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Skirmishes on the Indian Front

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

What do you make of this month’s attacks on Pathankot Air Force Station and Bacha Khan University? My guess is you don’t know -- you’ve heard next to nothing about either.


In part, that may be because the Indian subcontinent is very far from America. On the other hand, aren’t we supposed to be living in a global village? The media’s inattention also may reflect the view, recently expressed by trend-setter Barack Obama, that it’s “over the top” to suggest we are engaged in “World War III.” If there’s no world war, why should distant battles concern us?

Those of us prone to connecting dots see a different picture: an unconventional global conflict being waged by self-proclaimed jihadis against infidels as well as fellow Muslims who refuse to submit to them. For us, the attacks in India and Pakistan are worth pondering.

Pathankot is in Punjab, not far from the Pakistani border. On Jan. 2, it was attacked by a group of at least six heavily armed men wearing Indian army fatigues. A 17-hour battle left three members of India’s security forces dead. Also killed were four of the attackers, believed to be members of Jaish-e-Mohammad, whose top priority is to bring Kashmir under Muslim -- rather than Indian (which to JeM means Hindu) -- rule. The next day, an IED explosion injured three more Indians. Another two attackers were subsequently tracked down and killed.

This is not JeM’s first time at the terrorist rodeo. In 2001, less than two months after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, its members carried out an assault on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi that left 14 dead. Indian authorities believe the group is shielded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency which operates as a sort of government within the government – one that may be beyond the control of Pakistan’s elected officials.


After the assault on Pathankot, a Pakistan government spokesman said: "India should understand that Pakistan itself had been one of the greatest victims of terrorist attacks on its soil." Quite right: Last Wednesday militants raided Bacha Khan University in northwest Pakistan killing at least 22 people. A splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.

The Pakistani Taliban, like its fraternal organization in Afghanistan, maintains close ties with al Qaeda. Last week, police here in Delhi arrested what they called a “key operative of the al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent” (AQIS), a regional franchise opened in September 2014. In a video made at the time, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri explained: "We want Islam to return to the Indian subcontinent, which was part of the Muslim world before it was invaded.”

Does his claim of a right of return bear scrutiny? Muslim armies first invaded the subcontinent in 712 A.D. But it was more than 200 years later that “the Muslim storm broke over India,” as the late Kushwant Singh, one of the India’s most popular historians, phrased it.

“Mahmud of Ghazni went through the Punjab to Delhi and beyond, massacring Hindus, destroying Hindu temples and looting Hindu cities. In a series of 17 invasions … he paved the way for Islam.” According to K.S. Lal, another great Indian historian, as many as 80 million people died in India between 1000 and 1525 as a result of Islamic invasions.


Mr. Singh also notes that other Muslims came to India as traders and lived in peace with the natives, while Sufis “sought to spread Islam …through understanding of other faiths and demonstrating the superiority of Islam.”

The culmination of Islamic power came with the Mughal Dynasty – a Turkic-Mongol empire that ruled much of India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century. Some Mughal emperors were benevolent monarchs, tolerant of their Hindu and other non-Muslim subjects; some were not, destroying their schools and temples and levying taxes so onerous as to impoverish if not actually enslave them.

In the 19th century, the British displaced the Mughals who had already been weakened by Hindu warriors of the Maratha Empire in the south. Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor, was deposed by the British in 1858 and exiled to Burma.

Following World War II, under pressure of a global anti-imperialist and nationalist wave, the British withdrew from the subcontinent. Indian Muslim leaders insisted on a state of their own. An estimated one million people were killed in the subsequent partition and population transfer, the largest mass migration in history.

At the same time, tens of millions of Muslims remained in secular, democratic India and today more than 14 percent of the nation’s population of over 1.2 billion is Muslim. By contrast, almost all the Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities have left what eventually became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which today is 97 percent Muslim. The few who did not go, including a small Christian community, suffer severe discrimination. (A genocidal war waged by West Pakistan against East Pakistan in 1971 led, with Indian assistance, to an independent Bangladesh. Hindus currently constitute about 10 percent of Bangladesh’s population.)


That’s the status quo. Al Qaeda, JeM and other jihadi groups are not satisfied with it as this month’s attacks and Dr. Zawahiri’s comment remind us. The goal of their “holy war” against “unbelievers” is to establish – or rather re-establish -- a Muslim-dominated world order; one they will rule.

They are strategic enough to recognize that will require many battles on many fronts and in many theaters. Western leaders who don’t understand that this is the form “world war” is taking in the 21st century, are unlikely to formulate effective policies to fight it. For the jihadis, that must be a source of great encouragement.

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