SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
Bangladesh’s disorders were set to intensify exponentially, when the Awami League (AL) led ‘grand alliance’ of 14 parties announced on January 3, 2007, that it would "boycott and resist" the national elections then scheduled for January 22, 2007. The AL had been protesting the systematic subversion of the country’s bureaucracy and electoral system by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led Government over years. The AL claimed that the BNP-led regime had packed the Election Commission and various administrative posts that would be directly connected with the conduct of elections, with its own sympathisers; that it had rigged the voters’ lists, excluding large numbers of valid voters known to be unsympathetic to the BNP and its alliance partners, and packed it with fraudulent voter identities, which were expected to be cast en masse by sympathisers, while hand-picked election officers looked the other way.
Announcing the decision to ‘boycott and resist’ the elections, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the AL President, had declared on January 3, 2007, that an atmosphere conducive to a fair election had yet to come to existence although only 19 days remained; instead of a neutral Caretaker Government, President Iajuddin Ahmed had established "a shadow government of BNP-Jamaat" sympathisers; that a flawless voters’ list safeguarding the people's right to universal franchise was yet to be prepared; and the administration still remains politicised. She added, further,
Assuming the office of Chief Adviser to the Caretaker Government illegally, Iajuddin Ahmed wants to hold an election without a valid voter list. A free and fair election is not possible with the current voter list... it was prepared only to hold an election designed in line with the blueprint provided by BNP-Jamaat alliance. We can't give legitimacy to such an election, and for this, we have decided not to participate in a stage-managed election.
A series of intensive agitation programmes including blockades, hartals (shut downs) and ‘besiege programmes’ were announced and initiated. These compounded the massive campaign of nationwide street demonstrations and unrest that had been ongoing since October 27, 2006, in the wake of wrangling over the candidate for Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Government, at which point the President, Iajuddin Ahmed, decided to take over the post himself in a move that was widely regarded as unconstitutional. Bloody street battles followed, and were the grounds that President Ahmed used to call out the Army on December 8, 2006. However, following the wide criticism of the move, Ahmed ordered the Armed forces to remain on 'stand by' and not to actively engage in law enforcement. This had little impact on the intensity of protests and the grand alliance’s determination to block the Elections. On January 10, Sheikh Hasina announced the further intensification of the protest campaign from January 14, including a non-stop siege of the Bangabhaban [the Presidential Palace], a four-day blockade and a two-day hartal, raising the spectre of utter collapse.
It was at this point that international players involved in the election process simply declared that credible polls were no longer a possibility. International organisations and donor agencies had long been mounting pressure on the Caretaker Government to resolve the crisis. On January 11, 2007, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that the political crisis in Bangladesh had "severely jeopardised the legitimacy" of the polls, and UN, European Union (EU) and the Commonwealth suspended their ‘election observation missions’ (EOM) in Bangladesh. The EU Deputy Chief Observer, Graham Elson, justified the decision to suspend the EOM on the grounds of "the unfortunate circumstances which are presently governing the holding of the parliamentary elections. It is not the business of observer teams to scrutinise elections whose credibility falls short of international standards." Elson specifically pointed to the lack of transparency, a "contentious" voter list and the lack of impartiality in the Administration.
Cornered, President Ahmed resigned from the post of Chief Advisor to the Caretaker Government and simultaneously declared a state of Emergency, within hours of the announcements regarding the withdrawal of the EOMs. This was the first time that the country was brought under Emergency provisions since General H.M. Ershad declared a state of Emergency on November 27, 1990, which remained in effect till December 6, 1990, the day Ershad resigned from presidency following a mass upsurge.
Crucially, President Ahmed conceded the AL allegations that there had been ‘flaws’ in the process of ‘updating’ the voters’ list and that it was ‘imperative to prepare a flawless voters list to hold a free and fair election’.
Within a day, a consensual candidate, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, former Governor of the Bangladesh Bank, was sworn in as Chief Advisor in a ceremony prominently attended by Sheikh Hasina and her grand alliance partners. The BNP President, Begum Khaleda Zia, however, was notably absent from the ceremony. A new council of ministers is shortly to be charged with creating the conditions for ‘free and fair polls’ in which all parties can participate.
