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The Other Pakistan

Indians often wonder how the goodwill for their role in Bangladesh’s war of Independence in 1971 could so quickly have turned into relentless animosity and campaigns of terrorism against India, or structures of support to such terrorism on Bangladeshi soil. They wonder, again, how the Pakistani military junta, the architects of the genocide of 1971 in which over three million were slaughtered, could have, so quickly, regained influence through the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), to arrive at a strategic consensus with Bangladeshi Forces, to participate in their ‘war of a thousand cuts’ against India. How, again, did the hated Islamist parties – principally the Jamaat-e-Islami and its various offshoots – the chief collaborators in the genocide of 1971, once again secure a position of centrality, even while they continued to be headed by the very leadership that presided over the atrocities against the country’s freedom fighters and general population. And how could Bangladesh, a region that was converted to Islam by the Sufis, and which long sustained a culture of accommodation, be colonized by the Deobandi-Wahabi radical Islamism that has now taken root in a country that swore by secularism at the time of its formation.

Secularism had a very short life in official doctrine in Bangladesh, and any pretensions to this ideology ended with Shiekh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s assassination on August 15, 1975. General Zia-ur-Rahman, first as Chief Martial Law Administrator, and then as President, quickly rehabilitated the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had been banned, and whose top leadership was exiled, by Mujib-ur-Rahman’s regime. The unholy military-mullah nexus, the hallmark of Pakistani power politics, was back in play in the infant nation within five years of its creation, and the formal ban against the Jamaat’s activities was subsequently lifted in May 1979. It is significant that Abbas Ali Khan, the Jamaat’s officiating Amir at that time, declared, “Whenever any kind of aggression comes, it shall come from India alone. Consequently, the psychology of the defence forces of Bangladesh must be anti-Indian.”

Anti-Indianism and Islamist extremism have, since then, become systematically entrenched in the mass psychology and political processes in Bangladesh. Even the party of the Independence struggle, the Awami League (AL), led by Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, cannot resist these forces, and it is remarkable that periods of AL control in the country have not significantly altered policies with respect to support to terrorist organizations operating from Bangladeshi soil against India (principally the Northeastern groups); to illegal migration – which is hotly contested by Dhaka, irrespective of regime; to the constant tensions and violence between India’s Border Security Force and the Bangladesh Rifles along the borders; and to Islamisation of the country, which the AL has failed to address during its tenures in power.

This radicalization found its most dangerous and destabilizing manifestation in the large numbers of Bangladeshis who were mobilized for the jihad in Afghanistan, where they found common cause and alliances with the ISI, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. While the mindsets of jihad were being forged in tens of thousands of private and state run madrassahs across the country, the tools and techniques of the jihad were being evolved in training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and were gradually and systematically being transported back to the home country over the years. The Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), one of the principal mobilizers for volunteers to the terror camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which was set up with direct financial assistance from Osama bin Laden in 1992, soon evolved a slogan and an agenda: Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan (We will all become Taliban; Bangladeshi will become Afghanistan).

The processes of radicalization accelerated sharply after the fall of the Taliban at Kandahar at end 2001. It was at this stage that Pakistan came under enormous international pressure and continuous international media monitoring for its role as a principal sponsor of terrorism, and providing safe haven to the thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan became acutely difficult. It was at this stage that Bangladesh was increasingly perceived as a more useful safe haven and training destination, affording greater international invisibility and deniability, and a process of consolidation of extremist spaces in the country commenced. In the early stages of this process, several hundred Taliban and Al Qaeda cadres are believed to have been transported by ship from Karachi in Pakistan to Chittagong, and were then believed to have been trucked down – allegedly by Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) – to hidden camps in the Ukhia area, south of Cox’s Bazaar. There have been periodic reports of shadowy movements of Al Qaeda cadres and activities of Al Qaeda linked operations, including funding agencies, across or through Bangladesh.

At the same time, there was a flight of the Bangladeshi jihadis from Pakistan-Afghanistan, and they returned in large numbers to the homeland. By mid 2002, Bangladeshi veterans from the Afghanistan campaigns were training cadres of a new alliance of Bangladeshi, Indian and Myanmarese terrorists in a number of camps in southern Bangladesh. The country progressively emerged as an important staging post for Pakistan-backed jihadi groups operating against India. Islamist extremist activities located in Bangladesh and directed against India, of course, significantly predate the events of 9/11, but their scale and intensity, as well as evidence of the complete synergy between Pakistani and Bangladeshi intelligence agencies and jihadi cabals, have enormously augmented in the years following. One of the most troubling aspects of these developments is the emergence of joint operations, using Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian Islamist groups and cadres for terrorist strikes on Indian soil. Bangladesh is also consolidating its position as a training ground, transit station and operational base for radical Islamists recruited in India, once again, in complete collaboration with Pakistani agencies and organizations. On October 12, 2005, a Bangladeshi suicide bomber, part of a combined team of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian cadres of at least three formations, the HuJI-B, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), blew himself up at the Office of the Hyderabad Police Special Task Force. The damage was not great, with only one fatality, other than the suicide bomber. But subsequent arrests and investigations unraveled a massive network of subversion, recruitment and radicalization, as investigators discovered that as many as 500 Hyderabadi youth had undergone arms training in Bangladesh and Balochistan (in Pakistan) through the HuJI-B network.

Other prominent joint operations involving Bangladeshi cadres have included the March 7, 2006, serial bombings at Varanasi, executed by HuJI-B and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) conspirators; the Delhi blasts of October29, 2005, involving HuJI-B and LeT cadres; and the December 28, 2005, attack at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, attributed to HuJI-B and JeM cadres. While investigations are still to establish the linkages in the Mumbai blasts of July 11, 2006, preliminary investigations do suggest that Bangladesh was used for transit and facilitation operations.

It is clear that Pakistan is increasing ‘outsourcing’ many of its terrorist operations to groups in Bangladesh in order to disguise its direct involvement in activities against India. It is clear, equally, that the Bangladeshi establishment, including the DGFI, the Army and certain elements within the country’s political leadership, are willing partners in this enterprise of terrorism. Ajai Raj Sharma, the then Director General of the Border Security Force, disclosed in September 2004, that Pakistan’s ISI had shifted training camps and launching pads of Kashmiri terrorists to Bangladesh, and that cadres of most terrorist groups operating in J&K were now being trained in Bangladesh.

In 2004, Indian Intelligence agencies reviewing the Pakistan-Bangladesh nexus noted, inter alia, that the ISI, either directly or through the Pakistan High Commission at Dhaka, had been instrumental in developing a nexus between Indian insurgent groups (from the Northeast), Islamist fundamentalists and criminal elements in Bangladesh, and was assisting in the procurement of arms, ammunition and explosives for these various groups; that the ISI was appointing Pakistani nationals, trained as maulvis in madrassahs and mosques in Bangladesh, particularly along the India-Bangladesh border, in a sustained effort of subversion and radicalization; that the top leadership of Northeast Indian insurgent groups were being jointly ‘handled’ and facilitated by DGFI and ISI officials; and that Bangladesh was being progressively consolidated as a principal staging post for terrorist and espionage operations against India.

In all this, substantial segments of the Bangladeshi establishment are willing participants, as the ideology of extremist Islamism becomes integral to the country’s politics and identity. There is, of course, as is the case with Pakistan, a strong constituency for democracy and secularism within the general population and in some political groupings, but the overwhelming violence of the Islamist formations has tended to silence such elements. As with all radical religious mobilization, moreover, it is difficult even for secular parties to directly attack the agenda of Islamism, since this is easily projected as an attack on Islam itself. A perverse dynamic has now come to dominate Bangladeshi politics, and unless its core in the political establishment and in wider social structures, including, crucially, the educational infrastructure, is not neutralized , it will be impossible to stop Bangladesh’s headlong slide into extremism and terror.

(Edited version published in, August 1, 2006.)





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