Consulting Editor, New Delhi
“We want stability in Bangladesh as a neighbor. Because it is very important for the security of not only India but the entire region. And of course the stability of India is also important for Bangladesh.” These were the words of Smita Panth, the joint secretary (JS) of the Bangladesh-Myanmar (BM) desk of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
When Ms. Panth was talking about these things in a meeting with a delegation of Bangladeshi senior editors and journalists who visited New Delhi on the invitation of the Indian MEA last October, she was accompanied by MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi and director of the BM desk Navnita Chakraborty.
Smita Panth in her speech on that day, clearly indicated that they always remember with gratitude Dhaka’s role in fighting terrorism in India’s Northeast. The senior diplomat also brought up the current development of that region of the country and the current role of Bangladesh in it.
Although diplomatic language is used in official statements, Indian diplomats make it clear in private conversations that the region will progress as long as Bangladesh is free from terrorism and militancy. New Delhi does not want a repeat of the state-sponsored terrorist activities from Dhaka as was in two decades back.
Bangladesh journalist delegation spent 4 days in New Delhi. Besides the diplomats, they had a lot of talks with the election commission and the journalists of that country. Each of these individuals in their personal conversations brought back the fact that the question of Bangladesh and India’s security are intertwined.
“It is certain that India attaches considerable importance to Bangladesh as a neighbour. But more than that, Dhaka has a strategic importance to New Delhi. Especially the way Pakistan has crushed India in various ways, India does not want to see the situation on the other side of its border. Diplomats of this country have been making it clear to us again and again,” a senior member of the journalist delegation visiting Delhi said.
26/11: ‘Thanks God, they were not there’!
A South Block diplomat said on condition of anonymity, “If the old players were in power in Dhaka when we had the 26/11 terror attack here, the situation could have been more muddled. Thank God, there was no such thing in Bangladesh at that time.”
On the 15th anniversary of 26/11, the diplomat felt that most of what has happened in Bangladesh since 1975 has been conducive to regional terrorism.
“And if you notice how it’s all layered up. Each level was well planned. For example, the self-confessed murderer of Sheikh Mujib who formed the Freedom Party, our ULFA leaders met him and established contact with Pakistan through him. And we have witnessed the legacy of that communication,” said the Delhi diplomat confidently.
From the experience of working in Dhaka, the diplomat also said, “Terrorists have been trained in the hills there (Bangladesh). At that time the government of Dhaka knew that. Not only did they know, there were many within the government who directly and indirectly supported them. Money used to come to these militants through Dubai. Al Qaeda, JMB, Huji, Lashkar-e-Taiba, who was not there? The same pipeline used to train Indian separatists.”
An Indian intelligence officer who has worked on Bangladesh for a long time said from his own experience that there were several plots to destabilize India operated using the land and logistics of Bangladesh until two decades ago.
“How can you accept that? The government of a country knows that terrorism is being planned against neighboring friendly countries in its country and instead of taking action, they are supporting the terrorists? Do you know why the JMB militant named Bangla Bhai killed the first person? Just from the suspicion that he might be sympathetic to India. Actually the man was mentally ill and that’s why he used to converse in Hindi. The government of that time stayed away from taking action, on the contrary, it said that these things were made by the media,” said the official in a disappointed tone.
He also claimed that Dhaka administration clearly knew who went to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training and who went to Bangladesh for training at that time.
“I remember well how the ten truckloads of weapons were brought. What would have happened if it hadn’t been caught? After being caught again, those who played an important role in recovering the weapons were framed with false cases. Today everyone knows how the ULFA leaders used to live a comfortable life in Dhaka. So the most important thing for India is not to let Bangladesh go back to the way it was before,” he added.
The official also objected to the recent role of Western nations. According to him, there’s no need to poke their noses around the world. Each region has its own reality. Accordingly, it is important to allow those areas to continue.
He said, “The Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea are very important to our security strategy. But it cannot be a wise thing to push the states of the region to another ring by creating any kind of problems or putting pressure here. Indian diplomats should explain this to the West in plain language.”
Hasina broke the back of Pak-sponsored terror
The situation began to change after Bangladesh Awami League came to power in Dhaka under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina in 2009. For more than a decade, his government has waged a tough fight against terrorism, mostly pro-Pakistani terrorists.
Behind this role of the Hasina government was with support of her party and the country’s progressive, secular and left-wing parties. Especially their combined 14-party coalition is able to play a major role in this regard.
Saleem Samad, a Bangladeshi journalist who was arrested during the BNP-Jamaat-led four-party coalition government for investigative reporting on militant training camps. At that time he was brutally tortured.
According to Mr. Samad, The nexus between Pakistan and BNP chief Khaleda Zia was established after the former ISI chief General Asad Durrani admitted to meddling in northeast Indian states and funding the right-wing BNP during the 1991 general elections in that country.
