By Shibdas Bhattacharjee
The inception of Bangladesh bifurcating from Pakistan was one of the greatest strategic, military and diplomatic successes of India of the bygone era. After all, ending Islamabad’s direct rule in the eastern frontier of the country means a lot for India both from strategic and military point of views. But question is: has India taken too much things for granted in case of Bangladesh? This question becomes more relevant considering the pace with which Islamic fundamentalism is spreading and occupying larger ground as safe terror havens and unleashing subversive activities against different nations across the world. In the same breath, one must admit the fact that despite potentialities of India-Bangladesh relations, the issues related to Bangladesh have often aroused for wrong reasons so far; against India’s national interests.
Be the unabated infiltration from Bangladesh, changing of the demographic profiles of several parts of the country, cattle smuggling, smuggling of drugs and narcotic products and so on. Porous international border between India and Bangladesh in several parts of the country, lack of manpower and logistics for border vigilance and almost complete absence or least presence of vigilance in the rivers that flow from India to Bangladesh produce potential threat coming from Bangladesh to India. Criminal activities across India-Bangladesh borders in both sides are not new developments. Similarly, Islamic terror outfits using the route to execute terror activities in several parts of India are also nothing new. Various terror onslaughts unleashed against India proved having Bangladeshi connections in the past.
In fact, in present Bangladesh two opposite but parallel systems seem continuing together. One is the present Dhaka regime run by a relatively liberal political party. Other is the religious fundamental groups that are operational in Bangladesh. As is the case with other Islamic countries, there is a force in Bangladesh who believes in radicalism and has affinity with the larger Islamic terror network. Time and again, this has been proved which indicates that Dhaka regime has virtually no control on them. So also, this is most likely that these elements have formidable presence in the administrative machinery of Bangladesh. There is every possibility of the presence of such elements in the Bangladesh police, army, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and others. In fact, some concerning developments took place regarding this in September last.
As per media reports, “The National Investigation Agency (NIA) had arrested seven suspected terrorists in Murshidabad, West Bengal, allegedly associated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist group. These arrests have opened new doors for the investigation agency to look into how deep this nexus has rooted itself among the local youths and radicalising them, especially along with the state’s border districts. According to the investigation agencies, many small organisations have popped up across the state in the last few years. They are recruiting young people and radicalizing them to prepare them for Jihad. They are teaching them the principles of Wahhabism. The suspected terrorists arrested by the NIA revealed that they were planning to attack important locations and kill innocents. As per the reports, they have attended anti-CAA protests and mobilised masses to hit the streets. NIA found jihadi literature, digital devices, sharp weapons, etc. in their possession. Media reports had said citing NIA sources that six of the arrested terrorists had stationed themselves in Murshidabad last year during the anti-CAA violence in December. They had reportedly mobilised the masses for the large scale violence, arson, rioting and looting that had taken place in the area under the garb of anti-CAA protests.”
The reasons of alleged involvement of Muslim youths of both West Bengal and Kerala are same as is the case in Kashmir; the Islamic terror network misleading people in the name of religion and attracting them to get engaged for their economic survival. In fact, the terror networks target those who are economically backward and bereft of basic amenities of life. The same media report as quoted above also speaks in the same line. More so, it highlights the changing demographic profile of the regions bordering Bangladesh as an important reason behind terror network penetrating into India and recruiting cadres to execute subversive activities in this country. The report says, “In the past few years, the demographic change in the border districts of West Bengal has raised concerns about national security. Investigation agencies believe that several fundamentalists and Wahhabi clerics have crossed to this side through India-Bangladesh porous border. They are working with the local Muslim population on the Indian side and preparing them for the “holy war.”
NIA has arrested six Al-Qaeda terrorists among several fundamentalists who were working in Bengal. They have also arrested members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) from different locations across the country. It is believed that the Sheikh Hasina government was targeting the fundamentalist clerics in Bangladesh. The clerics hence crossed the border to find a safe location to stay in Bengal. According to the investigation agencies, because of the unemployment in the rural areas of West Bengal, it has become easier for the fundamentalist clerics to stay and propagate their teachings of Wahhabism among youth. They have come across printed material, WhatsApp forwards, banners, and more that are being circulated in the local population. These posters, messages, etc, encourage youth to join the “noble cause” of spreading the Islamic rule in India.”
