More than 100 civilians, including prominent Bangladeshi American blogger Avijit Roy, have died on the streets of Bangladesh in political and terrorism-related violence during February alone. Bangladesh is under the grip of an impatient civilian population, an over-reactionary political class and a host of relentless extremist groups. Violent street contests between the cadres of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid's Awami League and former Prime Minister Khalida Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party are weakening the country's nascent democracy and ceding space to extremist groups.
The extremists take advantage of political squabbles and power vacuums, as seen in Iraq, Syria and other troubled Muslim-majority countries,
The Shaikh Hasina government's crackdown on extremists brought relative calm during her tenure as prime minister from 2009 to 2014. But toward the end of her tenure, she established a tribunal to punish Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their role in the 1971 genocide; removed an election-related transparency clause from the constitution, forcing BNP and 17 other parties to boycott the vote that returned her to the prime minister post in 2014; and targeted her rival Khalida Zia. Shaikh Hasina's act prompted Khalida Zia to renew old ties with Jamaat-e-Islami. A legitimate political party until August 2013 when the Bangladesh High Court de-registered the party, Jamaat-e-Islami was once associated with atrocities during Bangladesh's independence struggle. Despite a 5 percent vote share, the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami possesses tremendous street power and substantial ownership of Islamic ideologies. Both Awami League and BNP as political parties occasionally solicited alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami.
In Bangladesh, extremist groups are freshly regrouping. The country's complex militant landscape is comprised of home-grown groups (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team), India-based factions (United Liberation Front of Assom, National Front of Bodoland and National Socialist Council of Nagaland) and international terrorist organizations (Al Qaeda, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Islamic State). All are banned except NSCN. All exploit Bangladeshi and Indian politics, subvert security agencies and wreak havoc in the region. The intricate web of relations among a major political party, Jamaat-e-Islami and extremist organizations is turning the country into a new incubation ground of international terrorism with India as their immediate target.
With the Bangladeshi state's writ weakening by the day, terrorist groups are making surprising inroads into the political space, aspiring to replace democracy with Sharia law and threaten India's security. The Burdwan blast in October exposed deep-rooted tentacles of terror threats emanating from Bangladesh. Five Indian provinces – West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram — share a 4096-kilometer border. West Bengal alone shares a 2216-kilometer border along with a common language, Bengali. The topography of the porous border, yet to be fully demarcated, with jungles, hilly terrain and a dense population, is paradise for militants.
Terrorist groups like JMB, HuJI-B, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Al Qaeda affiliates operating from Bangladesh have a pan-South Asia presence and ambition. Their modus operandi involves soliciting operational support from Pakistan-based terrorist groups and international jihadi organizations. They target India by using Bangladeshi migrants and local militant groups. Pakistan has yet to reconcile with India's support to Bangladesh's 1971 cessation, and the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan is suspected of employing Bangladeshi militants to create chaos in India. As per the Indian Home Ministry, about 5.2 million displaced persons from Bangladesh have legally settled in India, 3.1 million of which in West Bengal. There are also roughly 20 million illegal immigrants in India, many registered as voters, facilitating uninterrupted inflow of militants and clamoring for a lenient approach towards Bangladeshi militants.
West Bengal is 25.2 percent Muslim, with some of those voters favorably dispensed towards Islamic extremists of Bangladesh. Bengali politicians, especially from the ruling Mamata Banarjee-led Trinamool Congress Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) remain convinced that a soft approach on Bangladeshi extremists and Indian supporters attracts the Muslim vote in the province and beyond.
Some political parties have exploited this notion. Three Trinamool Congress party leaders — Haji Nurul Islam, a former parliamentarian; Ahmed Hasan Imran, member of parliament; and Giyasuddin Mollah, a provincial minister — are accused of supporting local and Bangladeshi militants. In a scathing 2013 confidential note West Bengal's 24 Parganas District Superintendent of Police accused Ahmed Hasan Imran, a founding member of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), of involvement in spurring communal violence in the state and funding Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh.
Scores of other government reports have suggested linkages between Trinamool Congress members and Jamaat-e-Islami, demonstrating how India is tangled with the troubled Bangladeshi politics. An alert Bangladeshi Home Ministry blocked the visa of Ahmed Hasan for linkages with Jamaat-e-Islami. A chance surfacing of a April 2013 financial scandal at a Kolkata-based investment company, Shradha Group, led to accusations that a Trinamool Congress leader provided funding to Jamaat-e-Islami with the intention to foment civil unrest in Bangladesh.
In an attempt to reward supporters, Mamta Benarjee refused to accompany former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his 2011 Dhaka visit, foiled a proposed Teesta river water sharing deal and rejected a possible land boundary agreement. Groups and individuals in the West Bengal Islamic lobby convince the political leadership that such bilateral overtures are politically beneficial.
But these policies are not in India's national interest, harmful for Bangladesh and detrimental for Muslim community, the majority of whose members have had no role in such policies.
Police investigations in numerous pre-emptive arrests and small sporadic terrorist incidents in India trace a Bangladeshi footprint and indicate the possibility of coordinated attacks. Members of Trinamool Congress party, cadres of BNP and extremist elements of Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated groups are pitted against the combined strength of Awami League government and India's federal government. .
By giving in to extremists in exchange for unverifiable short-term electoral gains, the provincial government of West Bengal is nursing a monster that could soon eat its own creator. Such policies have failed in other parts of the world, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, and probably won't succeed in West Bengal either. In adopting a humanitarian approach, the provincial government must ensure that extremists don't take advantage of the government.
In dealing with issues related to Bangladesh, the federal government under a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi must shed political rivalry and refrain from public blacklisting of provincial government officials, which would only send them into the arms of extremists. For the Modi government, rhetoric apart, it is essential to identify a viable solution to raging illegal Bangladeshi migration, work hard to end a porous border by increasing Indian flexibility on exchanges of enclaves, and establish a taskforce to monitor the spillover of threats emanating from Bangladesh.
Saroj Kumar Rath is assistant professor at the University of Delhi and author of Fragile Frontiers: The Secret History of Mumbai Terror Attacks (Routledge, 2014).
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