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Despatch

THE TERROR FIELDS OF BENGAL

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The investigation into a bomb blast in the town of Burdwan in West Bengal last month put the spotlight on a wider network of terror modules stretching beyond the border to Bangladesh. A report from the new dateline of terror
Shaksar Ali looks at you menacingly, his countenance typical of a stern American immigration officer threatened by the prospect of a potential troublemaker entering the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Here in Simulia, a village in West Bengal’s impoverished Burdwan district, where some 30-40 people used a madrassa for four years to offer young women—who made up most of its students—arms training, Ali doesn’t look pleased to see outsiders. “I am a local Trinamool Congress leader,” he announces, perched on a tractor that has some 30 other passengers in a trailer cart. He doesn’t step down, but speaks in Hindi and Bengali, pausing periodically for someone to translate his Bengali rhetoric to Hindi. The thrust of his defence against any effort to taint this beautiful hamlet’s reputation is that nobody knew a thing about what happened in the madrassa because “people respected the privacy of women, all of whom were burkha clad”.

On 2 October this year, within hours of an accidental explosion of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in a two- storeyed building 40 km away, in the Khagragarh locality of Burdwan town, all the students and other residents— including some men—of the so-called ‘madrassa’ disappeared, leaving no trace so far. “None of us saw them leave,” says Iman ul-Haq, parroting his leader Ali. Like Ali, Haq and Nasser and Moham- med, scores of other villagers, aver that they saw nothing wrong about a group of supposed do-gooders running an academic institution for young girls. Quizzed further, they insist that this adamant ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ stance wasn’t fed to them by religious leaders at the local mosque. Then comes anger, emotional outbursts and lengthy animated chats on why they are being wronged. “Because we belong to the minority community, we are being defamed. The English media is to blame. The NIA (National Investigation Agency) is to blame,” says Ali, still atop the passenger seat of the tractor. Then he is gone, along with his 30-odd men.

Inmates of the madrassa at Simulia, where Muslims account for half the population of 6,000, weren’t the only ones who got away after a blast killed two people in a wrung-out neighbourhood in Burdwan town. While Shakeel Ahmed and Subhan Mandal were killed in the explosion, Abdul Hakim survived and is now in NIA custody after recovering from his wounds in a Burdwan hospital. It soon emerged that these three were members of the dreaded Jamaat-ul- Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), an Al- Qaeda-linked outfit banned in Bangladesh, which has over the years set up bomb-making units across several districts of West Bengal, including Murshidabad, Nadia, North 24 Parganas, Dakshin Dinajpur and Malda besides Burdwan itself, reportedly with the connivance of political parties in power.

Others who fled following the accidental blast include 40-year-old Sajid, a suspected Bangladeshi national who was residing near the Lalgola madrassa in Murshidabad district; Nasirullah, a bomb-making expert and a suspected Bangladeshi national living in a flat in Beldanga in the same district where terror suspect Shakeel Ahmed had stayed earlier; Kauser, again a suspected Bangladeshi, whom investigators say routinely transported IEDs to Bangladesh and helped Shakeel find accommodation on rent; 28-year-old Talha Sheikh, a skilled weapons trainer who lived in Nadia; and 27-year-old Yusuf Shiekh, the reported kingpin of various terror modules that the JMB runs across West Bengal —he also set up the Simulia madrassa.

The list of absconders is, in fact, longer. Police are also scouring the land for 26-year-old Amjad Ali Seikh from Kirnahar in Birbhum; Abdul Kalam, a close friend of the dead Shakeel Ahmed who was a regular at the burkha-tailoring unit that was used as a bomb-making facility; Burhan Sheikh, whom Simulia villagers say sold land for setting up the madrassa more than four years ago; Rez ul Karim, who lived in a house near the site of the Burdwan blast (the police have recovered 40 IEDs from his home); Habibur Rahman Sheikh, Kauser’s roommate; Jahirul Sheikh and Shahnur Alam.

“Burhan Sheikh fled probably because he was scared to death that the police would indict him in the case,” Shaksar Ali offers. Iman ul-Haq sees no reason that he should have offered himself for questioning by the police. What really surprises the NIA and the state police is the unity in denial among villagers, especially those in Simulia where Hindus don’t dare venture into the ‘Muslim area’ just 100 metres away, referred to it as “out there”.

