Challenges in the east

Print edition : January 27, 2006

The growth of fundamentalism in Bangladesh, with covert blessings from the ruling dispensation, inevitably has ripple effects in West Bengal and the rest of eastern India.


Indian soldiers patrol the border with Bangladesh on the outskirts of Agartala, one of the routes that militants use to smuggle in weapons and explosives from Bangladesh, according to the BSF.-JAYANTA DEY/REUTERS

Q. [Pointing to a small picture, stuck a little separate from a cluster of Bollywood starlet stickers above the screen inside an auto in central Kolkata] Whose picture is that?

The young driver: [Grinning] Osama Bin Laden. [Silence]

The young driver: He might be a bad guy to you, but not for us.

Q. Why should he be a bad guy to me?

A. [Shrugs] All non-Muslims consider him a bad guy. But he is a true champion of Islam.

IT would be incorrect to say that such sentiment is rampant in West Bengal, nor would it be accurate to conclude by the odd posters of bin Laden in a few youth clubs in Muslim slums that Kolkata is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. But it would be unwise to deny that the long tentacles of `Talibanism' have woven their way into the State and its capital.

Of the extremely porous 4,095-km border that India shares with Bangladesh, West Bengal alone covers 2,216 km and it is only natural that occurrences on one side will cause ripples on the other. With the alarming rise of jehadi fundamentalism in Bangladesh, through groups such as the Harkat ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI) which has vowed to create an Islamic state in Bangladesh, and their acceptance among a sizable section of the people there, India cannot be blamed for getting the jitters. Another formidable group is the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), which based itself in Bangladesh in the early 1980s and reportedly linked up with other Islamic militant groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyr's Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan, the Hizbul Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir, and the Angkatan Belia Islam Sa Malaysia (the Islamic Youth Organisation of Malaysia).

It is also a fact that Bangladesh has become an international haven for Islamic fundamentalist extremist groups from all over the world. Other than Pakistani groups such as the Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), it is believed that 172 Islamic militant camps are operating in Bangladesh, including members of the Jemaah Islamiyah which was responsible for the Indonesian bombings, and, according to reports, which was involved in the attacks in Morocco in 2004. Though there has never been any major incident in West Bengal other than the attack on the American Centre in Kolkata in 2002, in which the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-BD) participated, the situation across the border has of late been a major source of worry for the Left Front government of the State, which has time and again voiced its concern to the Centre.

In an interview to Frontline in June last year, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said that of the "three major issues that need to be addressed" in West Bengal, the first was "Islamic fundamentalists backed by the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] who are operating from Bangladesh". According to police sources, there is coordination and manpower exchange between at least 10 Islamic militant groups, including the HuJI and the LeT, all along the eastern border of the country, and innumerable sleeper cells in the suburban parts of the State.

Kolkata and Agartala are two very important cities in this connection, not only because of their proximity to the border but also because people on both sides speak the same language. Kolkata, particularly, is an easy cover for extremists on the run, not only because it provides the main gateway to northeastern India, but also because of its high density of population. And, West Bengal, Kolkata in particular, has reportedly become a safe haven for jehadis and other extremists. That is perhaps one of the reasons why, in spite of everything - location, illegal immigrants, fundamentalist sympathisers - there is near-complete absence of "performance violence". It would be illogical for terror to strike where it has found a safe hiding place and lose an advantageous base. Also, West Bengal, particularly its northern part, provides one of the easiest passages for smuggling arms and explosives. In this respect, the Siliguri Corridor is an extremely sensitive region. Covering a total area of 12,203 square kilometres, this corridor forms a kind of chicken neck connecting the northeastern region with the rest of the country. As for security, this place could otherwise be a soft target: the feeder highways of National Highways 31 and 31A and the tracks of the North Frontier Railways run through it and vital installations such as the airfields of Bagdogra and Hashimara and oil pipelines are located here.

With so much at stake, it would be a blunder to underestimate the threat the HuJI-BD poses to the country, particularly since it is known that the chief of the outfit, Showkat Osman alias Sheikh Farid, was one of the key signatories to Osama bin Laden's call for jehad against the West, Israel and India in 1998. Apart from the HuJI's involvement in the attack on the American Centre in Kolkata, through an ally group, the Asif Reza Commando Force (ARCF), seven HuJI terrorists were arrested by the Delhi Police in July the same year when they came down on an assignment to assassinate President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and kidnap cricket stars. Another HuJI-BD militant was arrested earlier that year along with three Pakistani militants in connection with the abduction of a businessman and other subversive activities in West Bengal. Later that year, Fazle Karim, a Myanmarese-born HuJI weapons courier, was arrested in Kolkata.

Most recently, on December 26, 2005, three HuJI-BD militants were arrested in Delhi in connection with the bomb attack on the Special Task Force (STF) office in Hyderabad on October 12. The blast was executed by Mohtasim Bilal, a Bangladeshi national. The three revealed plans of attacking prominent politicians of Andhra Pradesh, software parks in Hyderabad and Bangalore, and marketplaces and railways stations. Two other militants, Nafiq-ul-Vishwas and Suhag Khan, arrested earlier in Murshidabad district of West Bengal for smuggling in weapons from Bangladesh, also confessed their complicity in the STF blast. It has been reported that Nafiq's job, by his own admission, was to ferry terrorists from Bangladesh to India through the West Bengal border. It was he who was apparently responsible for ferrying in Mohtasim, Arshad and Sharif - all involved in the Hyderabad explosion.

