Tablighi exposure is a classic Intelligence failure

The Union Home Ministry’s failure to firmly deal with the open violation of the national lockdown by the Tablighi Jama’at (TJ) raises serious doubts on the government’s long-term strategy in grappling with issues of internal security, whatever the political compulsions. The TJ is a fundamentalist Islamist organization founded in 1927 by an Indian Muslim in the Mewat region of Haryana. It now has a global footprint spread over 180 countries with over 100-150 million followers. The body’s links with Al-Qaeda and other jihadi outfits are now well established. Which is why stringent action against the jama’at was called for after the government was caught unawares.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s emergence as the principal point man and crisis manager has, at least on paper, further eroded the authority of Union Home Minister Amit Shah whose soft line on Shaheen Bagh followed by the Intelligence botch-up on the recent Delhi riots has already clouded his image as a tough task master. Doval’s repeated intercession with mullahs and other Muslim leaders was obviously carried out at the prime minister’s behest. Shah’s concurrence must have been obtained as a formality. This has willy-nilly created the impression that the HM is not in full control of internal security. In reality, however, the NSA cannot and should not be seen to be taking precedence over the HM, especially of Shah’s guts.

Not keeping an eye on the TJ was an unpardonable Intelligence failure, the second after the Delhi riots this February. The dovish response to the three-month long Shaheen Bagh circus was indicative of the government’s mindset. It still rankles. Implicit was the message: Let things fester. This, despite scores of seditious speeches delivered from its podium by anti-CAA protestors owing allegiance to jihadis, urban Naxals and other assorted internal enemies of the state.

That it took the rising death toll from an evil Chinese virus nicknamed COVID-19 which compelled the authorities to dismantle the barricades and fences is no consolation. Suffice it to say the pyrotechnics at Shaheen Bagh prepared the ground for the bloody riots in north-east Delhi in which 53 people were killed, an IB officer included. Whether the government has the good sense to admit it or not, the reality cannot be discounted, much less denied.

Shah’s diffidence to act sent the clear message to Muslim rioters that the government lacked the conviction to take them head-on. Reason: fear of world opinion. A riot better timed to embarrass the government than one bang in the middle of a visiting US President could scarcely have been imagined. This is the stark truth, and the sooner it is realized, the better it will be for our security. Otherwise we might well go back to the UPA days when effeminate incompetents like Shivraj Patil and Sushil Kumar Shinde were in charge of Home. Telling the home truth hurts but it must be told without pulling any punches.

The Tablighi threat is the latest to have reared its ugly head from under the ever-expanding canopy of Islam. Slack spying ensured it went unnoticed. With TJ members accounting for over 30 per cent of the total 4000 plus #coronavirus infections in the country, blame will have to be squarely fixed at Shah’s door. Tablighi movements ought in any case to have been monitored round the year given the ambit of their network. It is not the NSC’s job to keep a hawk’s eye on religious gatherings whose real purpose is mobilization to further the cause of Islam, a religion in which politics comes compulsively intertwined with evangelism, popularly known as dakwah.

The fevered ingress and egress of TJ advocates has been continuing since January this year. Well over 2000 have come and gone since. Thousands of Muslim pilgrims had congregated in Indonesia on March 18 after a similar gathering in Malaysia two weeks ago had caused more than 500 infections. The foreign media had expressly reported that the Malaysian event held between February 27-March 1 drew 16,000 followers. Around two-thirds of Malaysia’s 800 infections (this was the number a fortnight ago) had been traced to the meeting at a mosque complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the capital. Infections have also been reported from neighboring Brunei.

There was a perceptible fillip in the arrival of believers at Delhi’s markaz (transit point) in Nizamuddin around early March. Estimates range from 2000-3000. Preachers from Indonesia, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arab, China, Ukraine, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Bangladesh homed in. The Alami Markaz Banglewali Masjid at Hazrat Nizamuddin has traditionally served as a serai of sorts. It is from here that jamaatis fan out to villages and towns in states like UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telegana etc. with a sizeable Muslim population. The scandalous Intelligence cock-up can be gauged from the fact that the markaz stands barely 50 meters from the local police station. Topping it all is the revelation that the building is an illegal structure constructed by joining two plots. Permission was taken to build two floors, but violated with impunity.

