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Paper 997                                                       11.05.2004

by Dr. Subhash Kapila 

Introductory Observations: India has never ever viewed Bangladesh in an adversarial perspective. Not even when for reasons of domestic politics, a section of the Bangladesh polity has made anti-Indian stances as a plank to gain political mileage. 

India wishes for regional cooperation with Bangladesh especially in the economic field. Moreso, when Bangladesh’s economic interdependence with India, if realistically pursued could lead to economic prosperity for Bangladesh. A significant example being the export of natural gas to India for which even United States companies are pressing. 

It seems that Bangladesh like Pakistan, (which under similar United States pressures refuses to export natural gas to India) is vulnerable to political pressures, especially from Islamic fundamentalists parties to refrain from economic interactions with India, despite the sizeable financial losses to their respective national exchequers. 

Bangladesh today also seems to be getting overtaken by Islamic fundamentalist parties, which do not portend well for the future of good relations with India. 

Emerging Political Influence of Islamic Fundamentalists in Bangladesh: Bangladesh’s domestic politics are not India’s concerns. But when the rise of political influence of Islamic fundamentalist parties begins to influence Bangladesh’s politics and policies in a manner significant to erode Bangladesh-India friendship or in activities which start impinging on India’s national security interests, then it does become a serious concern for India. 

The rise of Jamaat-e-Islami, currently a member of the ruling alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) under Begum Khalida Zia, the Prime Minister, is becoming significant. Commenting on political turbulence in Bangladesh, a Bangladesh defence analyst, Brigadier General Jahangir Kabir (Retd) in an editorial opinion in the “The Daily Star”” entitled “Policies of April 30 and Beyond” (May 03, 2004) had commented that the “Jammat-e-Islami is the real winner in the current situation. Instead of being in a squeeze from our pro-West major political parties, it is moving from strength to strength on the back of BNP as a free rider”. 

The strengthening of such parties along with others with their pan-Islamic links with militant Islam is therefore not only India’s concern but as witnessed above within Bangladesh also. 

For those interested in a more detailed analysis of this phenomenon, refer to the authors SAAG Paper No. 235 dated 02.05.2001 entitled “Bangladesh Armed Forces and Islamic Fundamentalism.” 

It is in this perspective that has to be viewed the discernible contours of Pakistan exploiting Bangladesh and its territory as an alternative base for continuance of its proxy war against India.

Pakistan Imperatives for Using Bangladesh as Alternative Base for Proxy War Against India: Pakistan’s imperatives in this regard are quite obvious. The more significant ones being:

* Pakistan’s proxy war activities against India are under close watch by the United States within Pakistan

* US intelligence agencies teams operating within Pakistan in sizeable numbers post-9/11 are exercising close scrutiny and surveillance of Pakistan’s Islamic Jehadi organizations and their linkages with Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the ISI.

* India’s extensive border fencing along the International Border and Line of Control is significantly impeding cross-border terrorism and proxy war activities of Pakistan.

* Along the entire western borders of India, except for a few safe havens in the Kashmir valley the ISI and Islamic Jehadis cannot make headway anywhere else. 

Pakistan perforce, therefore, has to change its base for its proxy war against India whose continuance is an essential strategic requirement for the Pakistan Army’s continuing grip on power in Pakistan, notwithstanding commitments given to the United States. 

Bangladesh offers Pakistan an attractive alternative base for continuing its proxy war against India, especially under the current political dispensations in both countries. 

Bangladesh’s Utility to Pakistan as Alternative Proxy War Base: Bangladesh has stood exploited by Pakistan as a springboard for anti-Indian operations of the ISI for decades now. Pakistan’s main target all along having been to keep India’s North East states in a state of strategic destabilization to reduce pressures along the India-Pakistan border. 

However, post-9/11, Pakistan’s strategy of exploiting Bangladesh as an alternative base for proxy war against India stands comprehensively enhanced and expanded, due to the imperatives discussed above. 

Viewing from the geo-strategic angle, Bangladesh’s utility to Pakistan as a proxy war base arises from the following factors:

* The India Bangladesh border geographically is porous and difficult to keep under close surveillance due to its riverine configurations in the West and hilly terrain in the North East and East.

* Border fencing  of the India-Bangladesh border is yet to commence.

* Bangladesh’s border configuration rests on vulnerable Indian states like West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.

* Bangladesh territory provides ISI with multiple ingress routes to these sensitive Indian states.

