The day Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in the troubled Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the Northwest of China, Bihar Police busted a radical ring of Muslim youth in Phulwari Sharif that was training for a Jihad, aimed at converting India into an Islamic nation by 2047 – country’s centenary of independence. Also, the same day, a video went viral of public Namaz being offered at a newly inaugurated shopping mall in the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow.
On the face of it, the events are seemingly as unconnected as the north and south poles, but I will try to show an axis that runs through them. Xinjiang is facing an ethnic Uyghur insurgency which the Chinese State has cracked down on with a heavy hand. No prisoners taken. Or, taken in millions and herded in reformation camps. Like that Surya bulb ad of my generation would say “saare ghar ke badal daaloonga! Whichever way you look at it.”
Capping his visit after four days, Jinping made an important comment. He said: “Islam in China must be Chinese in orientation and religions in the country should adapt to the socialist society.” State-run Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying that enhanced efforts should be made to ensure that the normal religious needs of believers should be united closely around the party and the government. Xi called for educating people in Xinjiang to strengthen their identification with the Chinese culture, Chinese motherland, and the Chinese nation.
There is a background to this visit of Xi to the volatile region. The last time the Chinese premier came here was eight years ago in 2014, having freshly taken over the reins of China. There was a frenzy of terror attacks carried out by Uyghur militants, not only in Xinjiang but in Chinese mainland also killing hundreds. A week ahead of his visit, Uyghur militants had carried out a mass knifing frenzy at a railway station in southwest China, killing 31 and injuring 150. On the day he was leaving Urumqi, the provincial capital, a bombing in town – again by Uyghur insurgents – killed one and injured many.
Xi must have gone back with some thoughts on the challenge that was thrown at him by the Islamists. Over the next few years, Xinjiang saw tightening of policies that began with phasing out of affirmative action for Uyghurs, a general crackdown on public display of any separatism, mass incarcerations in camps which the Chinese call training centres for Sinicization. The crackdown included tapering tolerance policy on the construction of mosques and shrines, withdrawal of relaxation to Uyghur women on birth control measures and put Uyghur Muslim children compulsorily in government-run boarding schools with State-sponsored curricula.
While the west slams these repressive measures as cultural genocide, the results are for all to see. Xi spent four days from July 13 to 16 in the province, with not one law and order incident. This tough love has clearly worked. Why I say tough love? Urumqi is a provincial capital and has an international airport more modern than Delhi or Mumbai. I myself got to see it while in transit from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to New Delhi via Urumqi and Guangzhou. The town outside the airport which we could go out to see had a very European feel to it. So, a kind of Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas, Aur Kanoon Ka Hath strategy that has paid dividends. More of it later.
Now, what’s the connection of Xi and Xinjiang with Phulwari Sharif module? The accused in the Phulwari case are young men, highly radicalised by an increasingly dangerous cocktail of online religious education, a rabid ideology of separatism, and more importantly, enemy support from across the border from Pakistan. All accused are associated with the Popular Front of India (PFI) – an organization under the radar of security agencies for hundreds of incidents of Islamist violence and hate crimes across the country. PFI is known to draw its inspiration from organizations like Popular Front of Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood.
From what has come out of preliminary police investigation, the radicals were preparing for long-drawn violence-based action called direct-Jihad to harm the social fabric of the country. Just to give you an idea of how extreme these elements are, the WhatsApp chats show they find an outright community-centric party like the AIMIM useless for their purposes. They believe in armed struggle to change India’s face into an Islamic nation – called Ghazwa-e-Hind – war on India – with the ultimate objective of turning it into a Darul Islam. One of the accused is the brother of a convict of the failed terror plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2013 when bombs had exploded in his campaign rally in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan killing six and injuring about 100. How dangerously close they were to attaining their objectives can be gauged from the fact that one bomb was found and removed from under the dais just an hour before then Prime Ministerial candidate Modi was to deliver his speech.
Now coming to the Lucknow episode. The shopping mall is owned by Abu Dhabi-based Lulu group which has similar operations spread across the country and the Middle East. Its owner, M A Yusuf Ali. is a proud Indian origin entrepreneur, originally from Kerala, who made it to the big league in the United Arab Emirates, starting from the streets of Ahmedabad sometime in 1970s. I happened to meet him at his Abu Dhabi headquarters in 2015 during Prime Minister Modi’s visit there. While interviewing him, his phone started ringing. I stopped the interview to let him take the call. He said this was Azan playing as it was Namaz time. In the UAE no loudspeakers are allowed atop mosques. The government has instead developed an app which Muslim citizens download on their phones. At the time of prayers, the app gets automatically activated with the azan and those wanting to join in the prayers can do so from wherever they are, or at the nearest mosque. Imagine! No loudspeaker issue in a Muslim country, while in India we had a change of government in Maharashtra triggered by the same loudspeaker-atop-mosques controversy last month.
Like Xi took the challenge in Xinjiang head on, working on development and cultural assimilation parallelly, the Modi government needs to do it here in India. From the hand chopping of Professor T J Joseph in Kerala to the funding connection in the killing of Umesh Kolhe in Amravati, there is enough documentary evidence available with agencies now to ban PFI and its affiliate organizations.
Equally importantly, India needs a national project of retrieving and strengthening an Indian Islam that is syncretic and takes ownership of and pride in its Indian roots. For the 200 million plus Muslims of India, their spiritual inspiration might have come from the sands of Arabia, but their civilizational DNA is more than five millennia old. It’s a rich heritage which can make any society proud.
In the same meeting in 2015 in Abu Dhabi, Yusuf Ali went on to tell me that the Friday sermons across the mosques in UAE are sent by the government and that the Imams – who lead the Jumma prayers – do not have the freedom to go beyond the one-page sarkari scripture. Authorities in much of the Arab world have realized the harm a certain version of Islam that spread over last four decades has done to the region, and the world. Immense reform and corrective measures have been put in place over the last decade by strong leaders like Saudi prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. They are in fact now more concerned about a reverse radicalism coming from Muslim religious leaders coming from the subcontinent and are taking countermeasures. Indian Muslim youth needs to know this, even as the Indian State has to act, not necessarily with measures borrowed from Xi and Xinjiang. A beginning can be made with NCERT books.