India: Fanning the Flames of Extremism and Terror at Home

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 1


A string of decisions and actions taken by India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government could result in a rise in militancy, religious extremism, and terrorist attacks in the country. Since it came to power in 2014, and following its reelection with a stronger mandate in May of last year, the BJP and its fraternal organizations in the Sangh Parivar—an umbrella grouping of organizations that espouse Hindutva (a Hindu supremacist ideology)—have unleashed violence against the country’s religious minorities, especially Muslims. Not only has Prime Minister Narendra Modi been reluctant to rein in Hindutva extremists, but his government has also enacted legislation that discriminates against Muslims. It has used extreme force to silence dissent and shut down protests in various parts of the country. With democratic forms of protest closing, an increasing number of angry Indian youth could choose the path of militancy and terrorism.

Hindutva agenda

Hindutva extremism is an important source of violence in contemporary India, especially in recent years as BJP governments at the federal and state levels and Sangh Parivar activists act to implement their Hindutva agenda. This agenda, which is aimed at making secular India a Hindu state and homogenizing its plural society and culture, is being furthered through a series of actions, including the enactment of laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) and implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Such laws not only discriminate against Muslims, but could also be used to deny many of them Indian citizenship.

Hindutva activists are using violence to impose Hindu culture, eating habits, etc. on religious minorities. For instance, in the name of protecting cows, which are revered by Hindus, they are attacking—even lynching to death—tanners, cattle traders and beef exporters, who are predominantly Muslim. Approximately 114 cow-related incidents of violence were recorded between 2015 and 2018, and of the 45 people killed in these incidents, 35 were Muslim. Muslims accounted for 92 percent of victims murdered in cow-related hate violence in 2017, up from 78 percent in 2016 and 82 percent in 2015 (Fact Checker, December 28, 2018).

Ignoring Hindutva Extremism

Rarely have these violent attacks been unequivocally condemned by the government. In most incidents, police refused to register complaints and in cases that did go to court, the accused were acquitted (NDTV, August 15, 2019).  Despite strong evidence against the activists of Hindutva groups, most of them continue to roam free. These violent activists include those from the Sanatan Sanstha group who were allegedly responsible for the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and 2008, the Mecca Masjid bombing in 2007, bomb attacks in the Indian states of Maharashtra in 2008 and Goa in 2009, and the assassination of well-known rationalist scholars in recent years. The Hindutva group Abhinav Bharat were also linked in the Samjhauta Express bombings of 2007. (Hindustan Times, April 16, 2018;  India Today, October 8, 2018; Firstpost, March 29, 2019).

Even more worrying is the endorsement that those facing serious terrorist charges have received from the highest levels of government. Pragya Singh Thakur, who is accused of perpetrating the 2008 Malegaon blast case, is a BJP member of parliament. While she is yet to be convicted, the fact that she faces serious charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and that the trial court refused to discharge her from the case should have deterred the BJP from fielding her in the general election (The Hindu May 21, 2019). It did not. In fact, the party endorsed her spectacular rise in parliament, even nominating her to the parliamentary consultative committee on defense (India Today, November 21, 2019).

The BJP’s reluctance to rein in Hindutva extremists and the failure of the government and India’s criminal justice system to convict and punish those who carry out terrorist attacks is providing a boost to Hindutva extremism. This “will immensely encourage fringe Hindutva elements who see mass murder as a legitimate instrument in their war against other communities as well as against Hindus” who do not subscribe to their views (IndiaToday, March 29, 2019). The lack of action from the government is encouraging extremists to act with impunity.

New Generation of Muslim Terrorists

The rise of Hindutva will likely trigger the radicalization of Indian Muslim youth, who have primarily stayed away from global jihadist groups. Their radicalization stems instead from incidents that have targeted local Muslims. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 2001 and the communal violence that followed, the anti-Muslim pogrom in the western state of Gujarat, and the failure of the Indian courts to deliver justice in terrorist attacks targeting Muslims have contributed to scores of angry youth becoming radicalized and joining militant groups in the 1990s and 2000s. Recruitment to groups like the Students’ Islamic Movement of India and the emergence and proliferation of groups like the Indian Mujahideen grew in this period.

