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The Other Pakistan

The Other Pakistan

Author: Ajai Sahni
Publication: Tehelka
Date: August 12, 2006
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main18.asp?filename=Ne081206essayp17.asp

Introduction: Secularism and Mujib died together in 1975. Now the ISI has arrived at a strategic consensus with the Bangladeshi forces to export terror into India

Indians often wonder at how the good will 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 from Bangladeshi soil. They wonder, again, at 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 the Bangladeshi Forces, to participate in their 'war of a thousand cuts' against India. How, again, did hardline Islamist parties, principally the Jamaat-e-Islami and its 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 how could Bangladesh, a region that was converted to Islam by the Sufis, be colonised by the Deobandi-Wahabi radical Islamism that has now taken root in a country that once swore by secularism?

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, which had been banned and whose top leadership had been exiled by Mujib'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 the 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 mass psychology in Bangladesh. Even the party of the Independence struggle, the Awami League (AL), led by Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina, cannot resist these forces. It is remarkable that periods of al control in the country have not significantly altered policies with respect to support to terrorist organisations operating from Bangladeshi soil against India (principally groups in the Northeast); to illegal migration; to the tensions and violence between India's Border Security Force (BSF) and Bangladesh Rifles along the borders; and to the Islamisation of the country.

This radicalisation found its most dangerous manifestation in the large numbers of Bangladeshis who were mobilised for the jehad in Afghanistan, where they found common cause with the ISI, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While the mindset was being forged in thousands of private and State-run madarsas across the country, the tools and techniques of the jehad were being evolved in training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and were systematically being transported back to the home country. The Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami Bangladesh (huji-b) - one of the principal mobilisers of volunteers to the terror camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan which were 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; Bangladesh will become Afghanistan).

Radicalisation accelerated sharply after the fall of the Taliban at Kandahar in end-2001. Pakistan came under continuous international media monitoring for its role as a principal sponsor of terrorism, and providing a safe haven to the thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan became acutely difficult. In the early stages, 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 Bangladeshi jehadis from Pakistan-Afghanistan, who returned in large numbers. 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 jehadi groups operating against India. Islamist extremist activities significantly predate the events of 9/11, but their scale and intensity have enormously augmented in the years after. 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. 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-Toiba (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 unravelled a massive network of subversion, recruitment and radicalisation, as investigators discovered that as many as 500 Hyderabadi youth had undergone arms training in Bangladesh and Baluchistan (in Pakistan) through the huji-b network.

Other prominent joint operations involving Bangladeshi cadres include the March 7, 2006, serial bombings at Varanasi, executed by huji-b and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) conspirators; the Delhi blasts of October 29, 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 BSF, disclosed in September 2004, that Pakistan's ISI had shifted the training camps and launching pads of Kashmiri terrorists to Bangladesh.

In 2004, Indian intelligence agencies reviewing the Pakistan-Bangladesh nexus noted 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 madarsas and mosques in Bangladesh, particularly along the India-Bangladesh border, in a sustained effort of subversion; that the top leadership of Northeast Indian insurgent groups was 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 mobilisation, 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 neutralised , it will be impossible to stop Bangladesh's headlong slide into extremism and terror.

Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management

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