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India: The cloud over Burdwan

by Sanjib Baruah, 18 November 2014

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Indian Express, November 17, 2014

India and Bangladesh have since signed agreements to facilitate cooperation between their law enforcement agencies.

Prior to the October 2 Burdwan blasts, the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was notorious for the 459 near-simultaneous improvised explosive devices detonated all across Bangladesh in the summer of 2005. Bangladesh’s security forces subsequently arrested hundreds of its members and killed its entire top leadership, including its founder, Shaikh Abdur Rahman. But despite being seriously weakened, according to a March 2010 report of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), the JMB is still active and dangerous.

While its brand of militant Islam may no longer be a clear and present danger to Bangladesh, we have not seen the end of the JMB, said the ICG report. The group could still be planning future attacks. The report draws particular attention to the JMB’s training camps along the India-Bangladesh border. It laments that India and Bangladesh blame each other for their problems, instead of pursuing their shared interests in taking on the JMB. Indeed, until recently — at least during the BNP-Jamaat coalition government of 2001-06 — Bangladeshi security officials seemed to believe that the JMB was doing the bidding of India’s R&AW. However, the situation changed after the Awami League came to power in 2008.

Dividing line

India and Bangladesh have since signed agreements to facilitate cooperation between their law enforcement agencies. They have agreed to transfer accused persons to face trials and convicted persons to serve prison sentences in their home country. There is an agreement to constitute a coordination committee made up of representatives of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of the two countries to combat terrorism, organised crime, and cross-border drug trafficking.

The Awami League government reversed the previous government’s policy of tolerating — if not actively hosting — Indian rebel groups in Bangladeshi territory. Indeed, this shift alone had led to significant changes in the fortunes of the ULFA and a number of other rebel groups in the Northeast. In 2009-10, key ULFA leaders were “picked up” by Bangladeshi security agencies and “pushed” into India — an arrangement designed to avoid political criticism at a time when the two countries had not yet signed an extradition treaty (which came into effect in October 2013). Nevertheless, the country’s relationship with India remains a political minefield for Bangladeshi politicians.

It is unlikely that the Burdwan blasts took a close observer of Bangladeshi politics by surprise. But a conspiracy hatched on Indian soil to destabilise Bangladesh is a potentially embarrassing and troublesome development for India. The Narendra Modi government is trying to act as a responsible neighbour, and has asked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to investigate the blasts. It plans to hand over the results of its investigation to the Bangladesh government.

But the actions of some of Modi’s political allies could jeopardise India’s foreign policy goals. Rather than treating the JMB operations as the inevitable result of our porous borders, a number of Sangh Parivar organisations have been retailing conspiracy theories on the complicity of some of its domestic political rivals with so-called jihadi elements — a widely abused term that invokes, in this context, a Muslim holy war against unbelievers, rather than the JMB’s war against Bangladeshi democrats and secularists.

In Assam, much has been made of a cable news channel report purportedly citing intelligence sources that allegedly link the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind with the “Bangladesh-based jihadi terror outfit”. These two organisations are said to have sent a group of youths from Assam for “jihadi training” in a bordering district of Bangladesh.

A leader of the state BJP has called for a ban on these two organisations, and the arrest of Badruddin Ajmal, MP and president of the AIUDF and chief of the Assam unit of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. The Bajrang Dal called for a 12-hour bandh in support of these demands.

The BJP’s state unit supported the bandh. The AIDUF has described the cable news channel report as politically motivated fabrication and has threatened legal action. AIDUF leaders have asked the Central government to thoroughly investigate the matter. The Union home ministry has denied that any intelligence report links the AIDUF with the JMB. The Assam chief minister has also said that the state government has no evidence linking the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind and the AIUDF with that group.

It is not only in Assam that Sangh Parivar operatives have jumped into the fray. The West Bengal BJP chief has demanded that the Trinamool Congress be declared a terrorist organisation. A BJP worker was quoted in the press saying the Bengal government’s plea that it wasn’t aware of terrorist activities in the state was not unlike the Pakistan government pleading ignorance of Osama bin Laden’s presence there.

“Intelligence and intelligence services,” says political scientist Robert Jervis, “are simultaneously necessary for democracy and a threat to it”. One reason it could be a threat is that all sorts of information in the hands of intelligence agencies, including investigative leads, could be used for partisan political agendas. It is crucial for democracies to develop accountability structures to protect intelligence agencies from abuse by politicians for narrow political gain. In order to successfully pursue India’s foreign policy goals, Modi will have to deal with this issue on a priority basis. He will have to simultaneously rein in his political allies so that India’s shared interest with Bangladesh in combating the JMB is not sacrificed at the altar of domestic political calculations.

The writer is professor, political studies, Bard College, New York.


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