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Islamist-Communist Alliance in South Asia: Hyperbole or Hazard?

Sanjay Upadhya | Bio | 01 Nov 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive


Patterns of a resurgence in cooperation between Islamic extremists and radical communists -- faint in some places, more pronounced in others -- are emerging. While much of the current focus is on parts of Europe, South Asia could emerge as the principal arena for a communist-jihadist alliance.

Depending on whom you talk to, an alliance between Islamic extremists and radical communists is either more sinister war-on-terror hyperbole or a clear and present danger. At the most basic level, the two groups are divided by their outlook on the supreme being. For Islamist extremists, killing in the name of and dying for God is an investment in the hereafter. But the communist's variety of death and destruction is motivated by a worldview rooted in materialism.

Yet the two philosophies clearly have much in common. Both profess a disdain for the excesses of Western capitalism packaged as globalization. Like Marx and Lenin of the last century, today's jihadists have a utopian vision of a chaste internationalism. Their glorification of death is an act of piety.

Both groups also are strategic pragmatists. They have a history of joining hands with unlikely allies to destroy the primary enemy of the day. Like Joseph Stalin's alliance with America and Britain to defeat Hitler, jihadists had worked with the United States to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, media organizations in India's Jammu and Kashmir state received a video recording in which al-Qaida purportedly declared war on the country. New Delhi has long blamed the Pakistani military's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) for fomenting violence in the Himalayan territory, which Islamabad has claimed since both nations gained independence from Britain 60 years ago. But the timing of al-Qaida's threat worried many Indians. It came amid a resurgence of a Maoist insurgency across vast swathes of the world's most populous democracy.

Known locally as "Naxalites," after the district of Naxalbari in the northern state of West Bengal where they mounted an uprising in 1967, Indian Maoist rebels were virtually wiped out in a massive government crackdown in the 1970s. Since last year, however, they have spread across rural and impoverished hinterlands in at least 11 of India's 28 states, prompting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to equate Naxalism with terrorism as the two big threats to the country's internal security.

Indian Maoist groups have strenuously denied ties to Islamist extremists. Skeptics contend that Indian law-enforcement authorities may be whipping up fears of a non-existent alliance to bolster their authority and influence. In May, India's Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, acknowledged his government had no hard evidence of a formal association. But, he said, the government possesses enough circumstantial information to suggest coordination.

A report prepared by Indian security agencies two years ago suggested the Maoists may be using other Indian separatist groups to get arms and ammunition from the ISI -- a link that continues to be highlighted by the Indian media with each rebel attack.

As India and Pakistan trade tirades, the issue has gone beyond the two nuclear-armed rivals. Some Indian analysts claim that almost all recent terrorist strikes on their country had links to neighboring Nepal, where Maoists have such sway that the country's mainstream political parties invited them to join the government earlier this year. Islamic militants involved in terrorist attacks in India, the South Asia Terrorism Portal points out, either used Nepal as a transit point between Pakistan and Bangladesh or masterminded operations from Nepalese towns.

Days after deadly bombs ripped through commuter trains in India's financial hub of Mumbai in July last year, Nepalese police arrested two Pakistani nationals in a Katmandu hotel for their alleged involvement. New Delhi regularly accuses Pakistan of using Bangladesh and Nepal as bases for anti-India subversion, a charge Islamabad, Dhaka and Katmandu deny equally assiduously.

Bangladesh, which won independence from Pakistan in 1971, has seen a growing Islamist presence in politics. Indian officials accuse that country's intelligence services of promoting armed wings of these political parties to perpetuate hostility toward their giant neighbor.

Although Nepal is a predominantly Hindu nation, its small Muslim population is heavily concentrated along the 1,000-mile open and largely unregulated border with India. Meanwhile, Nepal's decade-long Maoist insurgency claimed 13,000 lives before a tentative peace was reached last year. After signing a peace treaty with the government, Maoist leader Prachanda conceded at a conference in New Delhi that Pakistan had offered to arm and train his group, which he said he had declined.

In the past, however, the Maoist leader's rhetoric has been similar to the pronouncements of Islamist groups like al-Qaida. Two years ago, while still fighting to overthrow Nepal's monarchy and multiparty democracy, Prachanda called his struggle "a totally new 21st century war [against] the evil of the imperialist world, the hypocrisy of so-called democracy that a superpower like the U.S. represents." He enjoined like-minded groups from around the world to join in his epic struggle.

That kind of summons has largely ebbed. But after joining the peace process, some reports indicate the Nepalese Maoists continue to attend secret meetings of South Asian allies, joining in pledges to turn the region into a revolutionary zone. The former rebels may have laid down their guns, but Nepal's mainstream political parties as well as principal donor governments accuse them of continuing a campaign of abduction, extortion and intimidation.

Some Indian security officials believe former Nepalese insurgents are actively involved in Maoist attacks in their country. By making new demands in Katmandu earlier this month that have delayed previously scheduled elections, the Maoists have bolstered suspicions of their real motives.

In February, Indian police arrested an alleged Nepalese Maoist gunrunner who, they said, offered clues of ties between the Maoists and Islamic militants. Although the Nepalese Maoists denied having ties with the man, Indian security agencies consider him a key link to a network of terror in and around India.

One arrest, to be sure, may not amount to definitive proof. Yet the motive and opportunity for cooperation between Islamist and communist radicals may be too compelling to ignore.

Sanjay Upadhya is a Nepalese journalist who divides his time between the United States and Nepal. A Fulbright Scholar at New York University from 1993-96, he has worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Times of London, Inter Press Service and the Khaleej Times.

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