GHQ Rawalpindi and the ISI, which had in November 2001 opened a “Hindu front” in its efforts at using matters of faith to weaken and divide India, have accelerated the funding and operations of this project within India since September 2014, say experts tracking developments in Pakistan. The intensified focus began when GHQ became convinced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would substantially deviate from the forgiving and unilateralist Morarji Desai-I.K. Gujral line towards Pakistan that had been adopted with alacrity by Manmohan Singh. Consisting of small, self-sufficient teams usually unaware of the actual sources of their funding and motivation, such groups are now being extensively used in pursuance of the ISI’s objective of ensuring that India be seen globally as the hub of “Hindu terror”, the way Pakistan increasingly is of Wahhabi terror. As yet, security agencies in India appear to still be searching for the primary origin of several of the “hate” incidents that have tarnished the international reputation of India, with police agencies largely regarding them only as a “law and order” problem. It will not be forgotten that a similar official myopia was adopted by the Manmohan Singh regime towards the many deaths of scientists and engineers associated with the country’s nuclear and missile problem, deaths which — interestingly — ceased after they were first exposed in the media as suspicious. Credible individuals claim that the origin of the deaths in India are “similar to that of the killings of Iranian engineers and scientists”, although this has yet to be firmly established.
According to information from individuals involved in key clandestine operations during the periods under review, it was in 1979 that intelligence specialists advised then President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan to use religion to weaken and ultimately break up India, or much the same strategy that was rolled out in Afghanistan against the USSR a year later. Interestingly, the Maulana Maudoodi-inspired newly religious and zealot 1970s generation in the Pakistan military are now very senior in the military and even the civilian hierarchy, and even after retirement, many such graduates of the Zia-ul-Haq school of Wahhabi thought have been appointed as advisors to diverse state agencies in Islamabad and elsewhere. They had, by the beginning of the 1990s, almost entirely replaced the western-oriented cohort favoured by President Ayub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan. According to a key individual involved in operations in Afghanistan and India in the 1980s, “The first ISI experiment of using religion to foment violence and separatist sentiment in the Republic of India (outside Kashmir) began in 1980, when multiple and coordinated linkages were established by GHQ and ISI with individuals and groups who believed that they deserved an independent Sikh state as both Muslims and Hindus had got their states in 1947 “but the Sikhs (in their telling) got nothing”. Interestingly, that was also the year after India, under Morarji Desai, rolled back its covert operations in Pakistan, thereby in the process exposing several of its agents to execution, and giving GHQ-ISI a window of opportunity to intensify its covert campaign against India manifold, a chance seized with alacrity by the men in khaki.
The Khalistan experience showed the ISI the value of diaspora contacts. A source claimed that it was a simple matter to convince several affluent citizens, with roots in the Punjab, in California and Ontario that a separate Khalistan state was feasible, if only an armed struggle could get carried out. The result was that “much of the (Khalistan) agitation during 1981-87 was funded from North America and from the UK”, with the ISI dipping into its secret funds only afterwards, when pressure from the Government of India led to a crackdown on such funding by the US and the UK towards the close of the 1980s. The source claimed that the then government in Canada refused to heed Delhi’s requests to take action against pro-Khalistan financiers, hence “a lot of money from San Francisco and London was sent to Toronto and thereafter funnelled to Khalistan groups in India” until the close of the 1990s, when the insurgency collapsed and the ISI decided to halt this operation for the time being. Canada has a reputation of having replaced the UK as a safe haven for groups engaged in violence in their home countries but who behave in a different way in their adopted homeland, and this trend is likely to get enhanced by the election of a pacifist, Justin Trudeau, as the new Prime Minister.
