Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Still at Sea

The crowd never thins at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, the commemorative monument that will now be remembered more for the terrorists who stepped through it to ravish the city than for King George V and Queen Mary, in whose honour it was built in 1911. While several lean back on the meandering low wall next to the Gateway and gaze at the Taj Mahal hotel, more look out to the sea: The wrathful waves lash at the walls before crashing against the rocks. Like coastal people everywhere else, sea has been a comforting source of livelihood, romance, poetry and sometimes unexpected accidents in Mumbai, but it was never expected to have connived with the enemy. Just how did the insulating folds of the waves become instruments of hostility?
A senior officer from the Indian Navy says, “Between the 26th and the 29th of November last year, the violent and tragic death of some 180 Indian citizens and foreigners in Mumbai, cruelly underscored one of the most abiding lessons of the history of India, in that whenever we have neglected maritime security, the effects have been painful and long-lasting.” The effects on 26/11 will certainly be long-lasting, especially if the government refuses to learn the right lessons. And already there are signs that indeed this might be happening.
Just as the Kargil conflict, that brought home the glaring gaps in intelligence gathering/sharing and border management among other things, forced the government to look at the entire gamut of national security in a holistic way (and led to the creation of various committees under the group of ministers focussing on issues like intelligence, border and management and so on), 26/11 led to a similar exercise. Ironically, the post-Kargil holistic exercise promised to deliver in two areas, border management and intelligence (with higher defence management remaining in cold storage), and it was these two that failed yet again. After the hard-won Kargil conflict, the government of the day realised that there was a serious lack of communication between all the multifarious intelligence agencies — turf war, lack of trust, or sheer pettiness that the other should not get the credit —, hence the government created a 24-hour Multi Agency Centre (MAC) within the Intelligence Bureau to work as a coordinator between all the intelligence agencies like R&AW, military intelligence, state police, Para-military forces and so on. The idea was to create a seamless network of intelligence flow from the collector to the interpreter, analyser and the executor. But MAC remained still born. The individual personalities, egos and absence of executive direction collectively buried what could have been a beginning of inter-agency cooperation.
Border management fared a little better, but was hampered by the land-locked vision. So while the government enunciated and executed the policy of one border one force on the land, the coastal border remained at sea. Despite the surprised breach of the Himalayan frontier, nobody in the government seriously thought that sea would be no protection either. An ad hoc arrangement carried on between the Indian Navy, Coast Guard (ICG) and a half-baked entity called the marine police to guard what was vaguely called the coastal border of India. Since the whole system was amorphous there was no accountability. And nobody knew where the buck stopped.
How lose the structures were and how petty institutional leadership was, was evident when a blame game started between various agencies after the November 26 attack. Deliberate leaks were fed to the media by the intelligence agencies apportioning the blame on the Indian Navy, which in turn defended itself by rubbishing the claims of timely intelligence by saying that it was not actionable. Meanwhile, coast guard offered its stock of explanations for why the lapse was not on their part. And nobody even bothered about the marine police because clearly nothing was expected of them. Since everyone was on their own in this, there was no accountability and no fixing of responsibility. “But because the terrorists came from the sea, people at large assumed that the navy should be held accountable. Do you hold the army accountable when the terrorists come by road, like in the case of Indian Parliament?” asks one senior naval officer.
Perhaps, it is a harsh indictment on the people, given that the government or the Indian State itself did not completely appreciate the concept of what comprises coastal security, or even the maritime border. India has a coastline running into 7,516km. But this is not really the maritime ‘border’, which lies a further 12 miles seaward from the declared baseline of the country. A baseline is drawn along the furthest points of a country’s coast, taking into account all the promontories as some coastlines are not linear, for instance, Bangladesh. Given this, the baselines also often are a little away from the actual coast. This 12-mile sea belt is called the territorial waters, which are as much part of the country as the land itself. Interestingly, Pakistan, given certain promontories on its coast has drawn its baselines way off the coast, thereby giving itself territorial waters of almost 32 miles in certain parts. While Indian Navy did raise objections to this, but they have been at best half-hearted. Two hundred nautical miles beyond the territorial waters lie the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
In terms of securing this vast expanse of sea, before November 26, the ICG was responsible for, in the words of director general ICG, Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, “Continuous surveillance of over 2.2 million sqkm of India’s EEZ, and respond to distress calls in the Indian Search and Rescue Region which spans over four million square kilometers.” Territorial waters in India, which are merely the aqueous form of the country, were the responsibility of the marine police. Using the analogy of continental security to explain coastal security, a naval officer says, “Within the borders of India, the ‘dissuasive’, ‘deterrent’, ‘preventive’ and ‘curative’ functions of the State are carried out along a ‘degrade path’ upon which the principal mechanism is the police. When the police fails, the State proceeds down its ‘degrade path’ and calls upon its ‘armed police’, then its ‘Paramilitary forces’. It is only once all these mechanisms have failed that the State calls upon its military. Since the laws of the Republic of India apply in full measure to uphold the majesty of the State throughout the 12-mile limit of the territorial waters of India, the principal mechanism by which the State must carry out its ‘dissuasive’, ‘deterrent’, ‘preventive’ and ‘curative’ functions, remains the police. The degrade path here will be the same, and the paramilitary option, if required, would be exercised through the deployment of the Indian Coast Guard. Thus, for the government to proceed right to the end of its ‘degrade path’ to the navy, within its territory, can only be an interim solution and certainly not a permanent or even a long-lasting one. The mere fact of variations in the physical character of the territory (‘land’ versus ‘water’) can hardly be taken to be a valid determinant. If, for instance, a violation of the country’s laws were to have occurred in Nainital lake, should the government call in the navy, simply because the medium of the territory is water? Why then should it be any different within the sovereign-territory of India that happens to abut its coastline?”
