By Wasbir Hussain*
Bangladesh has clearly been sucked into the whirlpool of jihadi terrorism with a plethora of outfits managing to draw cadres from both the over-populous nation’s poor strata of society as well as the elites who go to universities and upscale schools in Dhaka. The 1 July raid in an eatery in Dhaka’s posh Gulsan area that led to the brutal killing of 20 hostages and two police officers was carried out by young men who were sons of people holding high positions, like an election commissioner, an Awami League leader, an executive with a foreign company, and so on. This indicates the menace in Bangladesh has spread to sections far beyond the madrassa-educated boys usually accused of being radicalised.
Dhaka has stepped up its crackdown on jihadis who belong to outfits like the Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar al Islam, Hefazat-e-Islam, the Hizb ut-Tahrir etc. Bangladeshi authorities have also sought India’s help in investigating the possible roles of Islamic preachers like the Mumbai-based Dr Zakir Naik who has close to 15 million followers on Facebook. With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina already demonstrating her grit by letting influential war-crime accused and Islamist radicals face the law and get executed, it is likely Dhaka would go all out against jihadi terror. After the 1 July raid, the jihadis struck again on 7 July, Eid day, killing four people, including a policeman, and injuring several others at Kishoreganj, 140 km outside Dhaka.
What happens when the crackdown gains momentum and reaches its peak? Can the jihadis fight and retard the security offensive? What sort of a strategy could the jihadi terrorists adopt? The jihadi groups in Bangladesh appear to have some linkages and support from the Islamic State (IS), despite Dhaka’s rejection of the IS claim of the 1 July attack, and can, therefore, launch fresh terror raids, mounting the challenge for the pursuing security agencies. Alternatively, the jihadis could decide to lie low and even try to sneak across the border into India. If they decide to cross over into India, their favoured destination would be West Bengal and Assam, two states that share long and porous borders with Bangladesh with rivers criss-crossing these borders. Moreover, in both West Bengal and Assam, Bangladeshi jihadi outfits like JMB has some presence, demonstrated by several arrests by the Indian security agencies in the past few years.
The chars or sand bars in the riverine areas in western Assam, along Bangladesh, is ethnically and geographically the ideal hiding place for such elements. No wonder, after the Dhaka attack, the Assam Police and the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) have stepped up vigil in bordering districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Karimganj, etc. The people who live in these areas on the Indian side lack access to education, healthcare services and livelihood opportunities. The char dwellers are mostly Muslims of migrant origin. But the silver lining is that although Assam shares a 262 km long porous border with Bangladesh, a country that is a hotbed of Islamist militancy, the Muslims in Assam, who comprise 34 per cent of the state’s population of 31 million, are practitioners of liberal Islam.
But in the last few years, some incidents have occurred that indicate that there is an attempt at radicalising a section of the Muslim population in the state, a development that cannot be brushed aside as a minor security matter. The incident that confirmed the inroad of jihadi elements into Assam was the arrest of twelve persons with links to the JMB in the state in November-December 2014. One of the arrested persons was Sahanur Alom, who had close links with the JMB and was in constant touch with the outfit’s leaders in Bangladesh. The arrested persons had revealed that JMB is eyeing pockets inhabited by people of Bangladeshi origin as well as districts like Sivasagar in eastern Assam, where it is said to have motivated some people. They had also apparently told interrogators that over a hundred recruits from the state, mostly youths from western Assam districts, had undergone “training” in the madrassas of West Bengal.
Then, on 16 September 2015, the police arrested three persons and busted a jihadi training centre in Chirang district, one of the four districts under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The BTC area had in 2012 witnessed clashes between the Bodos and the Muslim migrant settlers. Besides, insurgent groups like the Songbijit faction of the NDFB (NDFB-S) had directly targeted Muslim settlers in the area, killing nearly a hundred people in 2014-15. Based on the revelations made by the arrested persons in Chirang, one of their accomplices was arrested on 18 September 2015 and eight handmade AK-47 rifles and two handmade Insas rifles were recovered. Three videos – two on atrocities on Muslims, which are used for indoctrination, and one containing instructions on the use of arms – were also recovered from the training centre.
Again, on 18 September 2015, two members of a new militant outfit called the Muslim Tiger Force of Assam (MTFA) were apprehended by the Army from Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar district and one 7.65 mm rifle was recovered from them. The MTFA was apparently formed to take revenge for the killing of minorities in the BTC area. On 21 April 2016, the Assam Police arrested seven persons in Chirang district who were part of a module involved in indoctrinating jihadi ideology among the local people. These incidents are an indication of how jihadi elements are slowly trying to secure a foothold in the state.
Under-development and lack of access to basic facilities in these areas are factors that can be used by fundamentalists to lure some people towards their fold. According to a survey done by the Directorate of Char Areas Development, Government of Assam, in 2002-03, there were over 24 lakh people living in 2,251 char villages spread in 14 districts of Assam. The literacy rate among these people was only 19.31 per cent at that time, while the corresponding literacy rate of Assam and India during the period was 63.25 per cent and 64.84 per cent respectively. The percentage of people Below Poverty Line (BPL) in these areas in 2002-03 was 67.88 per cent, while the figures for Assam as a whole stood at 36.09 per cent and for India it was 26.10 per cent.
Another reason that many believe is the reason for the increased penetration by jihadi elements into the state is the unabated illegal migration from Bangladesh. This migration through the porous India-Bangladesh border has remained a cause of concern and it is surely abetting the influence of Islamist fundamentalism among a section of the Muslim population.
Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh fall into two categories – one, those who enter India with valid travel documents and then overstay, and second, those who enter India without any valid travel documents. A number of Bangladeshi nationals who come to India on valid travel documents overstay after the expiry of their visas. However, the majority of illegal migration is through the porous India-Bangladesh border. There is no accurate data on the number of such illegal migrants in the country. Now, after it has come to light that suave, educated Bangladeshis have taken to jihadi terror, the fear of potential jihadis coming in from that country on valid travel documents has also become real, adding to the challenge for Indian security agencies.
The bottom-line is simple—New Delhi cannot afford to end its responsibility by simply liaising with Dhaka and offering assistance to Bangladesh in tackling the jihadis. It has to actually draw up a slew of measures—administrative, policing and technological—to check jihadi terror from spreading and becoming a reality in Northeast India. Most importantly, New Delhi has to recognise the moderate Muslim voice in India, give it due weightage, and channel the energy of the young Muslim youth by giving them adequate education and livelihood options, and help them emerge from their economic backwardness.
* Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS