WEST BENGAL : AN EMERGING CORRIDOR OF TERROR?
National Investigation Agency (NIA) investigators probing the Oct 2 Burdwan blasts say they have found the existence of at least 58 terror modules active in West Bengal and Assam with links to Islamic radicals in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That revelation is shocking but not unexpected and confirms a trend since the late 1990s. Whenever the going gets tough for Islamic radicals in Bangladesh, it seems they tend to move for shelter to West Bengal before they seek the same elsewhere in India. But West Bengal suits them the best because of the state’s proximity to Bangladesh and other parts of India.
The Burdwan blasts blew the lid off a thriving nexus between three or more terrorist groups of the radical Islamic variety. NIA investigators are now sure that the dreaded Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) has turned to West Bengal big time to not only protect its nucleus in a safe sanctuary, but also use it as a hub to produce and procure weapons and explosives for extensive action inside Bangladesh.
The JMB was banned in Bangladesh after it set off serial blasts in all 64 districts on Aug 17, 2005 but it was only after Sheikh Hasina’s coming to power that all Islamist radical outfits and those from India’s northeast found the going very tough in Bangladesh. A massive crackdown by police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Detective Branch led to the arrest or death in encounter of scores of radicals, leaders and activists alike, as Hasina’s advisors put on the table a new policy that advocated zero tolerance of terror. The likes of Bangla Bhai and JMB chief Sayek Abdur Rahman were caught, tried with some speed and sent to the gallows.
The very country where terrorism, especially of the Islamist radical variety, had thrived unhindered during Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government was suddenly too hot for them to survive. And so the entire terror industry shifted from Bangladesh to West Bengal. The state’s unique location had always made it a useful corridor for all kinds of rebel outfits. For the Bangladesh-based jihadi tanzeems seeking to hit targets in mainland India, West Bengal was the sure gateway. For northeastern rebel groups seeking to reach Bhutan or Nepal, the Dooars was a natural passage. For those seeking to fly out under cover to Bangkok or other Southeast Asian capitals where they had operated from, Kolkata was the nearest – and the safest – airport , if Dhaka was no longer safe.
The occasional arrest of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)’s general secretary Anup Chetia from Kolkata’s Raja Basanta Roy road in early 1990s or the jihadi attack on police guards at United States Information Service (USIS) gave a lie to claims that West Bengal was an ‘ocean of peace’, as a former state police chief had mentioned to me in a BBC interview. In fact, Burdwan figuring in the sub-continental terror map is not new, as many would imagine.
In 1998, former Bangadesh home minister Mohammed Nasim (now he is health minister) had told Bengal’s police minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya of a specific mosque in Burdwan district, quoting his country’s intelligence reports, where he said Mufti Abdul Hannan Munshi was hiding. Munshi was the prime accused in the Kotalipara bomb case, filed after discovery of a 13 kg bomb planted under the podium where Prime Minister Hasina Wajed was to deliver a speech at an Awami league rally. “The man trying to kill our prime minister is hiding in this mosque in Burdwan, you must get him,” Nasim urged Buddhadev, as indeed he had appealed to then Indian home minister L.K. Advani.
The police minister ordered heightened surveillance on the mosque and decried most madrassas as “breeding grounds of terror” only to back off under his party’s pressure. Though Buddhadev’s anti-madrassa rant was a bit too sweeping, electoral compulsions had clearly got the better of security considerations yet again. And as chief minister, Buddhadev failed to ward off the Islamist mobilization against controversial Bangladesh writer Taslima Nasreen’s presence in the city and she had to leave Kolkata unceremoniously.
The tragedy of contemporary West Bengal is that if Buddhadev had succumbed to the Islamist mobilisers and asked Nasreen to leave, current Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rewarded these very men with key legislative and organizationals positions in her party and government, all to secure a monopoly over the state’s 30 percent Muslim vote. But these Islamist mobilisers now masquerading as big time secularists in Bengal’s ruling party enjoy a level of legitimacy and protection they never enjoyed before.
That gives them the courage to even organize rallies in Kolkata against Bangladesh’s war crimes trials in which most senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, who supported Pakistan’s 1971 war effort against the Bengali uprising, stand convicted. What many secular Bangladeshis find ironic in the anti-war crimes rallies in Kolkata is that this is the very city which supported its Liberation War with all it could offer in men, mind and material in 1971.
It is now evident from the post-Burdwan investigations that a network of safe bases and hideouts has come up in West Bengal where JMB from Bangladesh were collaborating with our own Indian Mujahideen, and possibly Pakistan-based groups, including some active in Kashmir. Call records of the radicals active in Burdwan suggests communication with even an Al Jihad base in Shihok (in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province). This is one true South Asian joint venture, but one that needs to be crushed and not nurtured.
Mamata Banerjee is well within her rights to oppose ‘conspiracies’ to brand all Muslims as terrorists or start riots like in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzzafarnagar, but she has much to explain why her essentially Bengali regional party can’t have the best of relations with a secular, pro-Indian dispensation in Dhaka and why must she end up providing a platform to Islamist radicals. That has not helped her in Bengali Muslim districts like Murshidabad, Maldah and Uttar Dinajpur, where the Congress and the Left still managed to snatch some seats in what otherwise turned to be a Trinamool sweep.
The jihadi cells appear to be well entrenched in West Bengal and Assam. For a long time, the state police in these states have been complacent, in the belief that since these states were used for exit and entry, the jihadis will not strike here. That was punctured when they struck the police guard in the USIS in Kolkata.
The rampant politicisation of the police would make it very difficult for them to curb the terror structure that has come up. New Delhi will have to get involved long term, and central agencies like the NIA will have to be deployed to crush an emerging corridor of terror that would not only undermine the security of India’s east and northeast but the whole country if it links up to radical branches elsewhere in India and abroad.
Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC correspondent, is author of ‘Insurgent Crossfire’ and ‘Troubled Periphery’.
DECEMBER 01, 2014