Given this, if indeed there was intelligence about a vessel in the Indian territory, it had to be shared with the police and perhaps after that the ICG. But such was the confusion, when the attack took place that everyone jumped in the fray, including the marine commandos, who given their location in Mumbai were the first to respond. Given the situation, they could have hardly sat on procedures, but the point is, there were no procedures for anyone to follow, despite the supposed revamp of border security after the surprise in Kargil. Mention of this endemic confusion found its way in the report FBI submitted to the US Senate committee. According to the report: The Indian response to the Mumbai terror attack was hamstrung by lack of coordination between ‘different levels of the government’ and the local police’s inadequate training and lack of ‘powerful’ weapons. It further says that, ‘Unified command system is of paramount importance if governments are to respond to terrorist attacks quickly and effectively.’
In a few months, we would be ready to commemorate the first anniversary of the November 26 attacks in Mumbai. Long enough time for lessons to be learned, inter-agency differences to be papered off, security gaps to be plugged in and the consciousness about the exact nature of threats India faces to sink in. And once again it seems that there is a post-Kargil like holistic review, this time, because the attackers came from the sea and not the mountains, with the coast in mind. And yet again, there is a fear that once the immediacy ceases, things will relapse into the happy state of complacency.
However, before that happens, here is what the government has done. Among the very first things that the new minister of home affairs, P. Chidambaram did (he succeeded Shivraj Patil, who paid the price for the 26/11 attack) was announce the creation of something called National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which many view as a rival to the IB. Till now, the NIA continues to look for basic facilities to house the organisation. The comatose MAC was revived and various organisations were asked to depute a representative to it. Looking seaward, it has now come up with a maritime security plan, under which the navy is the ‘designated authority’ responsible for complete maritime security, with both coastal and offshore security under its control. The ICG will no longer patrol the EEZ, but instead focus on the territorial waters under the navy’s supervision. As the DG ICG says (see interview), “Post 26/11, the Coast Guard has now been given additional responsibility of coastal security in India’s territorial waters i.e., up to 12 miles from our coastline.” In addition to this, yet another effort is being made to overhaul the moribund marine police, who will now stay close to the shore and if need be patrol the seas up to three to four kilometers. In an effort to fix responsibility, under the overall command of the navy, the ICG will be designated as the authority for coastal security in territorial waters, including areas patrolled by state coastal police. The DG, ICG will be designated as commander of coastal command that would be responsible for overall coordination between state and central agencies.
Making these announcements in February 2009, the Union defence minister, A.K. Antony also said that, “The navy will control all navy and coast guard joint operations. This will ensure that the assets are optimally deployed and there is synergy between the two organisations.” To facilitate this, a national command, control, communication and intelligence network will be set up to ensure smooth coordination between the navy and the coast guard. That apart, joint operation centres will come up in Mumbai, Kochi, Vishakhapatnam and Port Blair. Also on the anvil are nine additional coast guard stations to integrate with coastal police stations located at Karwar, Ratnagiri, Vadinar, Gopalpur, Minicoy, Androth, Karaikal, Hut Bay and Nizampatnam. New posts of additional director general and three deputy DGs have also been sanctioned in addition to 20 per cent increase in ships and 30 per cent increase for shore support.
Despite these tactical-level initiatives, the government has come in for criticism for not creating formalised structures that would oversee and evolve the concepts in maritime security which goes beyond coastal security. Like the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff, the government is dragging its feet on Maritime Security Advisory Board and maritime security advisor. Says a naval officer, “Our efforts to constitute a single agency to oversee, coordinate, and regulate all activities at sea, had been characterised by a desire to arrive at a compromise-solution, which would avoid generating turf-sensitivities, and, one that would, therefore, be acceptable to the majority of stake-holders. While noble in intent and pragmatic in approach, such a solution is inevitably long-drawn in its formulation and acceptance, and, more importantly, sub-optimally efficient in its execution. In view of the imperative of avoiding any repetition of the Mumbai tragedy, this ‘compromise-formula’-based approach is clearly no longer a viable one. Yet, the government has been unable (or unwilling) to create a suitably empowered maritime security advisor who would be able to meaningfully assist the National Security Advisor, within the maritime domain.”
To make up for this, what is going to be created is a high-level committee headed by Cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar to regularly review coastal
security. This committee will include the navy chief, secretaries of such ministries as defence, home and petroleum as well as chief secretaries of all coastal states. Clearly, the government wants the bureaucrats to remain at the top. And equally clear in these series of measures is the inherent confusion that will prevail eventually. Maybe, because in India, turfs are difficult to come by, and nobody wants to let go of what it has, and the government is simply delicately tottering around these sensitivities.
Assuaging the navy, the defence minister in an interaction with the media in February 2009 said that, “In the future, we have to give more support to the Navy. We have to be more careful in the seas, as 90 per cent of India’s international trade is carried out through the sea route.” As a mark of government’s commitment towards coastal security, several interceptor boats, off-shore patrol vessels, radars and surveillance aircraft and helicopters have been sanctioned. In all, 194 high-speed interceptor boats are supposed to be procured on a fast track basis. But this is easier said than done, because boats cannot be bought off the shelf. Moreover, all procurements have to follow the laid down procurement procedure, which of course is time-consuming, lest some irregularities are discovered (like kickbacks, for instance) a few years later. Which is why, a senior naval officer scoffs at the idea of ‘fast-track’. According to him, “The need for the speedy procurement of adequate numbers of suitable patrol-craft is well recognised. Yet, the monies allocated for this purpose are public funds and need to be expended with due fiscal prudence. This brings in ‘procedures’, with their attendant, and often significant, delays, especially at the bureaucratic overseeing levels.”