Every day, thousands of Bangladeshis cross the border into India. Though most are driven by poverty, many take advantage of the anonymity in numbers and slip in with the specific agenda of spreading jehad. It is important to note that this situation is not just the result of a handful of fundamentalists working in Bangladesh. According to political analysts, this movement could not be possible without the tacit support of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP has in its alliance two influential fundamentalist groups, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikyo Jote, which reportedly oversee the infiltration into India with the purpose of changing the demographic pattern, particularly in West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Bihar. A senior Army officer told Frontline: "The demographic changes in West Bengal, particularly in northern and central Bengal, are very disturbing. The danger of misguided elements coming under the influence of fundamentalist forces from outside just cannot be ruled out. Anything that is happening on the Bangladesh side will definitely have reverberations here."

MUCH of the Islamic militancy in Bangladesh is anti-India. It is a sentiment that goes back to the opposition to the "liberation movement" of 1971. Fundamentalist groups have been noted to draw support from families that had in some way opposed independence from Pakistan. The Islamisation of Bangladesh's political institutions, started under President General Zia-ur Rehman, has not helped matters.

Much of the violence targets the Opposition Awami League, now led by Sheikh Hasina, which led the liberation war. On August 17, 2005, as many as 500 bombs were exploded all over Bangladesh in commemoration of the August 21, 2004, explosion at a public rally of Sheikh Hasina which killed 23 people and injured 200. Judges, lawyers, policemen, journalists and others have been targets of attacks in the past several months, as part of an agenda to establish the "rule of Allah". Earlier, secular politicians, including former Finance Minister Shah A.M.S. Kibria, progressive writers and intellectuals opposed to the militancy were killed. The recent celebrations of the 34th Victory Day were held in an atmosphere of fear, with suicide bombers targeting courts and government buildings.

Independent media reports have pointed to the Jamaat as the mastermind of Islamic terrorism in the country. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, however, has defended her coalition partner. Indeed, the administration is believed to have gone out of its way to protect terror suspects, with powerful individuals using their influence to quash cases and release arrested militants. The villain is India, and the ruling alliance is trying to project the recent acts of terror as the doing of "a neighbouring country". It is true that the Khaleda Zia government has banned groups such as the Jamat'ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the HuJI; there have also been some arrests and seizures of explosives. But much of the exercise is seen as being cosmetic. The Opposition even warns of a government plan to announce an amnesty for all JMB militants arrested for bombings, so that they can be used to rig the next elections for the ruling alliance.

In a recent Indian documentary called The Bangla Crescent - ISI Infiltration, based on reports including those of the Task Force of Border Management and the former Governor of Assam, General S.K. Sinha to the President, the number of Bangladeshi immigrants in West Bengal stands at a whopping 79 lakhs. In Assam it is 50 lakhs; in Bihar's Katihar, Kishangunj and Purnia and Jharkhand's Sahebgunj districts it is 4.75 lakhs; and in Tripura it is 3.75 lakhs. In fact, it has been estimated that illegal Bangladeshi migrants are in a position to influence the outcome in 32 per cent of the total Assembly seats (40 out of 120) in Assam, and 18 per cent (52 out of 294) in West Bengal. This heavy influx, especially in the northeastern region, has been creating pressure on land and employment, resulting in clashes between the immigrants and the local people.

There is also a suspicion that the infiltrations from Bangladesh are a planned affair. The Mughalastan Research Institute of Bangladesh has reportedly chalked out a map - through Assam, West Bengal and Bihar - linking Bangladesh to Pakistan.

Another major cause of concern is the growth of unauthorised, illegal madrassas all over West Bengal, particularly along the Bangladesh border. Despite the modernisation of the madrassa curriculum under the Left Front government, a large number of madrassas continue to follow traditional courses and hundreds of them operate independently. In 2002, the Chief Minister was reported to have said that these madrassas avoided affiliation to the Madrassa Education Council and that some of them had "anti-national elements" operating from them.

There has been a spurt in the number of madrassas on the Bangaladeshi side of the border too, with the blessing of the ruling alliance in Dhaka and funded by petro-dollars. The prominent donors are reportedly the Saudi-based al-Haramain Foundation, the United Arab Emirates-based al-Fujayrah Welfare Association and the Dubai-based Dar ul-Ansar and Muslim Welfare Association. These institutions are believed to serve as breeding grounds for young militants; recruits from Bangladeshi madrassas are believed to have fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan, and more recently, the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir.

There is big money fanning the fires of militancy, which spreads easily amid poverty and deprivation. Various national and international observers have named 10 charities believed to be helping the promotion of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh: the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), the Rabita Al-Alam Al-Islami, the Society of Social Reforms, the Qatar Charitable Society, the Al-Muntada Al-Islami, the International Islamic Relief Agency, the Al-Forkan Foundation, the International Relief Organization (IRO), the Kuwait Joint Relief Committee and the Muslim Aid Bangladesh (U.K.).

Informed officials say that the fundamentalists use a concoction of idealism and a promise of a bright future to lure impoverished youth - a time-tested strategy. Recruits from eastern India are sent to Bangladesh, along the same easy route that their recruiting agents had taken along the porous border. There they are trained in the camps of northeastern militant goups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom.

Much of the Muslim populations on both sides of the border are outside the pale of militancy, more concerned with the business of everyday life than with religious ideologies. Yet the spectre of militancy is a threat to civil society, of which those populations are a part.