That nearly 40 people could carry on with such nefarious activities for four years without the knowledge of the villagers defies logic. Given the close-knit structure of society here, nothing of this magnitude could have gone unnoticed. “It is tough to give them the benefit of doubt,” says a senior government official.

STATE VERSUS CENTRE

Syed Hussain Meerza, the burly, amiable superintendent of police of Burdwan district, talks about similar distrust of the “Indian policing system” that Shobhan Mandal had harboured. Mandal, who succumbed to his injuries in the blast, said he wouldn’t reveal much because he didn’t trust the Indian police and would never expect justice from India. He also insisted that he was the son of a Biplov Mandal, but the police are convinced that this was not his real name. While he bears a Hindu name, a post-mortem report confirms that he was circumcised according to Muslim tradition, and that the IED exploded while he was trying to either carry it or work on it. He was bending forward with his hands on the explosive device when it went off, Meerza says. The police officer, whose transfer has been sought by the opposition CPM, reels out details of investigations carried out by his department that led to the collection of evidence. “Whatever evidence we have of these modules is thanks to the state police,” he says.

Then what explains the controversy over the state government not cooperating with Central agencies? Another senior state government official offers an explanation: “It could be that the Mamata Banerjee government had initially shown reluctance to work in tandem with Central agencies, but that doesn’t take away the credit from the state police, who are familiar with the state and have provided enough evidence on the terror modules that have sprouted across the state. I am sure even National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was appreciative of the efforts of the state police who offered critical evidence to probe the case further.”

On his smartphone, Meerza has saved pictures of the dead suspected JMB operatives and various business cards that the likes of Abdul Hakim used. He found the cards used by Hakim, Kauser and Amjad Ali Sheikh to be very similar. They were printed in black-and-white, in the same font, and two of them had the same phone numbers. By their business cards, they appeared to work for a medical- products factory located in Kolkata’s Shakespeare Sarani. Meerza notes that such business cards help people procure chemicals like ammonium nitrate and nitric acid, typically used for IEDs and bombs. The state police had also established links between Shakeel Ahmed and Yousef Sheikh and between Hakim and Karim. “Hakim, as soon as he regained consciousness, tried to rub off a phone number on his hand, but the police overpowered him and matched that number to the last call his wife [Amina Bibi, who is now in police custody along with Shakeel Ahmed’s wife, Rajira Bibi] made. Karim, who came to know of the blast, escaped,” says Meerza.

What leaves the Government at the Centre anxious isn’t just the ease with which terrorists infiltrate India from Bangladesh. What is more worrying is the proliferation of terror modules in all border districts and beyond. Burdwan, also called Bhardaman, is not close to the border.

India and Bangladesh share a 4,098-km border, the longest that either country shares with any other. Unlike India’s well-sealed borders with Pakistan and China, this one is highly porous. “Out there along the Indo-Bangladesh border, it is an industry, this migration business. You don’t pay in thousands of rupees, but in hundreds of rupees. It is Indian officials who offer fake documents to illegal Bangladeshi migrants,” claims refugee expert and Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Sanjay Bhardwaj. The second West Bengal government official admits that this is true, and hastens to add that very often Bangladeshi citizens first cross over to India, marry an Indian, and then acquire their father-in-law’s surname in an effort to “erase their past”.

Though he didn’t change his surname, the deceased Shakeel Ahmed, who came to India and married the cousin of a maulvi he had befriended in Nadia, Rafiqul Islam, had falsely identified his father-in- law as his father to acquire a ration card. “They often manage to do much more than that,” the official says, laughing.

PAST WOUNDS, NEW RIFTS

Meerza says he finds “many of those pious looking” people “with a beard and no moustache” to be deceptive. In particular, he is referring to Sheikh Yousef, an Indian thought to be the spiritual guide of various JMB-led terror modules, who has lived in various border districts before he set up the Simulia madrassa. The police have got hold of his photograph, and are sure that he hasn’t yet crossed over to Bangladesh where his outlawed organisation, founded in 1998, is waging a war to overthrow the democratically elected government of Sheikh Hasina, a friend of India’s, and establish sharia rule. “We have made some progress,” he says, adding that the NIA and the state police are working closely to nab him. The JMB has made several attempts to assassinate Hasina, who has been Prime Minister since 2009. She had to live in exile in India after the assassination of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh, and is hated by radical elements in Bangladesh for being pro-India. The JMB was forced to shift its operations outside of the country ever since it was banned in 2005 and thanks to intense scrutiny by the Hasina government. In 2005, the JMB had detonated 500 bombs in 300 locations across Bangladesh.

