Terrorism: Now in the East?
25 January 2002
New Delhi: On December 22, 1994, two boys in Domkal in West Bengal's Murshidabad district discovered several bombs very near a temporary dais from which Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, now Chief Minister of West Bengal, and then an important minister, was to address a public meeting on December 24 along with other important functionaries of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It is not difficult to imagine what might have happened if there had been an explosion. One needs to recall the incident in the context of the attack on Calcutta Police personnel in front of the American Centre in the city on January 22 morning. It will help to get the perspective right. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had believed at that time that an organisation called Ahl-e-Hadith (AeH) was involved in the incident. The same organisation, it further believed, was behind the five explosions that occurred on trains in different parts of India on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and 42 other ones-not including the serial bomb blasts in Bombay on March 12, 1993-set off in various parts of the country from 1988 to December, 1993. One reason for this was that the explosives used in the de-activated Domkal bombs were the same as in the five train and 42 other blasts. They also had the same kind of timers the five railway bombs had. Besides, the 42 blasts had been engineered in areas marked by acute communal tension where they could have triggered riots. Murshidabad district had been such an area for quite some time then. The CBI also believed that three of the five persons sought for questioning in connection with the blasts were hiding in West Bengal. The CBI was convinced that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was behind the bomb explosions. This has been corroborated by Yossef Bodansky who wrote in his book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, 'The ISI actively assists bin Laden in the establishment of an Islamic infrastructure in India....The primary venues for the distribution of Islamic literature and incitement material are the institutions run by the Ahl-I-Hadith religious charity which is associated with Lashkar-i-Tuiba an Islamist Kashmiri organisation. Under the command of Abdul Karim Tunda, the Lashkar-I-Tuiba is already responsible' for several bomb explosions. Thus by the end of 1994, the ISI, which had started operating with the utmost freedom in Bangladesh after Begum Khaleda Zia became the country's Prime Minister in 1991, had already established a significant presence in West Bengal and was even in a position to shelter wanted persons from other parts of India in the state. Using Bangladesh as its springboard and aided by the State Government's complacence, it extended its network far and wide in the state in the next few years, using it as a staging area for its agents entering from Bangladesh to carry out terrorist acts in other parts of India and for sending people from different parts of India to Bangladesh for onward journey to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training as agents. It established 'safe houses', planted 'sleepers'-agents who merged with the local people and remained dormant for long spells before the time for action came-and centres for recruiting agents. West Bengal's long and porous border with Bangladesh was most helpful for the purpose and the ISI built up a substantial presence in several areas of Calcutta and almost all districts of the state bordering Bangladesh-with the Siliguri sub-division of Darjeeling district in the north receiving particular attention. All this was dramatically brought to light in January, 1999, when Delhi Police arrested Syed Abu Nasir, a Bangladeshi who had crossed over from Bangladesh to bomb the US embassy in Delhi and the US consulate general in Chennai. He revealed during interrogation that he and his team of nine had gathered in Calcutta in December, 1998. From there, the three Indian members had been sent to Siliguri to establish a support base in collaboration with ISI agents stationed there, while the six 'Afghans'-a generic term used to signify Afghans as well as various Arab and other terrorists trained in Afghanistan by the Al Qaeda-went to Chennai. The three Indians who went to Siliguri were subsequently arrested while the six 'Afghans' managed to disappear. The ISI's activities in the area attracted further attention during the Kargil War when a blast in a train in North Jalpaiguri station on June 24, 1999, directed at a group of jawans travelling to north-western India in connection with the operations, killed two of them and injured 16. Besides, there were several attempts to sabotage the movement of troops and equipment from north-eastern to north-western India These clearly underlined the reason for the ISI's activities in Siliguri. North-eastern India's sole direct land link with the rest of the country passes through the sub-division, particularly the narrow Siliguri-Islampur corridor. The ISI, in collaboration with sections of Bangladesh's intelligence outfits and fundamentalist Islamic organisations, has been training and supporting north-east Indian insurgent outfits like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), both Khaplang and the Isaac Swu-Thuingaleng Muivah groups of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), Bodo rebels in Assam and tribal insurgents in Tripura for years. Its plans include the separation of the whole of north-eastern India from the rest of the country and the creation of an autonomous Islamic state in the north-east comprising parts of Assam, Nagaland and Myanmar. Should it ever come close to success in implementing its plans, trouble in the Siliguri-Islampur corridor, hampering movement of troops and supplies to the north-eastern states, would be of critical advantage to it. All this should be borne in mind while considering the incident on January 22. While the fact that a Dubai based don, Aftab Ansari, has claimed that it was staged to avenge the death of his friend Asif Reza Khan, a suspect in the Khadim abduction case, in an encounter with the police in Gujarat, cannot be ignored, it has to be received with scepticism. The ride-by shooting they indulged in has been frequently resorted to by the Sunni Sipaha-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the Shiite Tehrik-e-Jaffria (both now banned) in the sectarian killings that have plagued Pakistan. Secondly, Ansari reportedly has links with the Jaish-e-Mohammad and a part of the ransom money received in the Khadim abduction case was reportedly wired to Mohammad Atta, one of the leading terrorists involved in the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11 last year, and used to fund the crime. He may well have made the claim at the behest of Pakistan which, under tremendous pressure from the US, may decide to halt, at least temporarily, its cross-border terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere in northern and western India, and concentrate on West Bengal and north-eastern states with the cooperation of the Khaleda Zia government in Bangladesh. That would make it easier for it to plead that it did not have any common border with these parts of India and hence could not possibly be involved. From this perspective, the attack might have been meant to serve three objectives-to test the ability of Calcutta and West Bengal Police to cope with such incidents; to see the reaction of the state's Left Front Government; and to see whether the incident could be successfully passed off as an act of vengeance by a criminal group. The third objective would clearly be the most important. If Pakistan succeeds in doing it, then it would become that much easier to project subsequent terrorist acts also as offshoots of criminal activity and no more. And West Bengal, which lived through a nightmare from 1967 to 1972, will have another one ahead.