These quick developments appear, at least temporarily, to have dissipated the enormous tensions that had built up over the preceding months of mass political mobilisation and demonstrations in which an estimated 45 persons lost their lives. Nevertheless, the deficit of trust between the AL grand alliance and the President, as well as a powerful section of the Administration that is seen to be sympathetic to the BNP, persists. To the extent that Ahmed was seen as a party to the BNP conspiracy to rig elections, it will take much more than a consensual change in the leadership of the Caretaker Government to restore faith. Significantly, President Ahmed remains the Supreme Commander of the Bangladesh Armed Forces, and the Army retains the mandate conferred on it on December 8, 2006. A repressive order of censorship is also in place, which bans independent news channels from broadcasting their own news and current affairs programmes, and places significant constraints on the print media. None of these circumstances can contribute to an atmosphere conducive to a peaceful and fair electoral process.
Worse, the BNP has been winded by what it will certainly see as a tremendous defeat for its strategy to recapture power. Conversely, the AL alliance will be exhilarated by the spectacle of the humiliation it has inflicted on its enemies. As the processes of electoral roll revision and the removal of entrenched officials from the echelons of the administration commence, these passions will come to a head, unless there is extraordinarily sensitive handling of each of the issues listed in the AL’s 11-point demands submitted to the Caretaker Government on October 30, 2006. But each step in this direction would be a provocation for the BNP alliance, which had been quick to dismiss the demands as ‘frivolous’.
Crucially, the present electoral process is also a battle for the survival and consolidation of the BNP’s Islamist partners, including the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote, who have, in the past, significantly benefited from the country’s polarized politics, and from all manifestations of disorder.
Unless an extraordinarily unlikely rapprochement occurs between the AL and BNP leadership – particularly between the irreconcilable Begums, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina – the present interregnum of relative peace promises to be no more than ephemeral. Once the election processes gather force again, an exacerbation of the unrelenting political frictions in Bangladesh can once again be expected to come into play.
A Step Forward, Another Step Back
"First, whatever it takes. Talks, yes, but first we have to beat down this challenge." Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s announcement in Guwahati on January 9, 2007, ended speculations regarding the resumption of the dwindling peace process and signaled the beginning of a major military offensive in upper Assam, hailed as the biggest ever since the early 1990s, against the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The offensive followed nearly 70 killings within a span of four days, between January 5-8, 2007, in a systematic and xenophobic campaign, by ULFA terrorists, targeting Hindi-speaking people in five Districts of Upper Assam: Tinsukia (which accounted for a majority of the deaths) Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Sivasagar, and Golaghat.
ULFA had provided sufficient indication of an obdurate and violent campaign through a succession of statements preceding the killings. The subsequent military build up entailed the movement of Army and Paramilitary Forces (PMFs) stationed in the Lower Assam Districts and from other States, to the violence-torn areas of upper Assam. Some 20 companies of the Army and paramilitary forces, comprising 2,000 personnel, arrived in upper Assam on January 10 to reinforce the already gigantic Security Force (SF) set up there. Another 3,000 Jawans (soldiers) from the Army’s 2nd Mountain Division were sent to Sivasagar and Dhemaji Districts. Similarly, reports indicate that six to seven companies of the Border Security Force (BSF), comprising about 500 personnel, will soon be withdrawn from north Bengal areas to be deployed in Assam. The Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, had, in fact, asked for the deployment of 90 companies of personnel, of which 20 were to be deployed to provide security to the National Games to be held in Guwahati from February 9, 2007.
The euphemistically named ‘Operation Clear’, involved troops aided by helicopters executing simultaneous operations in several areas of Assam, including as Lakhipathar, Saraipung, Namsai, Upper Dihing, Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, and the river islands in the Sadiya sub-division of Dibrugarh district. Operations were also launched in Arunachal Pradesh’s and Bhismaknagar, Manabhum Reserve Forest and Sonpura in Lohit, the Namchik area in Changlang and Dambuk in Lower Dibang Valley. Army sources also spoke of a similar offensive in the Garo Hills region of Meghalaya, which has traditionally been used by the ULFA as a transit route to and from Bangladesh. On January 9, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, also stated, rather optimistically, at least given Bangladesh’s track record, "We will seek the help of Bangladesh and Myanmar in addressing the issue of ULFA cadres operating from these countries." The BSF has already rushed four of its battalions to Meghalaya and Assam to man the sensitive border between the two States as well as the international border with neighbouring Bangladesh.
The achievements of the relatively massive military mobilization, till January 12, were, however, at best modest. On January 7, 2007, two-days prior to the commencement of the Operation, two ULFA militants were killed in an encounter with SF personnel in the Sivasagar District. Three unidentified ULFA militants were killed and three others arrested during a counter-insurgency operation in the Darrang District on January 12. Earlier, on January 11, an ULFA militant was killed at a village in the Baska District bordering Bhutan, far from the upper Assam Districts, where ‘Operation Clear’ was ongoing. Five ULFA militants/ linkmen were also arrested from the Tinsukia, Karbi Anglong and Udalguri Districts.
There has been some euphoria regarding the Army operations in the national media and the decisive dominance these are projected to achieve, vis-à-vis ULFA, but this euphoria is not shared by the Army. The Army Chief, General J.J. Singh, has disclosed himself to be a votary of the ‘root causes’ thesis, and argues that a ‘military solution’ to the ULFA problem is not possible. Speaking at a Press Conference at New Delhi on January 12, he said: "All out operations are being undertaken to put the terrorists on the back foot. But there is no purely military solution. There can never be a time when we could task ourselves with finishing off the ULFA entirely, wherever they are." He elaborated, further, "Any counter-terror campaign has to be multi-pronged. There are political and socio-economic dimensions to the problem. If we can compel them to come back to the negotiating table, there can be progress." The fact that the operations to ‘smoke out’ ULFA cadres wouldn’t be easy, had earlier been underlined by an Army official on January 9, who stated: "Practically no intelligence on their movements is available from where they are holed up now, given the fact that there is hardly any human habitation in these places."
The resumption of all-out hostilities in Assam has reversed the achievements of the past four years. Beginning 2003, when 505 terrorism related deaths were reported in Assam, fatalities have registered a steady decline. According to the Institute for Conflict Management database, 174 terrorism related deaths were reported in 2006, a 39 per cent decline from the previous year. With 40 deaths, Kamrup, in which the State capital Dispur is located, remained the most violent District. Three Districts, Kamrup, Tinsukia and North Cachar Hills, accounted for 111 deaths. And among multiple terrorist outfits operating in Assam, ULFA remained the most violent accounting for 64 per cent of the total terrorism-related fatalities. ULFA also accounted for 65 per cent of the civilian killings and 51 per cent of SF fatalities registered in 2006.
Casualties in Terrorist violence in Assam, 2003-2006
The Congress Party led by Tarun Gogoi was returned to power in the State Legislative Assembly elections in May 2006. In a statement on December 11, Forest and Environment Minister Rockybul Hussain disclosed in the State Legislative Assembly that 114 civilians and 27 SF personnel had died in militancy-related violence in Assam since Gogoi took over as Chief Minister for his second term. The civilians killed include 57 persons who were killed in explosions triggered by militants. A total of 1,214 persons, including 1,031 civilians, 121 personnel belonging to Assam Police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and other para-military forces and 62 Army personnel, were killed by various militant outfits since Gogoi first became Chief Minister in May 2001. Minister Hussain also mentioned that as many as 1,051 cadres of various militant outfits, including the ULFA, had been killed in encounters with the SFs since May 2001.
Peace efforts with the ULFA appeared to have got off the blocks with the August 13, 2006, decision by the Union Government to announce a unilateral ceasefire, confining the SFs to barracks. Prior to this, in September 2005, after the ULFA formed an 11-member People’s Consultative Group (PCG), to prepare the groundwork for dialogue with the Government, New Delhi called off a tactically important operation in upper Assam’s Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, when the Army had surrounded key ULFA functionaries of the ‘28th Battalion’, the only functioning ‘battalion’ of the outfit, believed to consist of 350 cadres. Amidst strong objections expressed by the Army, who believed that the group was exploiting the truce to reinforce, no operations of strategic consequence were undertaken by the SFs after September 2005, as New Delhi hoped to wean ULFA away from violence through its ‘magnanimity’. ULFA, however, continued to attack, kill and extort without pause.
Subsequently, on September 22, 2006, National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan conveyed to the ULFA-backed PCG member, Indira Goswami, that the Union Government would not extend the suspension of counter-insurgency operations against the outfit any further. The subsequent official announcement of September 24 declaring resumption of counter-insurgency operations against the ULFA drew down the curtain on a year-long process in which both the government and the ULFA were, at best, reluctant partners. The tardy and laborious experiment, which at no point of time in its year-long existence, demonstrated any signs of success, did, however, end up revitalizing a dwindling ULFA, much as the Army had warned.
There is significant evidence that ULFA continues to operate under the grip of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Bangladeshi Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). Investigations into the November 21, 2006, blast in Jalpaiguri in North Bengal, which killed seven persons and injured over 60 others, revealed that ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah had visited Pakistan in recent months to firm up a training schedule for the outfit’s cadres. Subsequently, a team of 15 cadres visited Pakistan in October and received training. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh himself confirmed these ominous linkage in his November 28-statement to a 12- party delegation from Assam led by former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, when he stated that New Delhi was ready for talks with the ULFA as and when it comes out of the clutches of the ISI.