It is not just the MoD that is looking for the boats. The ministry of home affairs is also keen to procure them at the earliest for the state police. In early July, home minister P Chidambaram held a meeting to review the indigenous manufacturing of high-speed interceptor boats. As of now, 13 boats have been supplied to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Goa, Lakshadweep and Pondicherry. These dual jet engine boats are equipped with GPS, a radar, a powerful search light and binoculars. Duplication of assets seems imminent, but obviously this is not the time to talk about it. That will be the job of Comptroller and Auditor General a few years later.
What is exercising the navy is that the government is focussing only on coastal or border security and not maritime security which has a different connotation altogether. Just as it is trying to fence all the land borders, it is trying to achieve the marine equivalent of fencing on the coast as well with the focus on 24/7 patrolling and seamless radar coverage, which incidentally still has a long way to go. The navy looks at coastal security, not in terms of ‘fencing ourselves in’, but in terms of enhancing the maritime surveillance capability: Continuous, omnipresent, gapless surveillance. As one officer says, “At the regional and extra-regional level, this translates into a continuous scanning of the primary and secondary areas of maritime interest..., the determining of ‘who’ is doing ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’... the identification of potential threats while they are still distant from our shores and in an embryonic stage of development, rather than when they are full-blown and at our doorstep. This involves Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) of a high order and over a very large maritime expanse.”
Further expanding on the theme, he says, “On the coast itself, this translates into a fully networked chain of coastal-radars, integrated with AIS (Automatic Identification System) and LRIT (Long Range Identification and Tracking) receivers, as also receivers for the ISRO-designed transmitting beacons which are expected to shortly be fitted aboard fishing and other small craft, the entire chain being controlled through a hierarchy of shore-based nodes (Joint Operations Rooms) in which the ‘picture’ from each of these and other sensors can be collected, collated (synthesised), cross-referenced, displayed and disseminated. These sensors would be augmented by space-based, airborne and ship-borne surveillance-means. Integrating all these inputs is the challenge that needs to be overcome and it is here that we can benefit most from the experiences of foreign navies, such as those of Australia, France, Israel, etc.” The greater challenge is not equipment, but trained man-power, because even when equipment is procured, developing human skills will take time, particularly when it comes to the police forces, which not only need to learn to use different kinds of weaponry but also acquire a different mental make-up.
While the government supports navy’s expansive concept of MDA being intrinsic to maritime security in fits and starts, it does not fully appreciates the virtues of such an idea to give it sustained attention, especially after 26/11 when there is a fear that the navy may be required to do more policing in tune with the government’s defensive policy on the land borders. Naval officers are at pains to emphasise that its visions of MDA does not imply lack of concern for border security. “Indeed,” says one, “the navy’s prime responsibility, like that of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, is to protect the country from such external threat as might undermine the territorial integrity of the country.”
“However,” he says, “The manner in which this needs to be done is quite different from that of the army’s protection of the country’s land borders. In maritime terms, ‘neighbours’ can be acquired with an ease and speed that tend to overwhelm a purely continental mindset.” He uses the model devised by Rear Admiral K. Raja Menon to illustrate his point. According to Admiral Menon: “Current technology allows a modern, Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to exert its power to a range of 400 nautical miles (740 km) around it. This circle may be considered to define the area of superiority within which the air and sea space may be said to almost ‘belong’ to the nation owning that Carrier Strike Group. To all practical (although not legal) intents and purposes, therefore, this is a moving area of ‘sovereignty’. When such a CSG’s circle of superiority impinges upon – say, the Indian coast – we have suddenly acquired a new and powerful ‘neighbour’ who (as long as he remains where he is) may even be superior to us. Now we could choose to counter this superiority by building, say, an air-base at this point. However, what needs to be appreciated is that such Carrier Strike Groups can move up to a 1,000 km in a single day, and have a disconcerting habit of disappearing and appearing in odd places with little or no warning. It is, therefore, impossible to site relatively static defensive formations, such as airfields, cantonments, etc, all along our coast. This would, in any case, be poor strategy. Instead, the capability of another country to appear, threaten, coerce, and/or influence us, can only be countered by our own mobile force.”
This thinking encompasses what the navy calls strategic reach, or the ability to influence things way beyond its maritime boundaries. This calls for not just a different capability (certainly not defensive) but thinking as well. Unless coastal security forms part of the overall maritime security, the enemy will continue to find the gaps or weak links. After all, soldiers can hardly stand arm in arm all along the coastline.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

In the Name of God

It is an unlikely headquarters for an organisation that transcends continents and enjoys membership of nearly a billion devout in places as diverse as Brazil and South Korea. The white mosque, called Masjid Banglewali, which towers over the surrounding buildings in the neighbourhood of the famed Nizamuddin Dargah and overlooks the Urs Mahal, the erstwhile abode of the revered Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi is the international headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, roughly translated as the group for the propagation of Islam in its truest spirit. The address couldn’t have been more ironic.
The 13th century Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya was and is revered by men, women and children of all religious persuasions who throng his tomb. Such divinity was associated with him that even noblemen and women, including a Mughal Princess, sought to be buried close to him to benefit from the holiness permeating the area. To be located in such a neighbourhood is ironic for the Tablighi Jamaat because the Jamaatis do not believe in Sufism and refuse to accept the divinity accorded to the sufi saints. Moreover, the entire neighbourhood of Nizamuddin West is redolent with all things that are anathema to the Tablighis but were the staple of the Sufis: devotional music, flowers, road side eateries and a general air of celebration of life. But ironies, such as these, are lost in the busy lanes (that criss-cross the headquarters) housing small shops selling a range of goods from raw meat, fruits and flowers to colourful caps and audio cassettes featuring songs and qawwalis associated with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, mainly composed by his most-devoted disciple Amir Khusro. All kinds of people swarm the lanes — locals, tourists and the visitors to the dargah. Yet, members of the Tabligh stand out because of their thick moustache-less beards, skull caps and white pyjamas, which ends just short of the ankles. For Tablighis all over the world, this is a uniform, a kind of an identification badge that sets them apart from the rest of the non-Tablighi world.