So far, protests against the CAA and NRC have been articulated through social media and mass demonstrations, which have been peaceful. While gautankvad (roughly translating to cow terrorism) has triggered a wave of insecurity among Muslims, the recent Supreme Court verdict handing over the site of the demolished Babri Masjid to Hindu organizations to build a temple has triggered sullen resentment in the community. But rage is building, and with police using force on protestors and India’s democratic institutions not rising to the occasion, the flow of alienated Muslim youth to radical groups could grow. Hindutva is breeding a new generation of young Muslim terrorists.

Boost to Kashmir Militancy

The Modi government’s decisions relating to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) are highly likely to provide a shot in the arm to the anti-Indian militancy there. In August 2019, the government revoked special status granted to J&K under the Indian Constitution. Anticipating mass protests against the controversial decision, it stepped up its already huge troop deployment in the Kashmir Valley to suppress street protests (Asian Age, August 18, 2019). Leaders and activists of Kashmiri political parties have been placed under house arrest (Business Standard, November 21, 2019). The media has been silenced, and Internet and mobile phone services have been shut down for five consecutive months (The Telegraph, December 28, 2019).

Anti-Indian militancy in Kashmir, which was on the decline since the mid-1990s, gathered momentum in 2016. The death of a popular local militant commander, Burhan Wani, triggered a surge in militant attacks, local recruitment to militant groups, and public support for militancy (Terrorism Monitor, April 15, 2016; Rising Kashmir, July 6, 2017). However, counter-insurgency operations have resulted in the elimination of hundreds of militants. According to official figures, there was a 30 percent reduction in terrorist incidents in the Kashmir Valley in 2019, and 139 local Kashmiri youths joined militant groups compared to 218 in 2018 (Indian Express, December 31, 2019). That is now poised to change.

By detaining mainstream Kashmiri politicians, the Modi government has removed them from the political arena and rendered them irrelevant. It has undermined democratic and moderate politics and empowered the violent extremists. The government’s brutal crackdown on Kashmiris has triggered widespread anger with the Indian state. Denied platforms to air their grievances and express dissent, Kashmiri youth will likely pick up arms in large numbers in the coming months. Local recruitment of militants is also likely to surge once communication services are restored and winter ends.

Troubled Waters

The surge in anti-Indian sentiment in Kashmir will provide Pakistan with the opportunity and space to fish in troubled waters. It can be expected to step up the movement of militants and weapons into the valley in a few months once summer temperatures make the mountain passes accessible.

Equally as worrying is Bangladesh’s possible response to the Modi government’s decisions and actions on the citizenship question. Bangladesh fears that millions of Bengali-speaking Muslims living in the northeastern state of Assam, who are excluded from the NRC and denied Indian citizenship, will be pushed into Bangladesh. The Awami League (AL) government, which is already under pressure from Islamists at home, is apprehensive that the exodus from India to Bangladesh will provide them with a weapon to attack it and boost local extremism (Frontline, January 3).

Additionally, the AL government is also upset with the CAA’s text, as it implies that Hindus are being persecuted in Bangladesh. This is understandable given the fact that the AL is a secular party and pro-India. Over the past decade, it has been sensitive to India’s security concerns, and has not only shut down anti-Indian militant camps on Bangladeshi soil, but also handed over militants to Indian custody.

The Modi government’s decisions on the citizenship question have grave implications for Bangladesh’s domestic politics and security. It could potentially prompt the AL government to permit anti-Indian militants to operate from its soil again.


While the Modi government has adopted a muscular posture in dealing with terrorism emanating from Pakistan—it sent ground forces to destroy anti-Indian terrorist launch pads in Pakistani-administered Kashmir in 2015 and carried out aerial strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp at Balakot in Pakistan in 2019—it is fanning the flames of religious extremism and terrorism inside the country. Its intolerance of dissent and shutting down of democratic spaces is paving the way for the assertion of political violence. India can expect to see a rise in militancy in 2020.