Peace efforts with the ULFA did overshadow the peace process with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) which, since May 25, 2005, has been under a cease-fire agreement with the Government. The process of negotiations has, however, been delayed. While the Assam Government maintains that the outfit is yet to provide a charter of demands, the NDFB accuses the State Government of a lackadaisical attitude towards the outfit. The stalemate, however, has led to an institutionalization of a racket of extortion, abduction and terrorist activities by the NDFB cadres who are, under the cease-fire agreement, supposed to have been confined within the limits of designated camps. On May 27, the first round of talks between the Union Government and the NDFB was held in New Delhi where both parties agreed to extend their cease-fire beyond May 31, 2005. Further, on November 29, both sides met again to extend the cease-fire beyond December 1, 2005. This, however, appeared to have little impact on the activities of the outfit. The following incidents reported in 2006 provide an index of the NDFB’s activities in the State under the ‘cease fire agreement’.
The January 6 attack by the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) in which seven polling personnel were killed and another 10 injured, including four policemen, in the remote Donghap area under Howraghat Police Station, brought back attention to the peripheral insurgencies in Assam, mostly confined to District limits of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills. KLNLF militants exploded an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and opened fire during a bid to influence the elections to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. KLNLF is a breakaway faction of the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), which is under a ceasefire agreement with the Union Government since May 2002. Both the UPDS and KLNLF accounted for five militancy-related deaths in 2006. Delay in substantive dialogue with the Government has frustrated the UPDS which, on September 11, 2006, announced the suspension of peace talks. The outfit, however, maintained that it would honour the cease-fire. Militancy-related incidents involving the UPDS/KLNLF in 2006 included:
The Dima Halim Daogah (DHD) and its renegade group, the Black Widows, accounted for 31 fatalities in the North Cachar Hills District in 2006. Headed by Jewel Garlossa, the Black Widows remained the most violent peripheral militant outfit in Assam. On October 6, 2006, at least 13 Railway Protection Force personnel were killed in an ambush by Black Widow militants in the North Cachar Hills District. Previously, on July 26, 2006, Black Widow militants triggered a grenade explosion targeting CRPF personnel, killing three civilians and injuring three others at a railway station at Maibong in the North Cachar Hills District. These incidents were a direct fallout of the growing sophistication in the quality of weaponry in the group’s possession. On March 28, 2006, the North Cachar Hills District police recovered three rocket launcher shells, two pistols, nine magazines, one revolver and an unspecified amount of ammunition from a married couple, Afhringdaw and Dipali Warisa, linked to the Black Widows. Internecine clashes between the DHD and the Black Widows continued. On April 28, the ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ of the DHD, Naizing Daulagapu, was shot at and wounded by suspected Black Widow militants at Upper Dibbarai under the Haflong Police Station.
Islamist militancy remained at a low ebb. No fatalities in 2006 were attributed to the groups like the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA). However, periodic intelligence inputs did provide details of a ‘silent mobilization’ by the Islamists. On July 18, 2006, Guwahati City Police arrested a self-styled ‘commander’ of the MULTA, Nur Islam alias Lambu, from the Ambari area. He confessed subsequently that 20 MULTA cadres had used Shillong and Lad Rymbai in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya as their routes to escape into Bangladesh in recent past. Similarly, on December 24, an arrested Black Widow militant made revelations about the linkages between the People’s United Liberation Front (PULF), a Manipur-based Islamist outfit and the MULTA.
In all, Assam continues to demonstrate conflicting trends towards some of its multiple insurgencies, and of deterioration in others. Such divergence is a natural reflection of the vacillation and uncertainty that has marked Government policies and initiatives, both at the Centre and in the State.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
January 8-14, 2007
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
President declares state of Emergency in the country: President Iajuddin Ahmed on January 11, 2007, declared a state of emergency in the country--amid a growing political crisis over the elections to the Jatiya Sangsad (national assembly). Ahmed also resigned from the post of Chief Adviser to the caretaker government. Nine advisers to the caretaker government too resigned from their posts while Justice Fazlul Haque, the senior most among the advisers, took the charge as acting chief adviser. The parliamentary election scheduled to be held on January 22 has also been postponed. Authorities have also clamped a six-hour curfew--from 11 pm to 5 am--in all metropolitan cities and district headquarters with immediate effect until further orders. Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, former Governor of the Bangladesh Bank, was sworn in as Chief Adviser on January 12. The Daily Star, January 12/13, 2007.