The Elusive Amir
Zuhar, the Friday afternoon prayer, is a busy time at Masjid Banglewali. Apart from the locals, Tablighis from all over India come here. The mosque is important, not only because it is the headquarters but also because Maulana Saad, the descendent of the founder of the Tablighi movement, Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Kandhalwi, and the current head resides here. Even though Maulana Saad is no longer called the Amir, the position was abolished after the death of Maulana Inamul Hasan a few years back, for most Tablighis praying at the mosque at least once in a lifetime and listening to the discourses of Maulana Saad holds a special place. Hence, on most Fridays, apart from the locals, many outsiders also come to the mosque for the afternoon prayer. Manzar Alam, a shopkeeper from Amroha, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, comes as regularly to Delhi to pray at the mosque as possible. “We live in bad times,” he says stepping out of the mosque, his face bend slightly with his eyes boring in the ground. Under the Tabligh’s regulation, he cannot look at any adult woman who is neither his first blood relation nor his wife. “There aren’t many holy men around to inspire one to stay on the path of righteousness. I come here because I find Maulana Sahib’s presence very illuminating. His bayaan (sermon) fills me with a sense of lightness,” he says. In his forties, Alam continues in this vein for a few more minutes occasionally playing with his beard, when he suddenly sees light. Turning away, he refuses to talk any further. “I am sorry, but you are making me commit a sin,” he explains hurriedly. “When the veil was made mandatory for women, even their voices were silenced. Hearing the voice of an unrelated woman is as much a sin as looking at her unveiled face.” Saying this he storms back into the mosque.
Looking completely conspicuous despite modest clothes complete with a headscarf, I skulk around the mosque looking for someone who could help facilitate an audience with Maulana Saad, who being the senior most member of the Shura, the governing council, and a descendent of the founder has assumed some kind of a leadership role. Since his sermon is going on, I am advised to go to his living quarters to confabulate with his wife. A teenaged Tablighi with barely-there beard, who probably has still not learnt that it is a sin to escort an unrelated woman into a lane helps me reach his residence behind the mosque but we are stopped by a burly, bearded Tablighi. Perhaps, out of the novelty of meeting a woman reporter or maybe because of the goodness of his heart, the teenager persuades the burly man to go inside and request the lady (Maulana Saad’s wife) to see me. Grumpily, the burly man goes in and comes back with a curt, “She does not want to see any press reporters.” But may I just come inside and wait for the Maulana to return from the mosque so that she can conduct a three-way conversation between us as the Maulana would not hear my voice, I plead. The teenager joins me in pleading with him. But the burly bearded man remains unmoved. Since his faith does not allow him to physically push me away, he remains at the gate, blocking the way with his eyes boring into the ground. “I have committed enough sin by talking to you. Please go away now. The Maulana does not like talking to the press,” he says, moving towards shutting the gate. The teenager shrugs helplessly and leaves. Turning back, I stumble inside a bookshop selling books on Islam just opposite the mosque. The shelves are lined with books in English, Hindi and Urdu on such subjects as Islamic jurisprudence, role and rights of women in Islam, Muslims’ relationship with Jews and Christians (the other people of the book), Islamic banking and so on. Right next to the door is a shelf full of books on Tablighi Jamaat and the teachings for Maulana Ilyas in a number of languages, including French, German and Spanish. I pick up an English language version. The shopkeeper says, “These translations are very popular among foreign Jamaatis who come here.” How often do they come here? “Very often,” he says, “Sometimes, once a month.” Where do they stay? “Inside the mosque. It is very huge and can accommodate a large number.”

Early Start
It was a good thing that I did not get discouraged by the brief encounter outside Masjid Banglewali. Over the next few days, in places as diverse as Moradabad, Agra, Aligarh and Mumbai, I discovered Jamaatis of various hues and devotion. And not all unwilling to talk to a woman. Though many people discover religion in old age after having lived a full life, the most committed Tablighis are those who start early. According to Salim Khan, a Moradabad-based exporter and an occasional Tablighi, “The Tablighi members watch out for young boys who have finished their board examinations. It is not difficult to find out from the neighbourhood mosque as to which boys have taken the examination that year. Once the holidays begin, they start frequenting those houses, urging the fathers to send their young sons to the mosque. Since it is such an innocuous request and since most Muslims in any case pray at the neighbourhood mosque at least once a week, the youngsters do come too. Gradually, for want of anything else, they listen to the sermons as well.” However, the real initiation happens when the youngsters are persuaded to accompany a travelling party of Tablighis on a proselytising mission.
For Salim Khan, the initiation happened at the age of 15 and almost had an air of adventure. “It was the first time in my life that I was travelling outside Moradabad without my parents. A few of my friends also came along, so it was like an excursion. We visited villages, bathe at the tube-wells and ate sugarcanes in the fields.” The group went to a small place called Joya close to Amroha for a three-day proselytising trip. During such trips, the Jamaatis stay at the local mosques, do all their chores, like washing, cooking and cleaning themselves and whenever there is time from all this and praying they visit the houses of the local Muslims inviting (dawa) them to come to the mosque for some sermons. Probably because of his enthusiasm, Khan did not find the trip strenuous, though the elders in the group usually ensure that the boys are on their toes most of the time.
