mosque, organising meetings in various parts of the country to oppose the Hindu militants’ campaign, that it really emerged as a significant force to be reckoned with, albeit in small pockets, having hitherto been restricted largely to a few towns of Uttar Pradesh.

Carrying on with its campaign to generate mass support for its position on the mosque, in September 2001 it organised a large conference at Mumbai, attended by some 25,000 students from various parts of India. At the conference it was stressed that the time had now come for Muslims to ‘turn to Allah’, to engage in ‘missionary work’ (dawat) and to launch jihad.

Following the destruction of the Babri mosque and the subsequent massacre of Muslims in large parts of India, the SIMI concluded that there was no hope for Muslims in seeking to dialogue with Hindus or the government because, in its view, both had turned irrevocably hostile to them. In a letter sent to various Muslim leaders and ulema, a top SIMI leader, Abdul Aziz Salafi, insisted that the Muslims should make it clear to the Government of India as well as to Hindu militants that the Muslims ‘would now refuse to sit low’. He insisted that Muslims could no longer trust various ‘secular’ parties to guarantee their rights and that they should now ‘establish their own political identity’.

Four years later the SIMI spelt out precisely what it had in mind. In a statement issued in 1996 it declared that since democracy and secularism had failed to protect the rights of the Muslims there was no alternative left for the Muslims but to struggle for the establishment of the khilafah. It appealed to non-Muslims to recognise that nationalism and westernisation were not the solution to the manifold problems facing the country, the only answer to which, it argued, was what it called the Islamic political order. It insisted that with the establishment of the khilafah all racial, linguistic, caste and communal antagonisms would automatically be resolved and true equality and justice established. The break from the Jamaat’s policy of gradualism was thus made irrevocable and complete.

As Hindu militancy increased in stridency, taking an ever increasing toll of Muslim lives, the SIMI adopted an even more hard line position, calling for Muslims to avenge the death of their co-religionists by following in the footsteps of the 11th century Mahmud Ghaznavi who led several attacks into India and is said to have destroyed many Hindu temples. SIMI activists put up posters in several towns, appealing to god to send down another Mahmud to take revenge for attacks on Muslims and their places of worship.

In 1993 the arrest of a Sikh militant is said, at least so Indian sources claimed, to have revealed a ‘Pakistani conspiracy’ to unite Sikh and Kashmiri Muslim activists along with SIMI members to allegedly ‘create disorder in India’. By this time the SIMI was alleged to have developed links with Islamist militants in Kashmir. It is said to have distributed posters and audio cassettes extolling the militants and exhorting the Indian Muslims to follow in their path. In 2000 the arrest of a Chinese Muslim from Xinjiang and his SIMI accomplice at the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh is said to have provided the Indian police vital information on the SIMI’s contacts with Islamist groups in western China struggling for independence. Indian authorities also alleged that the SIMI had established links with Osama bin Laden. In the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001, SIMI activists organised demonstrations at several places in India, castigating America as an ‘enemy of Islam’ and ‘an agent of Satan’ and lionising Osama as a ‘true mujahid’ and a ‘hero fighting the non-believers’. Posters hailing Osama and supporting the Taliban, including extolling the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, were put up in several towns and Muslims were exhorted to ‘trample over infidels’.

Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and emboldened by the western concern about Islamist militancy, on September 27, 2001 the Government of India declared the SIMI a banned organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. In the wake of the ban, the government arrested most of the top leaders of the SIMI along with scores of its activists, closed all its offices, froze its bank accounts and seized all its assets. The two-year ban was notified by the union home ministry after the governments of the states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh pushed for its proscription in the wake of allegations of the organisation’s involvement in incidents of intercommunal strife. The ban was sought to be justified on four counts.

Firstly, the SIMI’s alleged links with militant Islamist groups in Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani secret services agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. Secondly, its alleged links with pan-Islamist militant organisations and its agenda of working for the establishment of a ‘global Islamic order’. Thirdly, its role in promoting intercommunal rivalry, hurting the religious sentiments of people of other faiths and allegations of its involvement in violent incidents. Lastly, its involvement in allegedly working to destabilise the country, promoting secessionism and denying the basis of the Indian Constitution through its virulent opposition to nationalism, democracy and secularism.

SIMI leaders rebutted all these charges, insisting that they had always abided by peaceful and democratic methods and that their work had all along been limited only to ‘character building’. Its president, Shahid Badr Falahi, insisted that the SIMI was totally opposed to ‘any violent or terrorist activities’. Muslim and even some secular and leftist organisations were quick to protest the government’s decision, branding it as partisan and blatantly anti-Muslim. It was pointed out that the government had no firm evidence of the SIMI’s involvement in violent incidents.

The ban was said to be yet further confirmation of the government’s anti-Muslim policy and it was argued that if the government were really serious about tackling terrorism it should have also banned Hindu terrorist groups which have a long history of involvement in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violence. It was alleged that the government’s move was motivated by political compulsions in order to present itself as defender of the Hindus. That the government chose to ignore these criticisms was a clear indication that in the war against terrorism a consistent policy of double standards would be adopted. The message that was conveyed was that the government had different yardsticks to deal with Hindu and Muslim militants, the former treated as nationalists and ardent patriots and the latter as enemies of the nation.

For Muslim organisations this came as little surprise and although feeble protests were made it was realised as never before that the aggressive confrontationist stance of groups like the SIMI could hardly serve the community. Rather, it had only made their situation as a beleaguered minority even more precarious. As to whether or not the SIMI was actually behind the Mumbai blasts it is too early to say. In the absence of clear evidence it would be unwise to rush to any conclusion. Yet what is obvious is that the radicalism of Islamist groups like the SIMI on the one hand and Hindu fascist groups on the other feed on each other, both speaking the language of hatred. A consistent mass struggle against both forms of terrorism, Muslim and Hindu, and insisting that the state take vigorous action against both, is the only way to ensure that the events in Mumbai are not repeated.

(Yoginder Sikand is an author of several books on Islam and allied issues who has worked on issues related to Muslims and intercommunity relations in contemporary India. This article was posted on the countercurrents.org website on July 15, 2006.)

Courtesy: www.countercurrents.org

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