Professor Bhardwaj says that in Bengal, Muslims and Hindus shared cultural affinities for a long time until 16 August 1946 when a hartal, also called Direct Action Day, called by the MA Jinnah-led Muslim League resulted in widespread riots and manslaughter in the city. The hartal was called to demand the creation of Pakistan. Muslim mobs attacked Hindu homes and the two communities fought for almost a week in riots that came to be known as the Great Calcutta Killings. Also referred to as the ‘week of the long knives’, it spawned violence in several other parts of the country. Many historians have suggested that the unfortunate event reinforced the belief among the people of Bengal that the creation of two separate nations based on religion was inevitable.

The migration of Bengalis from both sides of the border in the 1980s to Gulf countries contributed further to Islamisation, especially in Bangladesh, says Professor Bhardwaj. “It is petro dollars that continue to fund renewed radicalisation among Muslims in the region,” he says. According to him, cultural affinities between Hindus and Muslims survived the 1946 riots for many decades—until Bangladeshi and Bengali Muslims began working as labourers in the Middle East. He believes that Bangladeshis who migrate for work to the Arab world are now under the influence of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence as opposed to the Hanafi one, which held sway among them earlier. The professor posits that Hanafism allowed for greater cooperation among diverse religious communities; in contrast, the Hanbali reading, associated closely with Wahhabism—which demands a puritanical adherence to textual Islam—tends to justify jihadism and hostilities with kaafirs or non-believers.

For his part, Tufail Ahmad, an expert on jihadist movements of South Asia and director of South Asia Studies Project at the Washington DC-based Middle East Media Research Institute, rues that Indian authorities have been lax for long about Bangladeshi immigrants. Much like how Britain tolerated today’s jihadist forces on its soil while championing anti-colonial politics during the pre-9/11 years, he explains, Bangladeshi jihadists find a liberal, secular and hospitable environment in West Bengal to hide, survive and prosper. Says Ahmad, “The anti-Muslim violence in Assam and Myanmar in recent years and the Hasina government’s crackdown on jihadist organisations in Bangladesh should have alerted the authorities in West Bengal. However, it appears that hundreds of Bangladeshi terrorists are hiding in the state and it is easy for them to disappear into the immigrant populations there.”

Ahmad wants the Modi Government to fulfil promises made in the run-up to the General Election. India, he says, should stay aware that jihadists are advocating Hijra (migration) as a strategy to radicalise Muslim youth. “In the Muslim imagination, Hijra is an important event when Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Madina to establish the first Islamic state. And in West Bengal, migration is a serious issue and a well thought-out policy is needed,” he says, adding that “the Bangla-language literature seized by security officials in West Bengal indicates that jihadists are planning a mini caliphate incorporating Bangladesh and neighbouring districts of West Bengal”.

This, Ahmad argues, is a cause of concern because the stated objective of the newly established Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is to erase international borders. “It is more worrying that the militants in Burdwan were allegedly working to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, which is fundamentally a Pakistani plan to have such an assassination executed from Indian soil,” he says.

So hardened are the terrorists, exclaims an official, that even women recruits undergo extensive training in guerilla warfare and torture resistance. Rajira Bibi and Amina Bibi, wives of Shakeel Ahmed and Hakim, slowed the police down briefly by threatening to open fire when they landed at their doorstep within hours of the blast. In the meantime the two women managed to destroy most documents and SIM cards in the house. Besides them, the police have in custody Hassan Mollah, a Burdwan-based shoe trader and an associate of Shakeel.

A CASE OF CONNIVANCE

Roads to rural Bengal are smoother and wider now than when the Left was in power, yet lawlessness prevails. For all its idyllic beauty, violence lurks on the roads that traipse through the lush green paddy fields of eastern Bengal. At various locations in interior Murshidabad and Birbhum, dozens of youths with Trinamool Congress (TMC) flags stop cars demanding money to celebrate a particular community festival. Some of them are drunk, others furiously smoking away at beedis, still others are carrying sticks, and all of them are intimidating. “Rural West Bengal is known for such lawlessness, and much more now than ever before,” a police officer had forewarned.

The Marxists who had ruled the state for 34 years had presided over the destiny of the state’s people, especially in the countryside. The TMC, which has taken power from the CPM, is following in the former’s footsteps, letting its cadres take the law into their hands and exercise brute force.“The rule of law cannot be seen much in these villages, it is ‘party as mafia’, and this has been the case for decades. The situation has only got worse over the past few years,” says the police officer.

