ARMS AND THE MEN
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- Published 19.07.14
Indian intelligence officials take Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence quite seriously as a rival but tend to sneer at other national intelligence organizations. Going by professional track record, however, Sri Lanka’s military intelligence displayed that it was capable of generating real-time intelligence that was used to smash the LTTE. If we restrict ourselves to judging the effectiveness of Lankan military intelligence in the last days of the Jaffna war, there is no doubt it was highly effective. Similarly, Bangladeshi agencies, purged of pro-ISI elements after Sheikh Hasina became prime minister, have displayed a remarkable capacity to generate effective real-time intelligence. The Rapid Action Battalion has not exactly covered itself with glory in the recent months. It has often meddled in local politics, bumped off political rivals of some high and mighty politicians, for a price. The multiple murders in Narayanganj has put the RAB on the mat — three of its top officers (all army deputationists) were found involved in abducting and killing seven persons including the local councillor, Nazrul Islam, and the lawyer, Chandan Sarkar, at the behest of another councillor and sand-mafia-lord, Nur Hossain. Hossain was later arrested in Calcutta and his deportation to stand trial in Bangladesh is keenly awaited. This incident has led to strident demands that the RAB should be banned, but there is no way one can overlook RAB’s enviable track record in counter-insurgency, specially its success in decimating Islamic radical groups.
The latest RAB operation at Satcherri, on the Tripura-Bangladesh border, in June led to the recovery of a huge arms cache. Satcherri was the one-time headquarters of the All Tripura Tiger Force, used by Ulfa to stock weapons brought from Southeast Asia. Almost all rebel groups active in the Northeast used the Bangladesh coast to smuggle in weapons from Southeast Asia. Most of these weapons were made in China but some originated elsewhere and dated back to the days of the Vietnam war.
This first came to light during Operation Golden Bird, initiated by the 57th Division of the Indian army in April-May 1995, which tracked down and decapitated a rebel column that had picked up a huge consignment of weapons at the Wyakaung beach (south of Cox’s Bazar) and was moving that through the jungles of Mizoram. Thirty eight rebels were killed and 118 nabbed during the 45-day operation, information for which was provided by the National Unity Party of Arakans. The counter-point to Golden Bird was the huge arms-drop at Purulia in December, 1995. There is enough evidence now that the Purulia arms-drop mastermind, Niels Christian Nielsen, had tried very hard to secure landing permission at Dhaka for his aircraft carrying arms. The British gun-runner, Peter Bleach, had told me in a BBC interview within a year of the drop that he tried his “Dhaka agent”, the retired Captain Taslim Hossain of M/s Riverland Agencies, to secure landing permission but failed. The consignment was also marked for Rajendrapur cantonment and a fake end-user certificate had been obtained through the armed forces division of Bangladesh’s prime minister’s office. This has led many to surmise that the consignment was not actually meant for the Ananda Margis (as suggested by CBI) but for some Burmese rebel group.
Bangladesh was then a happy hunting ground for the ISI, and rebel groups active against India found it a very useful place for regrouping and bringing in weapons. But this changed after Hasina took over as prime minister in January, 2009. She got the Bangladesh security agencies to crack down on not only the Northeast Indian rebel groups, but also the arms trade thriving around them. Scores of rebel leaders — including the Ulfa chairman, Arabindra Rajkhowa, the UNLF chairman, R.K. Meghen, and the NDFB chairman, Ranjan Daimary — were nabbed and quietly handed over to India. Their bases were demolished without the fanfare that accompanied Bhutan’s Operation All Clear.
But the most telling evidence of Hasina’s zero-tolerance with terrorism was revealed in the way the 2004 Chittagong arms case was pursued. The recovery of the ten truckloads of weapons being offloaded from a ship at a Chittagong dock on the night of April 1-2 , 2004, had surely happened during the time of Begum Khaleda Zia’s government. It is now suggested by some quarters that the seizure resulted from a successful Indian ‘plant’ that led the Chittagong police to believe that weapons from India were being inducted for use by the Awami League — and this immediately after top Awami league leaders had threatened to bring down the Begum Zia government. Independent corroboration is not available, as often happens with such covert action. But while there was hardly any progress with the Chittagong investigations during Zia’s time, it picked up speed in Hasina’s time. Earlier this year, a special Chittagong Tribunal sentenced 14 persons to death for complicity with the smuggling of weapons seized at Chittagong on that April Fools night. Those sentenced included two former ministers (Jamaat-e-Islami’s Motiur Rahman Nizami and BNP’s Lutfor Zaman Babar) and two former intelligence chiefs (NSI’s Abdur Rahim and DGFI’s Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury). The Ulfa military wing chief, Paresh Barua — who has no case against him in India where his fighters have caused so much mayhem — has also been sentenced to death by this Chittagong Tribunal.
Going through the Chittagong arms-case judgement, one would be amazed at the depth of investigation conducted by the prosecution, which surely would not have been possible without active cooperation from the leading intelligence agencies. The judgement provides details of the entire ISI network in Bangladesh at that time, and how it used Bangladesh agencies from faraway bases like Dubai to fuel terrorism against India. No judge can order former ministers and intelligence chiefs to gallows unless there is enough direct evidence of their connivance with a major crime like peddling illicit weapons. But the recent operations at Satcherri is evidence that Bangladesh agencies are not resting on their laurels — busting the network for illegal smuggling of weapons meant for buyers in India seems to be high priority for them.
The successful conclusion of the 2004 Chittagong arms case stands in sharp contrast to India’s failure to even conclusively unravel the mysteries of the 1995 Purulia arms-drop case. And while Bangladesh is preparing to hear out and hang those convicted, India is all butter-fingers when it comes to seeking the extradition of Nielsen. Bleach and the Latvian pilots have already gone home, pardoned by the Indian president. Neither Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government nor Manmohan Singh’s took any real interest to crack the Purulia case. Some TV channels occasionally put up Nielsen and Bleach ‘exclusively’ on their screens for some cheap sensation-mongering without any idea that these crooks were smartly using Indian media space to plead innocence and confuse investigations. Narendra Modi is said to be interested in seeking a fresh investigation in the Purulia arms-drop. Nothing would be more welcome. It takes a strong political will to crack such cases that have so much bearing on national security.