According to a former official with knowledge of GHQ Rawalpindi, “It was in 1985 that operational success in creating the Khalistan movement in the Punjab led to an examination of the question of using Muslim sentiment to eliminate Indian influence in Kashmir”. From that year onwards, “without any sign that authorities in Delhi had noticed what was taking place”, audio and print tracts were brought out, while paid-for sermons were delivered from places of worship that sought to show that “it was forbidden for Muslims to live without resistance in a country where the majority were idol worshippers” i.e., Hindus. “Delhi was more concerned about high-level politics in Kashmir than about what took place on the ground. In fact, several of those recruited (by the ISI) in Kashmir towards the middle and close of the 1980s pretended to be supporters of the Central government against the state government, so as to ensure protection from police enquiry and action”, a source who had been active during that period claimed. From 1986 onwards, “a systematic effort was made to send agents of the ISI into the Kashmir valley from those parts of the state controlled by Pakistan in the guise of returnees; and as individuals supposedly coming back on their own free will, were welcomed by authorities in Srinagar and Delhi since the mid-1970s, it was easy to ensure that several hundred trained pro-Pakistan elements got back”. These subsequently became the backbone of the post-1989 intifada against the Government of India in Kashmir, and several are still active in the state.
Despite its (temporary) successes in the Kashmir valley, the ISI faced disappointment in the rest of India. “Army HQ had expected that the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts would generate anti-Muslim sentiment across India and lead to communal violence, but this did not take place”, a source revealed, adding that “from April 1993 onwards, efforts began to set up (minority) organisations in India which would promote separation between Muslims and Hindus throughout the country”. It was during that period that several radical Wahhabi organisations were formed and became operational across India. “At present, in Kashmir and in (other parts of) India there are sufficient local sympathizers and recruits to ensure complete deniability on the Pakistan side for any terror attack”, a former official said, adding that “even in the case of their financiers and mentors, care is taken to see that only NRIs, and not NRPs (Non-resident Pakistanis), be involved. In fact, Pakistanis are kept out as much as possible from most of the field-level operations involving India.” In particular, the ISI was dismayed that throughout the 1990s, apart from Kashmir, the Muslim community in (the rest of) India remained resolutely moderate and peace-loving despite engineered provocations, and considerable effort was expended on seeking ways in which such a state of affairs could be altered. It was a constant source of irritation in GHQ that Muslims and Hindus in India remained friendly and collaborative to each other, in a repudiation of the Two-Nation theory on which the formation of Pakistan was based.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks took place in New York and Washington, an urgency came into discussions on tarring India with the same terrorist brush as Pakistan, as “by September 2001, Pakistan was being increasingly talked of as a rogue state, although the Bush administration had indicated that it would continue its alliance with GHQ Rawalpindi”. The reason for this favourable (to Pakistan but not the US) outcome was “the assurance given to the White House by the Pentagon and in particular Centcom that it was capable of ensuring that Pakistan abandoned its Zia legacy and became a wholehearted partner of the US in the war on terror”, a senior former official in the know of the situation at that point in time revealed, adding that “General Musharraf ensured through his diplomacy that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar endorsed the view that Pakistan could be trusted as a US partner despite 9/11” and that “Vice-President Dick Cheney (who is very close to GCC leaders) convinced President Bush of the wisdom of this course” (of trusting Pakistan in a manner reminiscent of the 1980s Afghan war).
