Saturday, October 23, 2004

Bangladesh: ISI, RAW, DGFI - ULFA and MJC

For the first time, several world leaders, including United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, and the United States have publicly focused their attention on India's turbulent northeast and its insurgent violence. "It is really a matter of serious concern that several anti-India forces of China, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh are trying hard to create unrest in northeastern states by using the fundamentalists and separatist forces of the region." Al-Qaeda and its associates now have a sizable presence in Bangladesh. It serves as a focal point or umbrella organization for a worldwide network that includes many Islamic extremist groups such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which has bases in India's northeastern states also. The ULFA's identification with the known Pakistani ambition of creating a 'Swadhin Asom' [Independent Sovereign Assam] that would be a full-fledged Muslim-majority state through a demographic invasion and Bangladeshi dreams of a Brihot [Greater] Bangladesh is now so complete that it has even changed its original aim of fighting and expelling Muslim infiltrators and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to giving them membership of the organization."


A new dimension in India's northeast woes
Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - New Delhi and Washington are finally waking up to the strange phenomenon taking place in India's troubled northeast. An upper-caste Hindu militant secessionist organization of the northeastern state of Assam - the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) - has reportedly taken up formal membership with the Pakistan-based Muttahida (United) Jihad Council (MJC) after years of dallying with the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh.

The MJC is an umbrella organization of various outfits engaged in militant operations in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Its most prominent member group is the dreaded Hizbul Mujahideen, headed by Syed Salahuddin.

For the first time, several world leaders, including United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, and the United States have publicly focused their attention on India's turbulent northeast and its insurgent violence. US Ambassador to India David C Mulford offered the help of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) members after the serial blasts on October 2 that killed scores of people. In a letter to Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, Mulford said, "Should you find it helpful, the FBI would be pleased to provide technical support for your investigation."

Though Gogoi welcomed the offer, it was criticized by leftist as well as Hindu-right politicians and sections of the media as interfering in India's internal matters, an infringement of sovereignty and at the very least "unmindful of the established procedures for diplomatic conduct in the host country", which clearly specify that all communication between an envoy and a state government must be routed through the Ministry of External Affairs. However, a realization is now dawning that this offer is probably an indication of the United States' recognition of a global and Islamist dimension to the terrorism in India's northeast.

Indicating that the government of India is not only aware of the foreign dimension of the terror-bombings in Assam and Nagaland, but it is also willing to take some concrete action, the normally reticent Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee put the blame for these terrorist acts squarely on the ISI of Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too, has now voiced his concern over "some insurgent groups" taking "shelter" in Bangladesh. The chief ministers of Assam and Tripura have been demanding that Bangladesh be persuaded to take the kind of robust action against the insurgents based on its territory that Bhutan took last year. Indeed, part of the reason for this latest concentration of militants in Bangladesh and Myanmar is that they lost their sanctuaries in Bhutan.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has linked the attacks to the ULFA regrouping after being flushed out of Bhutan last year. He said: "The Bhutanese military offensive against ULFA and NDFB [National Democratic Front of Bodoland] inside the kingdom in December last year has not helped us. The rebels appear to have simply relocated their camps." He is pushing New Delhi to focus on Bangladesh and Myanmar, where he insists ULFA and NDFB have bases and safe houses. "As we see now, the root of the problem lies in these two countries. Unless the rebels are uprooted from there, violent attacks are bound to go on," Gogoi said.

Director general of Tripura police G M Srivastava, however, implicated Chinese intelligence, too, in the growing militancy in the region. He said: "It is really a matter of serious concern that several anti-India forces of China, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh are trying hard to create unrest in northeastern states by using the fundamentalists and separatist forces of the region."

Stressing the need for strong diplomatic pressure on Dhaka to contain these forces, he said: "We have got the photographs of training camps in Dhaka where cadres of Indian insurgent groups are also being trained by operatives of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network."