An ordinary day of the travelling proselytiser starts at 3am for a special prayer session called Tahajjud, after which those who want are allowed to go back to sleep while the rest continue to pray. Finally, everyone is required to get up by five in the morning for Fajr, the first prayer of the day. This is followed by a religious discourse or taalim for about 20 minutes. Then yet another prayer after sunrise called Ishraq after which breakfast is served. For the next one hour, the Tablighis are free to either rest or go out in the neighbourhood with a guide or rahbar to invite people to the mosque. More rest follows for an hour and a half, which doubles up as personal time. At 10, a group meeting is held to discuss the plans for the next 24 hours. Called mashwara or deliberation, here all members of the visiting Jamaat are free to give their suggestions about how best to rope in more and more local people. After the meeting, it is back to taalim for two hours which culminates in lunch just before the Zuhar prayer immediately after noon. Since many local people also come to the mosque for the afternoon prayers, they are requested to stay back for a 20 minute bayaan or sermon session with the Amir of the travelling Jamaat. Some rest followed by more taalim at 3pm both through religious books and a Tablighi Jamaat primer called the ‘Six Numbers’ which was evolved by Maulana Ilyas and fine-tuned by Maulana Zakaria Kandhalwi in his book Fazail-e-Amal. This lists six principals which all Tablighi members must adhere to. Borrowed from the basic principals of Islam in general, in the hands of the Tablighis, they acquire a missionary objective. The six principals are:
1. Kalimah, which is an article of faith for all Muslims exhorting that there is no God but Allah and Prophet Muhammad is His messenger.
2. Salaat refers to five compulsory prayers or namaz in a day: Fajr, Zuhar, Asar, Maghrib and Isha.
3. Ilm and Zikr literally mean knowledge and preaching of Islam. Zikr usually happens in the mosque after the namaz when a senior member of the Tabligh sermonises the assembled congregation.
4. Ikram-i-Muslim enumerates the responsibilities of Muslims towards co-religionists.
5. Ikhlas-i-Niyat refers to reforming oneself so that one leads a pious life in the service of Allah without any personal desires and ambitions.
6. Tafrigh-i-Waqt involves devoting time and efforts not only to leading a life of piety but also in inviting and encouraging others to do the same by travelling not only within the country but outside as well.
This session continues for over an hour after which the Jamaatis just have time to have a quick tea before the Asar prayer which is again followed by a bayaan and neighbourhood visits inviting people to come to the mosque to listen to the sermons during the next prayer Maghrib. More bayaan continues for nearly an hour with the locals who heed the call and come to the mosque. Post dinner, there is Isha namaz after which the group breaks off and goes on individual proselytising rounds in the area focussing on whom they think did not attend the bayaan. By 10 it is lights out as the next day would again begin at three.
Clearly, life in the Jamaat hardly leaves one with time for anything else. But then as Atiq Sheikh, a Mumbai-based member of the Jamaat says, “Jamaat recharges your religious batteries. As long as you are praying you are not sinning. So if you are a committed Tablighi you have less opportunity to sin.” If only the post 9/11 world had this simplistic view of the Tablighi Jamaat.

New Fears
Though most analysts who have studied the Tablighi movement maintain that it is a benign and a quietist organisation, in the last few year members of the Jamaat have come under suspicion in different countries for different reasons. The trademark Jamaat dress code — ankle-exposing lower garment, moustache-less beard and a skull cap — that sets them apart now often causes suspicion. Last year, a Jamaat from Moradabad travelling to Brazil was detained at Delhi’s international airport. The airlines, Al Italia, which they were taking to the Brasilian capital via Rome, refused to board them. Though it did not specify why, but probably the appearance of the Jamaat members and the refusal of other passengers to board the same aircraft played a role. Their tickets were cancelled and though they were refunded on the spot, the Jamaatis had to wait in Delhi for a couple of days before they could take the South African airlines. This was not an isolated case. Following the bomb blasts on the local trains in Mumbai in July 2006, the Indian investigating agencies working on the Bangladeshi terrorist angle detained a group of bearded Muslims from Mumbai in Assam on the suspicion of being terrorists. After a few days of detention and interrogation they were allowed to leave as no evidence linked them to the blast. They were members of a Tablighi Jamaat from Mumbai who had gone to Assam on a proselytising mission. Similarly, when the Pakistani cricket coach Bob Woolmer was found dead in mysterious circumstances in his hotel room during the last Cricket World Cup, the most popular conspiracy theory being circulated was that a member of the Tablighi Jamaat may have killed him as Woolmer was not happy about the Jamaat’s influence over the Pakistani cricket team. Nearly half of Pakistani cricket team, including captain Inzamam-ul-Haq are members of Tablighi Jamaat and take prayer breaks even during play. It is another matter that subsequently it turned out that Woolmer was not murdered after all. But the controversy once again put the Tabligh under spotlight with speculations about their links with such terrorist groups as al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba.
Outside Asia also, members of the Tablighi Jamaat have frequently come under cloud. In the last few years, individual terrorists indicted in the US such as Richard Reid (shoe bomber), Jose Padilla (dirty bomber) and Lyman Harris who tried to blow the Brooklyn Bridge were all found to have been members of the Tablighi Jamaat at some stage. In Europe and North Africa, a large number of terrorists arrested for the Casablanca blasts of 2003 were also found to have had connections with the local chapters of the Tabligh. Yusef Fikri, the leader of the Moroccan terrorist organisation At-Takfir wal-Hijrah, who was sentenced to death for his role in the Casablanca attack by the Moroccan authorities, was also a member of Tablighi Jamaat. Basing their assessments on such examples, some analysts tend to portray Tabligh as a sinister organisation, a breeding ground for terrorists, whose ultimate objective in the words of French Tablighi expert Marc Gaborieau is nothing short of a ‘planned conquest of the world’ in the spirit of jihad. To support their arguments and to further their conspiracy theories, such analysts give the example of conversions to Islam taking place in the US. According to rough estimates, some 30,000 African-Americans convert to Islam in the US prisons every year. Writing in Middle East Quarterly in 2005, Alex Alexiev said that, “As a result of Tablighi and Wahhabi proselytising, African Americans comprise between 30 and 40 per cent of the American Muslim community, and perhaps 85 per cent of all American Muslim converts. Much of this success is due to a successful proselytising drive in the penitentiary system. Prison officials say that by the mid-1990s, between 10 and 20 per cent of the nation’s 1.5 million inmates identified themselves as Muslims.”

