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MESS ON THE GROUND
- The threat in eastern India poses a dilemma for the Congress

Despite pious proclamations to the contrary, political discourse in a media-driven society invariably centres on personalities. Consequently, governments and their ministers tend to be judged by their projection rather than their policies or performance. When feeble image management is coupled with disasters on the ground, the effects are potentially catastrophic.

After the serial blasts in Assam and Nagaland that killed nearly 50 people on October 2, there is a tendency to attribute the escalating violence in the North-east on the colossal ineptitude of the home minister, Shivraj Patil. Every Patil gaffe ' he called Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the prime minister of Bangladesh and threatened to fence the Indo-Nepal border ' appears to reinforce a growing impression that internal security has been left to a man who is temperamentally suited to be minister for textiles.

Patil's report card is distinctly unimpressive. In just over four months in office, the United Progressive Alliance's home minister has presided over the collapse of the internal dialogue in Kashmir, civil unrest in Manipur and the return of terrorism in Assam. In addition, there are serious internal security ramifications of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal and the unconcealed hostility of Bangladesh towards India. Confronted by this awesome challenge, Patil conveys the impression of being overwhelmed. He neither commands authority, nor does he inspire popular confidence.

If the grapevine in Lutyens's Delhi is any indication, it is possible that a more appropriate job will be found for Patil after the Maharashtra elections. The onerous task of managing internal security in Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur has already been taken out of the home minister's charge and entrusted to the prime minister's internal security adviser, M.K. Narayanan. Coupled with the national security adviser, J.N. Dixit, assuming responsibilities that should have been the preserve of the minister for external affairs, there seems to be a tendency on the part of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to find personality-based solutions to problems that are actually rooted in flawed policies.

At the heart of the recent mess in eastern India is a problem of pusillanimity and denial. For over 18 months, Indian intelligence agencies have been warning of a dual threat to national security in the region. The first is an extension of the 'thousand cuts' assault on India initiated by Pakistan in the Eighties, and which shows no sign of waning, despite the Islamabad declaration of January and Singh's 'historic' meeting with the president, Pervez Musharraf, in New York last month. The second is the Maoist insurgency whose epicentre is in Nepal, but whose tentacles extend into Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

The importance of Bangladesh as a springboard for insurgent groups operating in Assam and the North-eastern states has now been openly and categorically acknowledged. It is not merely that terrorist groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom, United National Liberation Front, National Democratic Front of Bodoland and others use Bangladesh as a sanctuary. But Indian intelligence also believes that following the election of the Khaleda Zia government in July 2001, these groups became dependant on Dhaka for funds, hardware, training and business opportunities ' such as facilitating arms supplies to other extremist groups in India and Nepal.

Following the successful anti- insurgent operations in Bhutan last December, the extent of dependence on Bangladesh has increased to such an extent that groups like the ULFA and NDFB have lost their autonomy. They are now pliant instruments of Islamic radicals in the Bangladeshi state apparatus who, in turn, are under the influence of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Pakistan. Bangladesh has become an operational zone for bleeding India and ensuring a large deployment of the army in the east ' away from Kashmir and the border with Pakistan.

Of course, it would be erroneous to reduce the entire problem to a Dhaka stage-managed show. Even before the Bangladesh Nationalist Party government lent an official sanction to the promotion of insurgency in the North-east, Bangla- desh had become an important centre of Islamist activity. The low-intensity campaign to reverse the legacy of the 1971 freedom struggle began with the 1975 coup against Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Since then, fuelled by generous endowments from Saudi Arabia, the country has experienced a steady social regression. Following 9/11, the social drift to orthodoxy has been complemented by support for radical Islamism and terrorism ' a reason why the United States of America is anxious to be involved in In- dia's counter-terrorism initiatives.

The growth of Islamism is not confined to Bangladesh. There is evidence to suggest that since 1996, Bangladeshi Islamist groups have been taking particular care to establish a critical mass of trained 'sleepers' in Assam. Indian intelligence reports indicate that there are some 5,000 Islamist activists, trained in the use of arms and explosives, who have been strategically positioned in Assam. Judging from the expressed concern of the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, at the mushrooming of madrassahs in the border districts, it may be assumed that the same problem exists in West Bengal.

The peculiarities of the security threat in eastern India poses a dilemma for the Congress. Since the early Sixties, when stalwarts like Moinul Huq Chowdhury and Fakh- ruddin Ali Ahmed kept open the floodgates of Bangladeshi immigration, the Congress has been disproportionately dependant on the Muslim vote for its sustenance in Assam. The anti-foreigner agitation of the Eighties merely enhanced this reliance. In one border constituency, for example, a Congress stalwart has made cross-border voting a ritual. Therefore, regardless of what the security pundits demand, the leadership of the Congress is burdened by the knowledge that a robust response to Bangladesh could create electoral ripples in Assam. The party is loath to lose a vote bank, as happened in the immediate aftermath of the 1985 Assam Accord.

Ironically, the Communist Party of India in West Bengal is not as inhibited by political expediency ' a possible reason why its chief minister is considered a 'hawk' on the subject of giving Bangladesh a bloody nose. It is another matter that the party chooses not to make an open political fuss about the roots of the problem ' the demographic alteration of eastern India through illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

The Congress's existential dilemma does not end here. Apart from being squeamish on Bangladeshi immigration, the Congress has also played footsie with the ULFA. During the past few elections, it has not been uncommon for the ULFA to call for poll boycott in selective areas. Since these localities happened to be dominated by caste-Hindus who tilt towards parties like the Asom Gana Parishad and Bharatiya Janata Party, ULFA-sponsored boycotts have proved quite advantageous to the Congress.

Of course, Tarun Gogoi's debt to ULFA's Paresh Barua may not be as profound as the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Y.S. Rajsekhar Red- dy's IOU to the People's War Group. Yet, just as the PWG is leveraging its clout in Andhra Pradesh to apply brakes on India's involvement inNepal's war against the Maoists, the imperatives of the Assam Congress could be a deterrent against New Delhi telling Dhaka exactly where to get off.

Maybe Gogoi still thinks he is dealing with a handful of wayward Assamese nationalists. The sheer sophistication of the timing device of the explosive that killed 16 children in Dhemaji on August 15 should have told him otherwise. In any case, the serial blasts of October 2, said to be the ULFA's response to an unconditional offer for talks, should leave him in no doubt that there is a hidden hand behind the ULFA. This is why it is important that the full magnitude of the threat confronting India in the east is not only understood but acted upon. Bangladesh has reacted to India's concerns with astonishing insolence. India must reflect on the wisdom of either pretending to be deaf, dumb and blind or exercising the right of self-defence.

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