Al-Qaeda and its associates now have a sizable presence in Bangladesh. It serves as a focal point or umbrella organization for a worldwide network that includes many Islamic extremist groups such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which has bases in India's northeastern states also. Concerning the operatives from China, Srivastava said: "Their presence is in the field but they are very discreet kind of operatives so it is very difficult to get direct evidence against China but there are a number of circumstantial evidences which indicate their involvement."

The chief minister's view is seconded by Khagen Sharma, inspector general of the Assam police intelligence wing. "In Bangladesh, the ULFA is in the care of Pakistan's ISI. In Myanmar, across Arunachal Pradesh, the ULFA is being provided logistical support by the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland," said Sharma.

Bangladesh, however, has consistently denied the presence of any such sanctuaries and training camps. Indeed, senior Bangladeshi journalist Enayetullah Khan claimed that India's external intelligence arm, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), has much deeper penetration, network and wherewithal in Bangladesh to "beat the ISI hollow as far as moles and operatives and also clandestine training are concerned".

New Delhi has on several occasions furnished detailed lists of rebel camps inside Bangladesh to authorities there. The last such list of 195 camps was handed over to visiting Bangladesh Rifles chief Major-General Jehangir Alam Choudhuri by his Border Security Force counterpart Ajai Raj Sharma in New Delhi last month. According to this list, two militant groups of the Indian state of Tripura alone are running training camps in the Bangladeshi districts of Moulvi Bazar, Habibganj, Comilla, Rangamati, Khagracherry, Chittagong and Cox's Bazar. The list, however, merely invited a derisive rejection from Dhaka. On checking the provided coordinates, they said one training camp on the list would have to be within a Bangladesh Rifles cantonment and another at sea.

New Delhi has asked the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India's domestic intelligence agency, to confirm the recent move of ULFA to take up the membership of the Jihad Council with "concrete evidence". It has also asked the IB to carry out a "special survey" of the entire northeastern region, focusing on detailed information on insurgent groups, their hierarchy, location of training camps and funding. The security agencies had recently reported to the Ministry of Home Affairs that the ULFA had accepted membership of the MJC for logistics support.

ULFA is the biggest among scores of terrorist organizations operating in the troubled northeast of India that borders Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.

Though the Indian security agencies have long known about ULFA's links with Pakistani and Bangladeshi intelligence, and have been warning the government for at least 18 months, they received word of ULFA's jihadi links in September after certain seizures made from the hideouts of a slain ULFA militant. A grenade found from militant Lachit Rava, who was killed in an encounter at Jerdoba in East Garo Hill district in Meghalaya, India, on September 14, was similar to those used by militants during the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2002. The Pakistani army is also known to use such explosives. The discovery that northeastern militants are now using programmable time-delay devices made in Pakistan is considered particularly significant. The seizures made during subsequent raids further proved the banned outfit's close links with Pakistan-based jihadi groups.

Although the IB has already confirmed these reports, a senior Home Ministry official told Asia Times Online the government now wants the information to be backed by evidence so that the matter can be taken up at the diplomatic level. In view of similar reports about other organizations, the government wants to deal with the problem more comprehensively and has ordered the preparation of a complete profile of about 108 banned groups in the region.

Terrorist attacks in different parts of India's northeast, including serial bomb blasts and gun attacks in Assam and Nagaland, killed more than 80 people and wounded 200 in a span of just 72 hours beginning on October 2, the day India remembers the apostle of non-violence, the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

The outlawed ULFA, fighting for a "sovereign, socialist Assam" since its inception in 1979, and the NDFB, pushing an armed campaign for a separate Bodo homeland since 1986, have claimed responsibility for some of the attacks.

According to a Home Ministry official who has dealt with the northeast for several years, the government has been aware for quite some time of the ULFA and other similar organization's links to ISI and DGFI. The government analysts can even understand the necessity of such links from the secessionists' point of view; their need for arms and ammunition and other logistical and even financial support: but reports of their joining the Jihad Council has completely mystified them.