Early Days
While such assessments are exaggerated and portray Tablighi Jamaat as a sinister body, the fact is that the nature of the organisation itself does nothing to allay these suspicions. Founded by Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Kandhalwi in the 1920s in India, the primary objective of the Tablighi Jamaat was to reform Islam, not in a progressive but a regressive way. In the early 20th century, Muslims in India were extremely backward, economically, socially and politically. The modernising movement of Sir Sayyid Ahmed, the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, was encouraging Muslims to take to English education so that they could compete for government jobs. He and other liberals created a class of Muslims who were less conservative and more Westernised in their lifestyle. A majority of these Muslims had embraced secular values and were more inclined towards social mobility than ritualistic religion. All this deeply troubled Maulana Ilyas. In one of his early discourses, he said, “The evil and harm that goes with ‘Molvi Fadil’ examinations (MA, PhD etc degrees) offered by the government is not fully realised by us. These examinations are given so that the candidates may get certificates in order to find employment in English schools... There can be no greater injustice to religious education that the fact that those who are equipped with it, ultimately become instruments in serving the interest of the enemies of Islam.”
To save the souls of the fellow Muslims, Maulana Ilyas started the Tabligh movement. According to him, merely following the tenets of Islam, like prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage was not enough. Propagation of Islam was even more important and the glory of the religion would not be possible unless spread through personal examples. His emphasis was on anti-modern and a regressive form of Islam. He emphasised only on religious education shunning modern subjects and preached complete segregation of sexes. The Tabligh focussed only on religious obligations of individual Muslims, ignoring the social responsibilities, thereby not undertaking any social or charitable work. A Deobandi by belief, Maulana Ilyas’ inspiration was Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, which laid down a strict code of conduct for both men and women. But unlike Deobandis, he also envisaged a proselytising role for the Muslims, which by extension had controversial overtones. However, to enable the movement to grow it was important that it did not attract any controversies; hence Tabligh tried to remain completely apolitical in its approach. The only visible mark of the Jamaat was the dress code. Says Saifullah, an Agra-based Jamaati who became a Tablighi member three years ago, “What is wrong in having a visible identity, don’t the Sikhs have it too? Moreover, we are not blindly aping rock stars and film stars. We are only trying to copy the style of our Prophet.”
Right from the beginning, Tabligh tried to remain a secretive organisation, sometimes giving the impression of being almost amorphous. Yet, it had a proper structure, which over the years has been replicated in all the chapters of Tablighs throughout the world. At the top is the Amir or president, who heads the seven-member Shura (governing council) based in the international headquarters at New Delhi. The Tablighs are subsequently broken into regions, countries, districts, cities and localities, with each having its own shura and amir. There is substantial delegation of power and individual shuras generate their own resources and take their own decisions. The headquarters in Delhi is more of an inspirational rather than an executive body. However, according to Khan, from time to time the headquarters in Delhi summons amirs from different regions to review the progress of the movement. Regions which register poor performance get additional focus from the head office. This explains why Jamaats from all over the world visit Delhi periodically.
During the lifetime of Maulana Ilyas, the Tablighi Jamaat strengthened within India and parts of South Asia. However, once his son Maulana Yusuf took over as the second Amir in 1946, the group expanded its reach. With the Partition of India, a chapter was established in Pakistan and through the collective efforts of Jamaats in India and Pakistan the group started reaching out to Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, initially working through the India Diaspora but subsequently through conversions as well. While Dewsbury in UK became the centre of activities for Europe, Al-Falah mosque in Queens, New York became the hub for the Americas. While the leadership of the Tabligh remained in the family of Maulana Ilyas, the office of the Amir was abolished after the death of Maulana Inamul Hasan, which is why the present incumbent Maulana Saad is not called the Amir.
At the most basic level, that of a city, the Jamaat is dominated by the elder members, buzurgwan, who form the shura. They appoint the Amir from among themselves on a rotation basis for that city who takes decisions by consensus. This body decides the travel (for proselytising) plans of the Jamaat and organises funds to support the travel. Each travelling member is required to meet his own expenses. The travelling or the chilla can be for three days, 40 days or four months. Only those Jamaatis who have travelled for four months at a stretch within the country, leaving their homes and businesses are eligible to travel abroad. However, these are not rigid rules, and those who can pay for their passage and stay and perhaps sponsor some fellow Tablighi as well can travel abroad for propagation of Islam. Summing up the thinking of a Jamaati, Usman Khan, Aligarh-based trader who has been committed to the Tabligh for the last 15 years and goes on a four months’ chilla every year says, “When you join the Tabligh you leave all your worries to Allah. He takes care of your family and work. When I travel with the Jamaat, I never worry about my wife and children because I entrust them to Allah.”

Areas of Concern
When the war on terror started, a large number of Islamic organisations, even those which have a passing allegiance with the Deobandi or the Wahhabi school of thought came under scrutiny, courtesy al Qaeda and its offshoots like Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Tabligh has evolved from the Deobandi school and propagates a very exclusive and conservative form of Islam which by its very idea suggests intolerance for other religions. Maulana Ilyas’ worldview comprised Muslims and enemies of Islam, and by definition enemy suggests conflict. Moreover, Tabligh preaches non-participation in social and political activities, which make Jamaatis misfits and almost outsiders in the society. An escapist vision of religion and fantasies of an Islamic utopia renders hardcore Jamaatis unemployable and hence easy fodder for anti-social activities.
