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Why India needs to nurture Bangladesh

Last updated on: March 26, 2010 19:02 IST

In a deteriorating neighbourhood, only Bangladesh offers a ray of hope, writes Brigadier (retd) S K Chatterji.

Amidst the instability in India's neighbourhood with a degenerating Pakistan, an Afghan war at the crossroads, Nepalese people unable to write their own constitution, Myanmar in a rigid status quo, a Sri Lankan political establishment that is apparently not farsighted; Bangladesh offers a ray of hope.

Should Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh prime minister not slow down her pace, there is a possibility that another South Asian neighbour will not remain a haven of terrorists along Indian borders. Since her ascension to power after the nation underwent two years of military domination, she has held her course in combating radical fundamentalist movements that had made Bangladesh their base. But, to emerge from the shadows that still hover over the country, huge investments in terms of sustained political will need to remain evident for a sustained period of time.

The most spectacular terrorist onslaught that Bangladesh witnessed was the August 17, 2005 chain bombing by the Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. About 500 bombs were detonated all across the country, in 63 of the nation's 64 districts, in a span of 60 minutes. This single act of violence left no doubt in anybody's mind about the group's capability, network and intent. The then Khaleda Zia government was forced to respond, albeit driven to it by a huge international pressure, and quite in contrast to JMB chief Abdur Rehman's assessment that there would be no reaction from a regime deeply in cohorts with his establishment.

Rehman, a graduate of Medina University, Saudi Arabia, had been radicalised post his coming into contact with Muslim Brotherhood during his student days.

The roots of terror that led to spectacular orchestration of August 17, 2005 can be traced to the days of Bangladesh's freedom struggle in 1971 when the Jamaat-e-Islami collaborated with the Pakistanis. The echoes of Jamat's vicious role in the liberation struggle are yet noticeable in Bangla politics. Bringing to justice the war criminals was a part of Sheikh Hasina's Awami League manifesto for the national elections in December, 2008.

The terror groups in Bangladesh found greater traction when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia came to power with Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Oikya Jote and Jatiya Party as its partners. Khaleda's dependence on Islamist parties paved the way for radicals consolidating in Bangladesh. Its ultimate manifestation was the 500, near simultaneous nationwide blasts.

With the country's dubious downslide into becoming another hub of radical terror, like Pakistan, the Bangladesh military intervened, ousting the government. Lieutenant General Moeen U Ahmed, chief of the Bangladesh Army declared a state of Emergency on January 12, 2007 and a new interim government was set up the next day. Though no nation stated so openly, perhaps the change of regime was as welcome in the West as in India. On April 30, 2007 the caretaker government hanged Rahman, his deputy and five top leaders of the jihadi establishment in accordance with the Supreme Court's ruling. The hydra-headed jihadi establishment was decapitated to some extent, though not entirely.

For Bangladeshis, charting a route out of the morass had just begun. Other Islamist fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh that have firm linkages to the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other Pakistan based radical organisations and the Inter Services Intelligence were yet to be dealt with.

Bangladesh has also a fairly old left wing insurgency. However, the groups are highly fragmented, corrupt and haven't enough muscle as yet to prove to be a threat to the government.

Bangladesh has been the preferred destination of the leadership of most Indian insurgent movements in the northeastern states. In fact, many of them have established their training camps, while some have nurtured business interests in Bangladesh and used the porous Indo-Bangla border for carrying out terror attacks in India and exfiltrating to the safety provided across. It has also been an often used routing for Lashkar militants to especially exfiltrate from India after a spell in the Kashmir valley.

The United Liberation Front of Assam chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, and his deputy Raju Barua have operated from Bangladesh with impunity during Khaleda tenure. Today, their location remains uncertain, with China also a possibility on the cards.

However, once Hasina stabilised the country post the 33-hour mutiny by its para-military force, Bangladesh Rifles personnel on February 25-26, 2009 that left 56 army officers dead, an attempt to subdue Indian groups operating from Bangladesh territory, is evident.

Amongst the more tangible steps taken by Bangladesh, is the fact of two ULFA leaders, foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury and finance secretary Chitraban Hazairka were handed over to the Border Security Force on November 6, 2009. The BSF has also given a list of 104 camps of Indian militant groups operating in Bangladesh. The camps have served as bases for a wide array of outfits operating in the northeast states.

In terms of counter insurgency force, Bangladesh has the Rapid Action Battalions, which, by past records, have performed quite adequately. The BDR revolt was certainly a huge setback, but it failed to prompt what was to all apparently its objective: force an army coup and thereby both deny a democratically elected government to rule, and in the process make the army unpopular amongst Bangla citizenry.

The force has since been hopefully cleansed of jihadi elements. The Directorate General of Forces' Intelligence, has also long standing linkages with the ISI. These need to be severed, if not already dealt with.

Hasina has also set up a 17-member National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention. The committee has announced a zero tolerance policy. Should Hasina go by her electoral promise of trying war criminals, the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership might receive a body blow.

Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the Jamaat's top leaders, are accused of war crimes. The people of Bangladesh have displayed their will by voting decisively for Hasina's Awami League. She has the majority in the house to act boldly.

The international atmosphere today and the concerns of free societies in fighting terror, also favour Hasina. Relationship with India has improved tangibly after the Awami League has come to power. A major problem has been the lack of an extradition treaty between the two countries. During Hasina's last visit to India three major treaties on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, mutual transfer of convicted prisoners, and cooperation in the fight against international terrorism, organised crime and illegal drug trafficking have been inked.

Hasina's attempts at combating jihad will have to be accompanied by development in a primarily agrarian economy. As yet, Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries. Poverty, deprivation and lack of modern education provide the necessary impetus to jihad. Culturally, Bangladeshis are far more liberal in thinking as compared to the North Western Frontier Province in Pakistan.

However, like it is the case in most terror affected areas, the populace is held hostage by the threat that the terrorists hold out in areas where governance is weak. Hasina will have to continue with the battle, and more vigorously so. This is one war, where gains cannot be conserved or status quos that will hold. If you do not fight the jihadi continuously, he is gaining ground already. The objective all along is to keep them beneath critical mass levels, so that they cannot explode amidst those who practice greater tolerance.

Brigadier (retd) S K Chatterji