According to one of the sources contacted, it was a Major-level officer in the ISI who suggested that “an effort be made to create a terror network recruited from Hindus, so that the attention of the world gets shifted to India and to the Hindu community rather than remain locked onto Pakistan and the Muslim community”. By July 2003, when the NDA was still in office, these officials claim that this effort got substantial extra attention and funding, and managed to initially locate half-a-dozen individuals willing to carry out acts of terror. Interestingly, these recruits were almost all of them unaware of the ISI link “as they received funding from a Hindu businessman in Kathmandu who had been recruited by the ISI in 1997”. Apart from this individual, “other Hindu businesspersons in Kolkata and Jaipur funded the nascent Hindu network, as did a Muslim financier in Kuala Lumpur, but who acted through a Hindu intermediary based in Bangkok”. According to a former official, “some members of religious orders, who were unaware of the ISI link, worked on convincing impressionable individuals with an Islamophobic mindset to join the network”, which by October 2003 had become operational. The first significant action of the ISI-funded groups took place in the Jalna-Parbani area of Maharashtra during 2004 and 2005, according to the sources contacted. Other acts of violence also took place in locations in central India and the Deccan plateau during 2006-09, thanks to modules which were linked to ISI-infiltrated financiers, most of them hawala operators. These were not aware as to the actual cross-border inspiration behind such activities and neither were the security agencies, as “the entire planning and funding came from Hindu sources who did not know that their (Hindu) Kathmandu and Bangkok contacts had long been working for the ISI”. Soon, the term “Hindu terror”, became common currency in the media and political discourse in India.
“From 2009, the ISI stopped needing Pakistanis to carry out their operations in India as a sufficient number of local recruits became available. By 2011, enough Hindu recruits existed to enable groups composed entirely of Hindus to operate.” At the same time, “some of the ISI operations got blamed on Hindu groups, although, in fact, of the 16 terror operations blamed on ‘Hindu terror’ groups, only five were actually undertaken by groups funded indirectly by GHQ”, who has from the start monitored the “Hindu terror” project closely. Given the climate of tension in some parts of the county, it is not unlikely that some acts of a violent nature got carried out by groups outside the ISI’s net as well.
Apart from the Jalna and Parbani episodes, these sources refused to give details of the other operations conducted by the ISI through recruits from the majority community. For example, did the Dadri terror brigade which carried out the Akhlaq lynching get incentivised into such a heinous act by cash ultimately sourced from Kathmandu or Bangkok? A senior (now retired) official confirmed that “among the tasks being entrusted to groups infiltrated and influenced by ISI modules since November 2014 is to strew pig and cow remnants near designated places of worship”. “In the past 45 days alone, there have been several dozen incidents of animal remnants getting strewn around temples and mosques in a wide arc from Ranchi to Udhampur to Guwahati”, and these have “almost all” been carried out by ISI-infiltrated modules, a retired official claimed. There have been, in past weeks, multiple incidents of lynching of both Hindus and Muslims suspected of transporting beef, and judging by the evasive response of the sources contacted, the possibility seems high that an ISI link exists in some of these incidents as well, that only a full examination of Kathmandu and Bangkok-based hawala networks active in India and their contacts with violence-prone networks would establish.
These sources are less than laudatory of the ability of the Indian side so far as social media is concerned, with a former senior official pointing out that “the Hindus (i.e. the Indians) do nothing but monitor content already up on websites while (the Pakistan side) focuses on creating and putting up content designed to inflame sentiment to create incidents that show up India as a dangerous destination for travel or investment”. According to a source, social media networks have ensured that “India is now regarded as the epicentre of rape in the world, so that each rape in India gets reported internationally”. He added that “networks cultivated by the ISI have had a hand in one of the most recent instances of child molestation” and that “the actual perpetrators have escaped as per plan”.
However, because at least two layers of contact of individuals carrying out such operations are exclusively with members of the majority (Hindu) community and who are citizens of India, “the ISI is confident that the Pakistan hand cannot be exposed”. Clearly, hawala operators active in Nepal, Thailand and their networks within India are the key facilitators of such operations, but thus far, the authorities seem to have been unable to check the mushrooming of hawala operations within the country. Until those funding ISI operations get identified and dealt with, incidents which generate page after page of negative reporting about India in top international media outlets are likely to continue. Given the robust covert response by the military establishment in Pakistan to the ascension to the Prime Ministership by Narendra Damodardas Modi and their worry over the abilities of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, security agencies at home may need to improve their game so as to reverse the multiplying setbacks to national interest that ISI-influenced networks comprising all major communities in India appear to be constantly inflicting.