Though Tabligh does not preach sedition, visions of an Islamic world or Islamic domination of the world frequently figure in their discourses. In response to a question on why Muslims were not granted leadership of the world, Maulana Ilyas had said, “When we do not fulfil the commandments of Allah and refrain from the forbidden in our personal lives over which we have full control… then how is it possible that we be entrusted with the governing of this world. It is only through the decision of Allah that the believers may be granted government on the earth so that they may seek His pleasure and establish His laws in the world.” (Malfoozaat: Discourses of Maulana Ilyas) Establishing a Muslim empire is a recurring theme throughout Tablighi preachings. Notwithstanding the historical inaccuracies, Saifullah says, “Three hundred years ago Muslims ruled the world, but then they started wavering from the path of Allah and lost power. If we strictly adhere to the right path, inshallah we will rule the world again.” Tablighi Jamaats do not propagate Jihad-e-Asghar (the struggle waged with sword), only Jihad-e-Akbar (the greater Jihad that one wages with oneself to lead a more upright and pious life), but their intense indoctrination which often starts at a very young age robs the person of individual thinking and the capacity for logical reasoning. By repeatedly emphasising on the superiority of Islam as opposed to other religions and by strict gender segregation, the Tabligh intensifies the intolerance level of the individuals. Gilles Kepel in his book The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, writes, “The intense indoctrination preached by the sheikhists reduces their flock’s capacity for personal reasoning, which makes these followers easy prey for a clever jihadists’ preacher.” Moreover, since committed Jamaatis travel with the groups for four months at a stretch, they clearly cannot hold regular jobs, which to some extent speak of their and their family’s economic security thereby adding to their overall vulnerability.
However, the biggest cause of concern is its slightly nebulous organisational structure which makes it vulnerable to exploitation by vested interests. According to Salim Khan, Tabligh has no mechanism for background checks of its members. Since it is entirely a voluntary project, members come and go as they wish. Besides, during chillas, anybody can come and attend the bayaan at the mosque. In fact, the annual Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Raiwind in Pakistan has become some kind of a fishing pond for terrorist groups like Jaish and Lashkar. At the 2006 congregation which was attended by nearly a million people, members of Jaish and Lashkar not only mingled with the Jamaatis freely but also addressed quite a few sessions. It is not certain how many members they managed to rope in for terrorist activities, but it is not difficult to imagine how people brought up on a staple of Islamic superiority would react when told about the sufferings of fellow Muslims at the hand of the enemies of Islam. This is particularly worrisome for India as in any case the normal rhetoric in Pakistan is anti-India; when combined with religious zeal and images of Muslim sufferings in Gujarat, Kashmir and other places it can be a lethal cocktail.

Holding Out
Yet, it would be a bit of an over-reaction to immediately jump up and impose restrictions on Tablighi Jamaat or proscribe it. Despite individual cases, there has not been a single instance so far of the involvement of Tabligh as an organisation in any terrorist activity. But given its nebulous structure and the complete absence of accountability it is important that the veil of secrecy be lifted. Even though it is difficult to do a background check on all its travelling members, but some form of internal screening should be put into place. Since Tablighi members travel in groups, their travel arrangements, including passports and Visas are issued as a group, where individual checks are often neglected. This makes Tabligh a good cover for terrorists and anti-social elements. There is also a need for better accountability in the areas of funding as well. At the moment, Jamaats keep no record of any money received or spent. They claim that they function purely on the donations of their members, but there is no mechanism to check if they receive donations from patrons abroad as well and how that money is spent. By abjuring social responsibilities and focussing solely of religious propagation, Tabligh creates intellectually stunted, selfish people who consider themselves outsiders in a society. A large group, running into millions, believing itself to be an outsider is certainly not good news for any society.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Uncivil War

More than a month after the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India and the world has still not figured out how to make Pakistan accept the responsibility of fuelling terrorism. Forget about trying to make Pakistan pay for its perfidy, the world actually needs to be grateful to it for at least showing the decency of denying that the Mumbai attackers were its citizens. So now we all can step back, after weak protestations, with a semblance of our dignity intact. Imagine had Pakistan accepted that it was behind the terrorist attacks and challenged the world with its brazenness where would that have left India and the US.
Given the way things are in Pakistan at the moment, this is not a far-fetched prospect. The Pakistan military, which the Indian soldiers have often referred to as a professional outfit, has now slipped so far down the realms of the civilised world that possibility of redemption looks bleak. Unfortunately, we all must accept blame for this deterioration. Because we accepted and dignified uncivilised and inhuman behaviour by giving it the name irregular warfare, as if it was a perfectly soldierly act to throw a bomb in a public place or to kill unarmed non-combatants. Once this was accepted by us as part of war, the Mumbai attack was just a step further. No one, not even an average Pakistani truly believes that the 10 men who indiscriminately fired at public places and lined up people against the wall before shooting them in cold blood, were not Pakistani citizens. The father of the surviving terrorist has recognised him, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has accepted him as his fellow countryman and even President Zardari admitted that the attackers were Pakistani by saying that they were non-state actors, before doing a volte-face under Army Chief Kayani’s glare. To still maintain the fa├žade of waiting for evidence is nothing but brazenness.