Now this is undoubtedly concerning development for India’s security aspect. After all, New Delhi can never afford to confront another Kashmir like situation in the country. No sensible individual can take these things lightly. Moreover, Bangladesh shares borders with other Indian States like Assam and Meghalaya. There are possibilities of the existence of such elements in other frontier regions as part of larger terror network operating from Bangladesh. This increases the magnitude of the threat perception. If accessibility of river route is included with this, it indicates the gravity of the situation more prominently.
However, apart from security concerns, these developments have grave strategic implications. This is assumed that democratic Bangladesh under the rule of Prime Minister Seikh Hasina is a natural ally of India. But one must not forget that the same government of Bangladesh has made strategic nexus with China. China may get accessibility of ports and airports of Bangladesh in the coming days. As is the case of other neighbouring nations of India, China has applied same technique to subdue Bangladesh. Economy of Bangladesh literally heaves on Chinese oxygen in the given time. China has invested huge for infrastructure developments in Bangladesh. This means, despite having a liberal regime, Dhaka has allowed Beijing to make strategic bases in that country and getting opportunity to challenge India from the eastern frontier. There is also legitimate apprehension of getting accessibility of the ports of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. If this gets materialised in the coming days, vast part of northern Bay of Bengal will come under the naval dominance of China. This will prove to be larger strategic challenge for India in the vast part of the eastern Bay of Bengal that includes coastal regions of Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and of course with larger magnitude in case of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Similarly, China may work as agent between anti-India elements of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
But the recent developments have proved India’s strategic challenge more in the land border as well as river routes that connect both the nations. Question is: does India give same priority in terms of border vigilance in all the frontiers? Does India’s existing border vigilance mechanism same in case of border with Bangladesh as with Pakistan and China? These questions arise as prime focus always remains on guarding borders with Pakistan and China. Threats coming from the Bangladeshi side are considered having least magnitude. But point is: Islamic terror outfits operational in different parts of the world have changed their organisational and operational tactics. Beleaguered Al-Qaeda is trying to evolve afresh with small groups after the fall of Osama Bin Laden. ISIS and other terror outfits of Pakistan are trying to find out new destinations. Bangladesh and its bordering areas with India can be its natural target. The recent developments have proved this yet again.
Similarly, this is mentionable that because of political rivalry between India’s Central government and various State governments; there seems lack of co-ordination between Border Security Force and State police force. Rift between the investigating agencies of the Central and State governments often make things complicated. Besides, finding same elements in Kerala proves that Al-Qaeda has already covered larger ground in India. There is possibility of the existence of such element in some other parts of the country as well.
All these prove the point of terror connection with Bangladesh and more specifically in the border region between India and Bangladesh are threats of larger magnitude for India. Situation demands New Delhi must see the entire things from strategic point of view. Diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Dhaka have different strategic significance. It is more to restrict the dominance of any third party in Bangladesh. But the way China is spreading its base in Bangladesh demands an out of box approach from India. Considering threat perception from the non-state actors operational in Dhaka and the regions of India sharing both land and river border with Bangladesh, New Delhi must evolve fresh strategic roadmap to restrict the menace entering into India. This demands border vigilance mechanism of India to be more effective with better logistics and manpower. Porous borders should be fenced. New Delhi should put forward the role played by the BDR in this context as an important bilateral agenda in case of relationship with the Dhaka. Patrolling in the rivers flowing between India and Bangladesh should be ensured by both the nations. If needed, India must invest and train Bangladesh to evolve a proper river patrolling mechanism in that country. However, all these things depend whether and how Dhaka responds to the call of New Delhi. Therefore, initiation should be made what India can do on her own. This is certainly strategic interests of India, which should reframe policy initiation.
India’s strategic agenda in case of Bangladesh and particularly border regions between the two countries are well focussed. The reason for why India helped the then East Pakistan emerging as sovereign Bangladesh is relevant today as well. Along with all options, India must make daring effort to fulfill its strategic agenda there. The more aggressive strategic manoeuvre is better for India. In fact, this is an area where India can afford to display aggressiveness. This will make India strategically stronger to defeat the sinister design of germinating anti-India elements there, penetrating them into India, making bases with the support of local Indians living in the vulnerable bordering regions and sabotaging India’s security interests. In a nutshell, stronger strategic presence of India can turn things in New Delhi’s favour. Ultimately, others will follow.
-The writer is a Guwahati-based strategic affairs expert. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda