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Blasts from the past

Blasts from the past

Author: Bhupesh Bhandari
Publication: Business standard.
Date: September 6, 2007
URL: http://www.business-standard.com/lifeleisure/storypage.php?leftnm=lmnu4&subLeft=6&autono=297018&tab=r

Till the Taliban were driven out of Kabul, Afghanistan was recognised as the Islamic world's most prolific jehad factory, exporting terror to every corner of the globe. It is widely believed that Osama bin Laden is still directing Al Qaeda operatives from his base somewhere in Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The region has been wild and untamed for centuries. The Pathans and Afghans are at peace only when at war with each other, the old saying goes. Neither the British nor the Soviets could keep them under their control for long. Before them, the Sikhs had extended their rule to Peshawar and beyond. But their rule over the territory, more often than not, was tenuous.

A lesser known fact of history is that the area was a springboard for jehadis right through the 19th century. These men fought the firinghees to make India once again Dar-ul-Islam. There might be no Al Qaeda operative in India right now, but those men all came from India and were led by Indian religious figures. For the British, they were the first crop of Islamic terrorists. They called themselves God's soldiers. One man's terrorist even at that time was the other man's freedom fighter.

Old India hand Charles Allen (his great-grandfather, Charles Allen, started The Pioneer on January 1, 1865) gives a new spin to Islamic terrorism with his latest book, God's Terrorists. The roots of modern jehad, says he, lie in these men who fought the British forces in the North-West and Afghanistan.

Their leaders, drawn from Patna and Delhi, were followers of the Wahhabi school, which had originated in West Asia in the previous century. The soldiers came from Bengal. All of them were bound together by the cult of militant Islam espoused by Wahhabism.

Elaborate supply chains were set up between Bengal and the Sitana mountains in Afghanistan, where these jehadis found safe sanctuary. Most of the time, they got support from the locals, who still have the tradition of never turning away a guest.

For a long time, the British just had a vague idea about these jehadis. (The Great Game too was just a notion till Rudyard Kipling blew the cover in The Pioneer.) Perhaps the first evidence of militant Wahhabism was in the early 1830s, when Titu Mir organised his co-religionists against the British. Mir had travelled to West Asia and was taken in by Wahhabism. But his struggle was short-lived. He was caught and hanged by the British.

Even during the 1857 sepoy mutiny or what Indian nationalists call the first war of independence, Allen says some British officials were suspicious that it was being fuelled in Patna by a bunch of religious leaders. Accordingly, they were taken into custody. Yet, rivalry amongst officials of the East India Company ensured that these men were set free shortly.

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that these men were at work in Delhi during the 1857 mutiny. It is well known that some religious fanatics had camped in and around Delhi during those days, fighting the British forces. Though most of the participants in the revolt were high-caste Hindus, these men fought alongside them.

The full extent of the operations came to light only after Lord Mayo, the Viceroy, was murdered by a jehadi in 1872. He had promised to crush the Wahhabi movement once and for all and this had drawn the ire of the jehadis. The British might have been able to put a lid on their activities for some time, but the phenomenon raised its head once again 100 years later.

Allen says that the current crop of terrorists has the same DNA as these men. To begin with, they were terrorists and not Indian nationalists. He says these men were not fighting to liberate India. Instead, they were fighting for Islam, to restore it to the glory it had commanded before the British set foot on Indian soil. Their angst was directed against the Christians for defiling their land and interfering in their religious practices. Most important, they all fought like men possessed.

The theological schools which taught Wahhabism at that time became the breeding ground for the Taliban a century later. It is a well-known fact that most madrassas in Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan were offshoots of these schools, most notably the Deoband madrassa close to Delhi. The militant Islam taught by these schools was in full display during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Together with the Al Qaeda, the Taliban became the most dangerous terror force the world has ever known. One was tightly-knit and local, the other loose in organisation but global in its reach.

Packed with impeccable research, Allen's book gives a good view of the roots of militant Islam in the region. God's Terrorists compares favourably with his earlier bestsellers like Soldier Sahibs, Duel in the Snows and A Mountain in Tibet.

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