Under pressure from the Centre, which sprung into action demanding that the state cooperate with Central agencies rightaway to rid the state of terror modules, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee initially conceded that there were lapses on the part of her government in fast-tracking enquiries to nab the culprits on the run, especially Sheikh Yousef and Kauser who had reportedly managed to send hundreds of IEDs to Bangladesh. They’d been active in the state since 2011. Much to Banerjee’s embarrassment, the building used by terror suspects in Khagragarh is owned by a TMC leader, Nurul Hasan Chowdhury, who lived in the building facing that of his tenants. But within weeks, Banerjee appealed to her party leaders to launch a counter-offensive against what she called ‘malicious rumours’ suggesting that her party knew all along what was going on but looked the other way. “A campaign of canards and misinformation is being carried out against us in a planned way,” she said, and hit out at the Centre for failing to curb infiltration from Bangladesh.

REVENGE OF HISTORY

The Centre’s interest in West Bengal politics isn’t just political, officials say. “Of course, the BJP would want to capture the non-Trinamool space in the state, a space that has been left vacant by the near-decimation of the CPM across rural Bengal,” says a Union Government official who has watched the eastern state for decades. He says that goons of Bangladeshi origin have routinely been hired by both the CPM and Congress, and later the TMC, to carry out killings. The identity of the killer gangs, which vanish back to Bangladesh or into immigrant settlements, stays masked. According to the 2001 Census, India was then home to more than 3 million people of Bangladeshi origin, a vast number of them in Assam. Some argue that the figure is far higher. Statistician Samir Guha Roy, though, says that the number is much lower. There exists no reliable data on this.

Whatever the numbers, illegal migration has drastically altered the politics of Assam. The state saw large-scale riots in 2012 between Bangladeshi-origin residents and northeasterners. The expansion of fundamentalist outfits among Muslims had assured these immigrants local help within India. Central agencies had accused the Popular Front of India (PFI) of sending the bulk SMS threat that led to the exodus of northeasterners from Bangalore soon after the Assam violence.

Meanwhile, a former CPM leader says that the party in West Bengal had also “meticulously employed” Bangladeshi nationals in country bomb-making units, effectively putting in place an infrastructure for terror activities in the state. “The CPM used to raid Congress villagers in the past with their help. And now the TMC has monopolised them to the extent that it is impossible for Mamata Banerjee to act against them. They are her strongest vote bank. Any crackdown on illegal migrants will cost her dearly,” he says. The JMB, flushed out of Bangladesh, found this large pool of migrants a boon, says the first state government official. “They have a huge network already in place in most districts of West Bengal. The radicalisation of Muslims that you have seen over the past many years has also helped them establish a strong foothold. Thanks to inter- marriages, Bangladeshis have gone through a phase of cultural assimilation in the state, which is seeing fast growth of Islamism. This gives them an edge,” he says. Various Islamist groups have distributed videos and pamphlets expressing solidarity with Islamists in Chechnya and other countries. There were also numerous bomb-making manuals downloaded from the internet.

The likes of Ali in Simulia—a typical, seemingly tranquil eastern Bengal village where goat kids wander aimlessly through the streets—prefer to argue that Muslims are being targeted because the BJP has electoral designs on West Bengal. “That is a silly argument,” counters police officer Meerza. Such arguments are reflective, though, of the state government’s ostrich-like position taken to avoid facing reality, reasons the second government official. “Which is why it makes more sense for the NIA to investigate the case (which it is doing notwithstanding opposition from the state government). But support from the state police who know the lay of the land is crucial.” A senior police officer agrees and refutes charges that the Central agencies, steered by a Hindu nationalist party, are biased against Muslims. “How can someone dismiss it as an anti-minority stance when you discover that a burkha-making unit was in fact a bomb- making factory and that a madrassa was where young girls were given training in dry firing (of firearms without ammunition)?” he asks.

For the time being, those IEDs and guns are directed at Bangladesh, and India remains a mere hub for arms production and a haven for terrorist training. But thanks to the close links that Islamists enjoy within the country, it is pretty sure that India, too, will soon be a target. It is a tragedy that behind the serenity of paddy fields, West Bengal’s countryside is riddled with plots of the most dangerous kind. Beneath the pastoral idyll lies the swirling reality of terror.

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