Constitution tabled at House of
Representatives: On January
14, 2007, the Government tabled
the draft Interim Constitution
at the House of Representatives
(HoR) for discussion. Minister
for Law, Justice and Parliamentary
Affairs, Narendra Bikram Nemwang,
presented the draft interim constitution
to the HoR meeting on behalf of
the Prime Minister. A meeting
of the Council of Ministers had
passed the interim constitution
earlier in the day. The first
meeting of HoR on January 15 will
discuss the interim constitution
and the second meeting will promulgate
the interim constitution and interim
legislature due to be formed on
the same day will ratify the statute.
The Nepali Congress (NC), NC (Democratic),
CPN-UML, People’s Front Nepal,
Nepal Sadbhawana Party (Anandi
Devi faction) and Rastriya Janashakti
Party have reportedly registered
proposals for amendment in the
interim constitution. Nepal
January 15, 2007.
Pakistan steps up efforts to dilute EU report on Kashmir: Fearing censure by the European Union (EU) in view of a report on Kashmir, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been working to get it diluted and has roped in the services of Kashmiri separatists for this, diplomatic sources said. The Brussels-based International Council for Human Rights chief, Majid Tramboo, was roped in by the ISI for creating a lobby against the report -- "Kashmir: Present Situation and Future Prospects" -- prepared by Baronness Nicholson of the EU's Committee of Foreign Affairs. While there were reports suggesting that hundreds of amendments had been suggested to the "mere" 10-page report, the sources said ISI had roped in the Islamabad-based Institute of Strategic Studies to prepare a draft and give directions to the Kashmiri separatists on the same lines. Indian diplomats in Europe indicated that Pakistani embassies in major countries were lobbying to seek amendments to the report. January 10 was the last day of submitting amendments to the EU report and the resolution is likely to be submitted in the European Parliament by the end January 2007.
The EU report was reportedly critical of Pakistan's failure to check cross-border infiltration and did not favour de-militarisation till the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir improved. Deploring "all too frequent incidents of terror and violence perpetrated by armed militant groups based in Pakistan", the report said Pakistan's public commitments to curb infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC) by "militants operating out of the territory under its control is welcome." However, "it must take much stronger and more effective measures to do so", it said. Recognizing and supporting the aspirations of Kashmiris for a "significantly reduced" presence of troops in the State, the report said "Meaningful de-militarisation can only take place alongside genuine action to neutralise the threat of infiltration of Jammu and Kashmir by militant outfits operating out of Pakistan." While praising the unique status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which grants it considerable autonomy, and expressing pleasure at the turnout in the electoral process, the EU report criticized Pakistan for the continued absence of Kashmiri representation in its National Assembly and for governing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir through the Kashmir Affairs Ministry in Islamabad. The Hindu, January 14, 2007.
Al Qaeda 'rebuilding' in Pakistan, says US National Intelligence Director: The US National Intelligence Director, John Negroponte, said that al-Qaeda leaders have found a secure hideout in Pakistan from where they are rebuilding their strength. Negroponte told a Senate committee that al-Qaeda was still the militant organisation that "poses the greatest threat to US interests… They are cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders' secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe." However, he did not specify where in Pakistan the group's leadership was hiding. "Pakistan is our partner in the war on terror and has captured several al-Qaeda leaders. However, it is also a major source of Islamic extremism," Negroponte said in written testimony submitted to the Senate committee.
However, Pakistani foreign office spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam rejected the comments. "Pakistan does not provide a secure hideout to al-Qaeda or any terrorist group," she claimed. "In fact the only country that has been instrumental in breaking the back of al-Qaeda is Pakistan." Meanwhile, Afghanistan has reportedly welcomed the comments. President Hamid Karzai's chief-of-staff, Jawed Ludin, told BBC that Afghanistan had long maintained that the Islamic militants operated from within Pakistan, and that Negroponte's statement was refreshing in its honesty. BBC News, January 12, 2007.
Pakistani sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for New York bomb plot: A Pakistani immigrant was sentenced to 30 years in prison for hatching an unsuccessful plot to blow up a busy Manhattan subway station as revenge for wartime abuses of Iraqis. Shahawar Matin Siraj, aged 24, was arrested on August 27, 2004, on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Though there was no proof that Siraj ever obtained explosives or was linked to any terrorist groups, prosecutors said his intentions were dangerous since he wanted to blow up the Herald Square subway station. "I apologise for all the stuff I said on those tapes," Siraj said before he was sentenced. Siraj was convicted of conspiracy last year based partly on the testimony of a police informant, Osama Eldawoody, who was recruited to monitor Muslims at mosques and elsewhere following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Daily Times, January 10, 2007.