* Bangladesh territory sits astride squarely on India’s strategic “Siliguri Corridor” through which narrow corridor runs India’s slender communication links with its seven North Eastern states. Pakistan’s ISI can play havoc against this corridor from Bangladesh territory.

* The borders of Nepal and Bhutan, states which enjoy close links with India as non-Islamic states of South Asia, are within close reach of Bangladesh territory. Pakistani ISI is already said to be operating against these countries with linkages to anti-national groups.

* In a belt running parallel to the borders with Bangladesh and significantly deep, reside large sections of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, exploitable by Pak ISI. 

Bangladesh’ politico-religious factors provide a force-multiplier effect in terms of Bangladesh’s utility as an alternative base for Pakistan’s proxy war. These factors are:

  * Pakistan’s ISI and its Islamic Jehadi organizations enjoy pan-Islamic linkages with corresponding groups in Bangladesh.

* Emerging political influences of Islamic parties in Bangladesh further reinforces the above.

* Bangladesh’s Armed Forces are increasingly coming under Islamic fundamentalist influences. They seem to perceive that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a better weapon to keep India's might at bay. 

* Bangladesh already provides safe havens and gun-running for many anti-Indian insurgent groups of India’s North East.

* Pakistan’s proxy war activities and ISI operations can be safely camouflaged under the umbrella of such organizations.

* Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are provided easy “deniability exits” by the above.

*  Political fixations of the present Government in terms of its policies towards India and Pakistan make it easy for Pakistan to exploit Bangladesh as a proxy war base against India. 

Increasingly, hundreds of “Islamic Madrassas” have begun springing up along the entire stretch of the India-Bangladesh border (2,400 km). These “Islamic Madrassas” under the guise of religious instruction schools provide a nucleus network for Islamic Jehadi and ISI proxy war against India. Reports indicate that the “maulvis” (religious teachers are mostly Pakistanis of the Wahabi type) 

Al Qaeda linkages with Bangladesh pre-9/11 and reports of Al Qaeda operatives flight to Bangladesh post-9/11 stand documented. So also the disbursement of sizeable financial and to pan-Islamic organization in Bangladesh by Saudi Arabian organizations deeply involved in a spread of Islamic fundamentalism. This is a significant pointer to the emergence of Bangladesh as a base for Jehadi terrorism with direct implications for India.

India Constantly Points its Concerns to Bangladesh Without Success: The recent meeting in Dhaka between the Director General of India’s Border Security Force and the Director General of Bangladesh Rifles is a pointer. At a five-day meeting, which ended on May 03, 2004 although a joint declaration was signed agreeing to stop illegal crossings, Bangladesh rejected India’s list of 195 terrorist camps in Bangladesh, disclaiming their existence. 

An Indian proposal for joint inspection of suspected sites was rejected by Bangladesh authorities. 

Interestingly one report suggests that  during the discussions, the Bangladesh side maintained that most of the sites being labeled as terrorist camps were madrassas.  On the contrary this reinforces the Indian point that anti-Indian terrorist groups are using border madrassas as launching pads for operations against India. 

Concluding Observations: Bangladesh whether by its own volition or in subtle exploitation by Pakistan is fast emerging as an alternative base for Pakistan’s proxy war against India. There are a host of geo-strategic and politico-religious factors operating in favour of Pakistan in using Bangladesh as a proxy war base against India. All of them are even most of them cannot be termed as co-incidental 

The media euphoria over India-Pakistan dialogue and possible peace should not lead India into a state of complacency that Pakistan would cease its proxy war against India. In fact Pakistan is not doing so; it is only shifting its base to Bangladesh to hoodwink the United States scrutiny and have a convenient deniability exit. 

This author concluding his above referred paper in 2001 had stated that: “India’s policy planning apparatus both civil and military are invariably caught on the back foot. Whether it is Kashmir, Kargil, or China, we do not anticipate events or trends in the making. Islamic fundamentalist threats are longer confined to sources from Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have started emanating from Bangladesh as a base too as would be evident from the proliferation of Islamic organizations in Assam.” 

 Three years down the line discernible contours exist, reinforcing the above assertion, with Pakistan seemingly determined to use Bangladesh as an alternative base for its proxy war against India. 

It is in Bangladesh’s own domestic political interests to prevent the “Talibanisation” of its borders with India and not create tigers, which it cannot ride. Talibanisation of Bangladesh and its borders have a significant impact not only on the security of India, but also on Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. It could also provide proximate assistance to the Islamic Jehad  currently on in South East Asian countries and a phenomenon, which is increasingly becoming a global concern and carrying the seeds of external intervention.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email drsubhashkapila