Bangladesh and India’s terrorism problem

While Bangladesh has cracked down, the West Bengal government’s failure to act is worsening the situation


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

With Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina finally making her long-awaited state visit to India next week, there is already much discussion about how the bilateral relationship can be taken to the next level. Some have suggested focusing on the development of the Bay of Bengal region; others have urged that seemingly intractable diplomatic challenges such as the Teesta river water-sharing agreement be resolved first. There have also been reports of a defence deal as well as agreements to boost trade, transit and energy security. Surprisingly, the issue of radical Islamist terror, which has been gaining ground not just in Bangladesh but also in West Bengal, has received limited attention, even though counter-terrorism has been one of the biggest success stories of the bilateral relationship.

For many years, New Delhi’s primary concern with Dhaka was anti-India elements using Bangladeshi territory as a safe haven. On the one hand, militants from the North-East took advantage of the porous border to slip away from Indian security agencies. On the other, there were radical Islamist groups such as Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) that sought to foment trouble in both countries.

The first decade of this century was a particularly bad decade since Khaleda Zia, with her less-than-favourable view of India, and her Islamist allies allowed malcontents to flourish. It was not until August 2005, when the JMB triggered some 500 bombs in all but one district of Bangladesh within half an hour, that Khaleda Zia changed tack. However, the situation only changed in any meaningful way when Sheikh Hasina returned to power in 2009. She immediately cracked down on Islamist militancy and assured New Delhi that Bangladeshi territory would no longer support anti-India activities.

But now the tables seem to have turned. Many of those who were feeling the heat in Bangladesh found refuge in West Bengal, where they have regrouped and reorganized themselves into a relatively potent force, as was evident in the 2014 accidental blast in Burdwan, which literally blew the lid off the JMB’s extensive network in Bengal. The JMB has had a presence in Bengal for more than a decade and has carried out subversive activities in this country before; but the Burdwan blast exposed for the first time a conspiracy to dislodge the government in Bangladesh being plotted in India.

Notably, the JMB and its ilk have benefited in no small measure from the benign gaze of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has chosen to curry favour with Islamic hardliners. Such myopic politics not only brings no significant benefits to her voters in the long run but also erodes the national interest and, in this case, threatens national security.

On the Bangladeshi side too, the situation has been complicated by a new wave of violent religious polarization—which has also swept terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State into the fray. This wave rose with the 2013 Shahbagh protest movement, when the Sheikh Hasina government’s decision to execute war criminals from 1971 was met with virulent opposition from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). At the time, the latter was the country’s largest religious-political party (it has since been derecognized as a political party), and its leadership found itself facing the hangman’s noose.

The public support for secularism and progressive values has seemingly galvanized hardline elements, resulting in this recent surge of Islamist militancy wherein secular bloggers and activists as well as foreign citizens have been targeted. As Animesh Roul from the New Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict notes for the counter-terror centre at the US’ West Point military academy: “Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), both of which trace their lineage to JeI, have become increasingly militant and energized. New groups have also emerged such as Ansar al-Islam, which has acted as the Bangladeshi wing of al-QaRs.ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and Jund al-Tawheed wal Khilafah (JTK), whose loyalties lie with the Islamic State, making Bangladesh a new field of competition for the global jihadist powerhouses.”

This competition seems to have already spilled over into India. Earlier this month, Idris Ali, a suspect in the Dhaka café attack, was arrested from Kolkata. Previously, the Birbhum-born Islamic State sympathizer Abu Musa had told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that the Dhaka attack masterminds had travelled to India, stayed in Kolkata and met with him in Malda. Musa was arrested last year and a chargesheet filed by the NIA in December mentions his plans to carry out lone wolf attacks as well as underlines his links to JMB militant Abu Suleiman and former Indian Mujahideen militant Shafi Armar, a Bhatkal native who has been fighting in Syria with the Islamic State.

Clearly, Bangladesh and India (particularly in West Bengal) are facing similar threats. The difference is that while the former has gone on the offensive with raids and crackdowns across the country, in West Bengal, the government refuses to even acknowledge the threat. Earlier this week, after The Times Of India reported that Dhaka had informed Delhi of a threefold increase in infiltration into India by HuJI and JMB militants, state officials in Bengal dismissed the report as scare-mongering by the Centre. Presumably, such an assessment is driven by domestic political compulsions but that doesn’t help anybody’s case.

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