Local mosques play host to these soldiers of Allah whose stated purpose is to poke, prod and persuade those who have strayed from the pathways of the Koran to return to the fold to reap the rewards in the afterlife. The process in known as tashkeel. This time over 960 of these putative preachers were caught lying in their visa declaration form that they had come as tourists rather than missionaries. With the result that their visas now stand cancelled. They may have lied before too but there was none to cross check.

How and why all this escaped the eye of the honchos at Home and IB is befuddling to say the least, especially in the immediate aftermath of Shaheen Bagh and the Delhi riots. It begs the question: is our internal security all-encompassing? Was it prudent of Shah to send NSA Ajit Doval to plead before recalcitrant mullahs to cooperate in the anti-corona drive when the need was to give him marching orders or face the consequences? Too see TJ fanatics rat holed in dingy rooms inside mosques being whisked out by the police in droves brought back memories of Operation Bluestar in 1984. Only this time the action was undertaken to protect us from being done in by an endemic virus instead of terrorist bullets. Around 22,000 TJ workers and their associates have been quarantined so far.

Questions will now only multiply: would the TJ’s operations have come under focus had the Chinese not injected a deadly virus across the globe? Why has this dangerous body never come under the scanner of IB or R&AW when reams have been written about the group’s activities in the western press. More importantly, should not Allah’s time servers who attack police personnel, misbehave with hospital staff, spit at eatables on sale not be banished or deported for life rather than be treated at state expense.

The TJ, perhaps, is the least known and yet the most dangerous of the all Islamic outfits. It talks the language of peace but aims at world conquest. It seeks to restore Islam to its pristine glory during the days of its Prophet. It believes in waging jihad through the conscience rather than the sword though it is more than willing to hand the sword to those who wish to brandish it.

Many get taken in by the TJ’s non-threatening and apolitical image. Which is nothing but a ruse. Not much is known of its organizational structure since it shuns media publicity. Several prime ministers of Bangladesh are known to have attended its meets. Pakistan army officials have no qualms in granting their preachers entry into their barracks. Former Pakistan dictator Zia-ul-Haq was among TJ’s fervent followers, and Nawaz Sharif’s father a member and financier. The ISI chief in 1990 was a Tablighi. Two well-known jihadi bodies, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Harkar-ul-Jihadi-i-Islami, are TJ offshoots.

Proximity to power in Pakistan whetted its appetite over the years. Ignored by Benazir Bhutto, the TJ plotted her ouster early 1993, but failed. In 1995 it even tried fomenting an army coup through faithful officers. TJ trained members have been involved in bombings and terror attacks the world over, including the US and UK. TJ branches are flush with Saudi money which has helped in African expansion. Eighty per cent mosques inside Gujarat are in the control of Tablighis who may have had a hand in the burning of the train which killed kar sevaks in 2002. Their toxic influence in Kashmir has always existed.

IB veterans feel that the only way to check the undercover activities of jihadi bodies is to deal with them as a composite whole. There is no difference in the primary objectives of the LeT, HuM, JeM or their Bhartiya counterparts like the Indian Mujahideen, PFI etc. Much the same is the case with Islamic schools like Wahabi or Salafi. Deobandi thought permeates the TJ. Scratch the surface and jihad is writ all over.

TJ may not yet have sponsored an act of violence. But it could have been laying the ground for some fireworks in the future. Both Shah and Doval may have to keep a much closer watch on Islam’s efforts to expand its presence to avoid being caught napping again. There is a point beyond which they cannot avoid nabbing the conspirators by the scruff of their necks. Even if Shah and Doval work in conjunction, the perception of a weakening Shah cannot be allowed to persist. For Home is where the buck stops.

(Updated on 7 April, 2020)


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.