However, the worrying thing here is not India and its security. India is a big country with the capacity to absorb much more than 1,000 cuts. The worrying thing is Pakistan and the civil society there, which is getting so completely manipulated by the military that it is failing to distinguish between civilised and uncivilised, between Islamic and unIslamic, between just and convenient. All that the military leadership has to do is raise the spectre of war with India and the entire country immediately cowers behind it. The military tells the country that only it can save it from rampaging India and the gullible society not only believes this but join in the war cry, like mindless juveniles in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
The level of brutalisation of the society can be judged by the fact that in peaceful times, Pakistani intellectuals like Ahmed Rashid, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Hassan Abbas, Husain Haqqani, Zahid Hussain and so on write about the dangers of radicalisation of the Pakistani society and military, about how ISI created and nurtured the Taliban and how it closely works with LeT and JeM which it has created specifically for terrorising India, about how Pakistani military has consistently double-crossed the world on its nuclear programme, how deeply entrenched the Jihadists are with the army and so on. Yet, the moment the military raises the India-threat card, they all shuffle in line behind what is now turning out to be a rogue army in both worlds: the secular and the Islamic.
Rogue in the secular world, because no army trains to kill unarmed civilians; professional militaries are not the domain for trigger-happy sadists. They are the bastions for honourable soldiers who value human life above all. And rogue in the Islamic world, because Islam codified the whole concept of war-fighting. It properly laid down rules for engagement, surrender and treatment of prisoners of war (PoWs). War can only be waged between armed combatants and only if the opponent wants to fight. If he does not want to fight, then no matter how just your cause is you cannot fight with him. If he surrenders, you cannot kill him and if he is your prisoner you have to accord him the dignity of a surrendered warrior.
The tragedy is not the decline of the Pakistan military. The tragedy is the decline of the society and those who are lulled into sleep by a sense of security that the enemy is outside and the military can take care of it, because the enemy is quietly creeping inside their hearts and homes. I mourn it because once we were one.
At the height of tensions with India a few years ago, Pakistani poet Late Ahmed Faraz came to Delhi to participate in the annual January 26 Mushaira at Red Fort. He concluded his poem ‘Dosti ka Haath’ (hand of friendship) saying: “Tumhare des mein aaya hoon doston abke/ Na saaz-o-naghme ki mehfil na shaiiyri ke liye/Agar tumhari ana hi ka hai sawal toh phir/ Chalo main haath badhata hoon dosti ke liye”. My hand is still held out, but don’t shake it because it is convenient. Reach out only when you are confident of my intent and at peace with your strengths and insecurities.

Weep India Weep

Never before have issues of internal security and terrorism been as undermined as they have been done in the last few weeks. The entire debate on security, the multifarious nature of terrorism and strengthening of the response mechanism has been reduced to two words by the political class: Hang Afzal. What does it say about India as a country that for the biggest Opposition party and the man who would be prime minister, one fringe person has become symbolic of the nation’s commitment, or lack of it, to ensure security of its people. How much more will issues of national security and national integrity be trivialised at the altar of electoral politics before it is understood that certain subjects should be beyond party politics. Now that we are faced with a new threat, in the form of extremist-Hindutva forces, in addition to the already existing extremist-Islamic forces, it is absolutely critical that Indian political class rise above petty, short-terms objectives. Today, terrorism is not a threat to life and property alone but to the very fabric of Indian nationhood.
There has always been a school of thought that believed that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the most dangerously divisive force in the country. From time to time, the divisiveness has been cleverly couched in educational, social and cultural activities. By assiduously keeping out of politics, the RSS has remained an almost invisible umbrella under which groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharatiya Janata Party, Bajrang Dal and so on were born and nurtured. And all these years it insidiously penetrated the educational stream in the country (which shapes not only the mind but prejudices too), starting with nursery schools and gradually even colleges. Such has been the reach and success of the RSS-run educational institutions that one constantly bumps into professional people who have, at some stage or the other, been to one or the other of these schools, colleges or post-graduate institutes. They hold their prejudices (especially against the Muslims who remain outsiders for them) very deeply despite their station in life. It is no secret what version of history is taught in these institutes or what lessons in patriotism are imparted to the young impressionable cadets. There have been several reports from time to time about how the government should exercise better control over the education imparted at these institutions. Given how secretive and shadowy RSS has been and that it has been banned by the government in the past, it is a wonder that during its non-banned phases, government has not insisted upon greater transparency and accountability.
The RSS need not be a terrorist organisation, because what it has been doing and envisages to do is even more destructive then what a mere terrorist attack can do. It has succeeded in converting a large number of people (fortunately, they are still a minority) to its line of exclusivist and divisive thinking, so much so, that the BJP today is convinced that raising the Hindutva banner once again will get it the winning votes. Despite former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee admitting that not sacking the Narendra Modi government was a mistake, Modi has consistently been the BJP star campaigner, even in Delhi. The purported prime minister to be, Lal Krishen Advani, has hitched his political fortunes onto the suspects in the terror strike in Malegaon, even when the investigations are on. He has obviously been advised that this move will propel him to the top job. So unlike the last campaign where the BJP was sticking to economic issues by way of India Shining, today the biggest totem is terrorism, with ‘hang Azfal’ being Advani’s clarion call in his public meetings.
Instead of getting worried and doing some soul-searching about the long term impact of RSS making inroads in the Indian armed forces to such an extent that the officer who takes an oath to protect his motherland indulges in acts of war and sedition against the state for the sake of religion, the BJP has reduced the discussion to Hindu terrorist versus Muslim terrorist. That RSS holds sway over certain officers of the armed forces has been well-known for a while now, given the numbers who flock to the BJP after retirement. But at least, they abided by the honour of the office they held and the uniform they wore as long as they were in service. But the recent Malegaon incident has robbed us of this comfort as well. So far we had to contend with the prejudiced sections among the police, now the spectre of this prejudice creeping in the last bastion of nobility looms.
At the time of writing this piece on November 27, the gun-battle was still going on in Mumbai following the terrorist attack the previous night. Will this attack still be called terrorism or an act of war will have to be seen, but whatever it may be, one thing is clear, terrorism cannot be fought by reaping electoral harvest over the dead. Is it at all possible that in this season of electioneering, we do not trivialise these anti-national activities?