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Bardhaman blast opens a can of worms

The explosion on October 2 in a house in the Khagragarh locality of Bardhaman in West Bengal has brought home the worst fears of the Indian intelligence and security agencies.

For a few years now, investigators had suspected that after the crackdown on terrorist organisations in Bangladesh, these groups would seek a safe haven in India and, worse, radicalise locals. Their suspicions got confirmed with the death of Bangladeshi nationals Shakil Ahmed and Suvon Mandal in the blast in Bardhaman in which an Indian national, Hasan Saheb, was also critically injured. They had been working on an improvised explosive device. They all belonged to the outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, or JMB, which the Bangladesh government had banned in 2005.

Officials say several illegal immigrants have entered India through Bangladesh’s borders in Assam and West Bengal. They may be posing as Indian nationals. National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s leading anti-terror body, has found that of the 12 accused who are absconding in the Bardhaman case, four are Bangladeshis. The module was led by a man named Sajid, also from Bangladesh. He was arrested on Saturday. Earlier, two women – Rajira Bibi belonging to Karimpur in Nadia and Amina Bibi from Lalbagh in Murshidabad – were arrested from the blast site. Rajira Bibi is the widow of Ahmed, while Amina Bibi is the wife of Hasan Saheb.

Sources in NIA say that before entering India, these operatives are advised to marry poor Indian women to facilitate procurement of legal documents. Sajid was married to Fatima, who is believed to be one of the four women involved in indoctrinating and training students at the Simulia madrasa, about 40 km from the blast site, and at the Mukimnagar madrasa in Murshidabad.

Both these madrasas were raided during the investigation. Among the literature in Arabic, Urdu and Bangla seized was content on “how to achieve a good death” that was allegedly being taught to young girls who were residential students of the madrasa. “There were about 30 girl students here. But they were all outsiders,” says Ismail Sheikh, a resident of Simulia village. None of these girls is now traceable. “One had to pay about Rs 1,400 a month as fee [to study at the madrasa], hence villagers preferred to send their children to the local masjids (mosques) where the moulavis (priests) would teach student for free,” says Sheikh.

An abandoned orange Tata Nano parked near the madrasa had a West Bengal registration number that, incidentally, belonged to a two-wheeler and dated to 2006 – three years before the Nano was launched. The madrasa, which had been functioning for a couple of years, was not recognised. Officials say in West Bengal alone, there are around 3,000 such unrecognised madrasas.

The threat to India

NIA is now hunting for 13 couples, besides 40-50 other members who have received training in such madrasas. These suspects, officials say, are trained in gun and arrow shooting, bomb-making, speech delivery and influencing people through video messages. They could be in any part of the country, making JMB an immediate threat, somewhat similar to homegrown terror outfit Indian Mujahedeen (IM).

“Not only are these right-wing extremists (mainly JMB) waging a war against their own government from Indian soil, but they are also increasingly radicalising Indian nationals in the Murshidabad, Nadia and Malda districts of West Bengal,” says a senior official of an Indian security establishment. These three districts are located on the Indo-Bangladesh border. “JMB’s immediate target was Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed who is acting tough against it and other religious fundamentalists in her country,” the official, who does not wish to be named, adds.

New Delhi-based security expert Ajai Sahni says JMB and other similar groups started fleeing to India following the serial blasts in Bangladesh in 2005. JMB had carried out coordinated blasts in at least 300 places. Its chief was later hanged. Of late, Hasina’s forces have cracked down heavily on terrorist organisations. They have also handed over many wanted militants to India.

“Currently, JMB doesn’t pose much of a threat to India. India’s real threat is from another Bangladeshi outfit, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), which has links with foreign intelligence agencies and was responsible for many terror attacks in India in the past,” says Sahni. “This problem will multiply when groups such as JMB start providing logistics and cadre support to HuJI and other such organisations,” he adds.

Politics versus national security

The question then is: why didn’t Indian authorities act despite repeated alerts from intelligence agencies in both India and Bangladesh? “No, we were not sitting quietly,” says G K Pillai, former home secretary. “We repeatedly wrote to the state government to take action against illegal migrants. The state police didn’t take any action fearing a reprimand from their political masters,” he says.

“We tried to build consensus by suggesting that Bangladeshi migrants should be given work permits on the lines of the Singapore-Malaysia model. This would have allowed us to know the exact number of people entering India, but none of the political parties agreed to it,” Pillai adds.

Intelligence agencies say an estimated 8,000 people cross the India-Bangladesh border through various check posts every day. About 20 per cent of them stay back. These people, sources say, enjoy political patronage and become an important vote bank. Both Sahni and Pillai say such voters have shifted allegiance from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). “This is why the state chief minister was unwilling to hand over the probe to a more professional agency such as NIA. Such groups are growing due to political patronage,” Sahni says.

“Everyone knows that direct and indirect help from political parties has been provided to members of such groups, knowingly or unknowingly, for mere political gains,” says Dipanjan Chakraborty, former official of the National Security Guard (NSG).

Political parties rubbish these allegations. “There is illegal immigration, but to say that 20 per cent of these immigrants stay back is a highly inflated figure,” counters CPM leader Mohammed Salim. “It is rubbish to say that we have at any time used them as a vote bank. What has happened recently is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to woo the Hindu immigrants, while TMC is trying to win over the Muslims among the immigrants. A similar politics was played by BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Assam earlier.” TMC members declined to comment on the issue.

It might be a coincidence that Nurul Hasan Chowdhury, who had rented the first floor of the house at Khagragarh to Shakil Ahmed, happens to be associated with TMC. And that the ground floor of the building, where the blast took place, was used by TMC as an election office during polls.

Though the government has not released religious data for 2011, despite it being ready for months, highly-placed sources say the Muslim population of Bangladeshi origin has increased to 5-7 per cent in most parts of Assam and Bengal.

In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won the three Muslim-dominated seats of Karimganj, Dhubri and Barpeta in Assam. These areas are said to have a high population of Bangladeshi Muslims. And BJP, which has been vocal against illegal immigration, won seven seats here for the first time.

At Khagragarh, meanwhile, residents say they are paying the price for the blast caused by outsiders whose faces were unknown to them. “There were three men and two women who had rented that house for the last few months,” says Saraswati Mal who runs a tea stall next to the two-storey building where the explosion took place. “We have not even seen their faces. The women were always in burqas. The men used motorbikes. I saw them but always with their helmets on.” Beli Bibi, a resident of Khagragarh, recounts how she had to struggle to convince rickshaw-pullers to ferry her home from Bardhaman Medical College where she had recently gone to visit a relative.

The accidental, unintended blast at Bardhaman has turned the focus on a critical security issue that has been playing on the minds of the Indian intelligence agencies. It’s time, they say, national security overruled political considerations.

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