The official told Asia Times Online: "The ULFA's identification with the known Pakistani ambition of creating a 'Swadhin Asom' [Independent Sovereign Assam] that would be a full-fledged Muslim-majority state through a demographic invasion and Bangladeshi dreams of a Brihot [Greater] Bangladesh is now so complete that it has even changed its original aim of fighting and expelling Muslim infiltrators and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to giving them membership of the organization."

No one seems to understand what an Assamese movement of upper-caste Hindus, even if militant or secessionist, some of whose leaders were educated in reputed Indian educational institutions, would gain by helping create a new and sovereign Muslim state or a Greater Bangladesh.

The ULFA has indeed changed not only its aims and objects formally but also the very definition of the word "Asamiya" (Assamese) in order to accommodate illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. (Incidentally, the influx of Hindu Bangladeshis was never a problem as they were considered refugees fleeing discrimination and persecution in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.)

In the latest ULFA membership form the very first clause seeks to accommodate all nationalities. It says that while a member "must be a permanent resident of Assam, volunteers from other countries will be recognized conditionally". Similarly, the concept of Assamese is redefined by stating that "the Asamiya are a people of all communities, the mixture of people who are determined to work for all-round progress of Assam". Thus the concept of Assamese is no longer restricted, as earlier, to those speaking the Assamese language as their mother tongue. It obviously includes the Bangla-speaking people as well. This is further clarified a little later in a paragraph beginning with the sentence: "The contribution of the people of East Bengal [Bangladesh] origin in Assam towards increasing the state's economic output is indeed noteworthy."

Contrasting this with the ULFA's original "aims and objectives" will leave no one in doubt that it is now completely under the sway of its Pakistani and Bangladeshi masters. Its original manifesto justified its founding in 1979 as a fight against the "influx of foreigners and massive exploitation of its natural resources".

Seeking to justify its armed struggle, the ULFA manifesto says: "Especially in 1979, democratic and unarmed peaceful movement against the influx of foreigners and economic exploitation, the occupation force of India killed 700 unarmed agitators where the majority were teenage students. Though the people of Assam and leadership of the struggle have a strong stand for peaceful and amicable solution of the conflict, India has always been trying to force a military solution, thus the unarmed peaceful movement against the influx and economic exploitation transformed to an armed national liberation struggle."

It was because of this strong orientation of the ULFA against the influx of Muslim Bangladeshis that the entire Assam students' movement of 1979 and early 1980s, of which it was a product, was branded "Hindu fundamentalist" despite its original secular track. Interestingly, it now says: "We would like to state here for everybody's information that the movement led by the All Assam Students Union and Gana Sangram Parishad from 1979 to 1985 is viewed by the ULFA as one based on emotion." It now denounces the Assam movement as "one that was led by juveniles, who failed to understand that migration per se was not bad and had helped many countries like the USA to become what they are today". Nothing could mark the abdication of ULFA's original platform and history as completely as this one sentence. The ULFA is thus no longer silent on the issue of illegal Muslim immigrants, as it was during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and is now making its intentions clear.

Having read these proclamations, it becomes possible for government officials to believe, though still not understand, reports that the ULFA is actually running schools in Dhaka training poor Bangladeshis to infiltrate Assam. The course they teach includes imparting some familiarity with the spoken Assamese language and a smattering of the written language, at least for them to be able to read road signs and names of shops, etc.

Another significant indication of the ISI's grip over ULFA comes from the fact that unlike in the past, it is no longer bothered about killing innocents. Regarding itself a freedom movement it used to avoid killing as much as possible for fear of backlash from the common people. But it is clear from the August 15 blast in Dhemaji - killing scores of schoolchildren - and the same message underscored by subsequent blasts, that it no longer has such scruples. This is very much in tune with ISI strategy, as seen in Kashmir, of creating maximum chaos and bleeding India through "a thousand cuts".

Meanwhile, New Delhi on Friday said it is willing to join three-way talks with Assam and separatist rebels to end violence in the state. The NDFB agreed to talks this month.

Sultan Shahin is a New Delhi-based writer.

Asia Times Online 23/10/2004