The confession was made at Pakistan’s Supreme Court’s hearing on the spy agency that had allegedly disbursed Rs 50 crore to BNP chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia ahead of the 1991 elections in which the BNP won and formed the government.
It is presumed that the ISI was active in Bangladesh whenever the BNP has been in power (1991-96) and later during 2001-2006.
Similarly, Khaleda’s assassinated husband General Ziaur Rahman provided umbrellas for Nagaland and Mizoram secessionist leaders and allowed guerrilla camps to be set up in Chattagram Hill Tracts (CHT) in the last quarter of the 1970s.
Saleem Samad said, After 2009, with Hasina in power, Dhaka and Delhi agreed to seize cross-border terrorism. Hasina’s crackdown detained most of the separatist leaders and deported them to India, where the belligerents are held as prisoners of war (POW). Scores of militant camps were dismantled.
Simultaneously, on the orders of Bangladesh [Central] Bank, all the bank accounts of the separatist outfits and their allied business conglomerates were shut down.
The sudden move by the authorities severely fractured the backbone of the separatist movement in northeast India, also known as Seven Sisters.
Bangladesh counter-terrorism officials dug into the covert activities of diplomats from Pakistan. The furore over expelling diplomats from Dhaka and Islamabad caused fresh diplomatic rows between the two countries.
Bangladesh expelled two diplomats, one woman envoy for alleged “terror financing” and another for “spying”, while Pakistan expelled a woman diplomat from Islamabad for an unknown reason.
Mr. Samad also said, Fortunately, most of the sleeper cells of ISIS in Bangladesh and India have been bulldozed by anti-terror forces with credible two-way intel shared with Dhaka and New Delhi.
The intel immensely helped to accurately analyse various info and could zero in on the locations of ISIS militants. The targets were successfully raided by the CTTC, highly trained anti-terror units of Dhaka Metropolitan Police and smashed the jihadist outfit in Bangladesh.
Like the global terror outfit Al-Qaeda, ISIS’s covert activities have been severely dented in Bangladesh.
Simultaneously the jihadist’s sleeper cells in adjoining Indian states across Bangladesh territory were also smashed by Indian Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).
Since the assassination of Islamic State supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other leaders by US drone attacks in Syria and Iraq, ISIS terrorism has significantly scaled down threats in South Asia.
The in-road of terror footprint was globally established after the US-allied-led ‘War Against Terrorism’ and Afghanistan was invaded to punish Al-Qaeda and Taliban’s high command and crush the global terror network.
“When they (Al-Qaeda) were on the run, Al-Qaeda’s communications and finance surreptitiously moved to Bangladesh in collaboration with the notorious Pakistan spy agency Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI),” added Saleem Samad.
Earlier in this year, Al-Qaeda terrorist Ikramul Haque alias Abu Talha, widely described as one of ‘India’s most wanted’, was arrested in Bangladesh along with his wife in a raid.
But still there is a fear
“A ‘new chapter’ for terror in Bangladesh seems to have surfaced in the Rohingya refugee camps teeming with dispossessed youths,” said Saleem Samad.
He said, the camps are another fertile ground for potential recruitments for extremism – some recruitments were voluntary, others were coercion and intimidation to join the banned Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA, also called Harakah al-Yaqin) to separate north Arakan for the homeland of the Rohingyas.
ARSA’s supremo and key leaders were born in Karachi, Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia – some Bangladesh security experts believe the shadows of the terror network were nurtured by ISI, which rang alarm bells in both Dhaka and New Delhi.
Pakistan-based terror outfits were looking for fresh ground for jihad. Immediately, the Pathankot attack mastermind Mohammad Masood Azhar, founder of Pakistan-based terrorist organisation JeM in September 2017 called on the world’s Muslims to unite for this cause of the persecuted Rohingya. “We have to do something and do it urgently. Myanmar’s soil is earnestly waiting for the thumping sound of the footsteps of the conquerors”.
“The dream [of Al-Qaeda] is to create a larger Islamic beyond the territorial limits of Bangladesh to include Muslim areas of Assam, north Bengal and Burma’s [Myanmar] Arakan province.” That dream, Alex Perry writes in Time magazine that if Islamic terrorists were allowed to continue their operations in Bangladesh, could be a nightmare for the region.
“The HuJI-B, JeM, LeT and AQIS envisaged engaging the Myanmar troops and anti-Rohingya Buddhist monks through Islamic jihad to create a haven, which Bangladesh security forces are hell-bent on not happening in the region,” Mr. Samad added confidently.
The India diplomat from south block with whom we talked earlier expressed the same fear.
“If Bangladesh went under the control of such groups who has a background to give shelters to the terrorists, this time the Indian Ocean will be unstable, which will bring disaster to the whole region. Geopolitically, the big powers may have different issues with them. But this time, we should focus on our own,” the diplomat added.