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ULFA’s ISI Links via Dhaka

POSTED ON JULY 2, 2009

WASBIR HUSSAIN
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE STUDIES

It’s now official—northeastern India’s dreaded separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has always been enjoying the patronage of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) with high ranking officials in the Bangladesh security establishment providing the vital bridge between the two. ULFA’s Islamabad-Dhaka linkages have been established with the May 16, 2009 arrest of two former chiefs of Bangladesh’s main spy agency, the National Security Intelligence (NSI), Maj Gen (retd) Rezzaqul Haider Chowdhury and Brig Gen (retd) M Abdur Rahim. The duo, who had been director generals of the NSI, were held for their alleged involvement in the 2004 haul in Chittagong of ten truckloads of arms and ammunition meant for the ULFA.

The magnitude of the case can be gauged by the size of the arms haul at the secured jetty of the Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Ltd on the night of April 1-2, 2004. The consignment included 27,000 grenades, 150 rocket launchers, 1100 sub-machine guns, and more than one million rounds of ammunition. An NSI director (security), Wing Commander (retd) Sahabuddin Ahmed, who has also been arrested in the same case, has confessed before interrogators that both the former NSI chiefs helped transport the deadly consignment to Bangladesh from China. Reports originating from Bangladesh say the consignment was brought in a ship owned by a lawmaker of former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which was in power then. A former Bangladesh Army Major, identified as Liakat, had apparently supervised the off-loading of the cargo at the Chittagong jetty. Major Liakat was then a deputy director at the NSI. The Major was identified by two sergeants on June 4, 2009 at a court in Chittagong as the man who had supervised the off loading of the arms consignment.

The arrested Bangladeshi intelligence officials have disclosed to interrogators as well as the court that the ISI and the Dubai-based ARY business group, owned by a Pakistani national, had financed and arranged for the arms consignment that was destined to ULFA insurgents in Assam. The Daily Star, a leading Dhaka daily, has quoted unnamed officials as referring to statements by Abdur Rahim and Wing Commander Shahabuddin Ahmed saying the ARY group and the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka financed the consignment of weapons for the ULFA with ISI assistance.

Reports from Dhaka and Chittagong, quoting confessional statements of the arrested Bangladeshi officials and court proceedings, say the then director (Counter-Intelligence Bureau) of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), another intelligence agency in Bangladesh, Rezzaqul Haider, who later succeeded Abdur Rahim as the NSI chief, was among those who had close links with ULFA military chief Paresh Barua who used the name 'Ahmed' to hide his identity.

“Rezzaqul took Paresh (Ahmed) to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in Dhaka to meet Sahabuddin Ahmed,” Bangladesh media quoted Public Prosecutor Kamal Uddin as telling a court hearing, quoting Sahabuddin's confessional statement. The Public Prosecutor said the two former NSI chiefs had not only refrained from protecting the country's interest but also acted against the country by helping in the arrangement of transport of the consignment of illegal arms and ammunition.

The BNP government had almost succeeded in hushing up the case for almost three years although there were media reports at that time about the arms haul destined to the ULFA. Things changed after the Army-backed caretaker government slapped emergency in the country on January 11, 2007. For the record, Brigadier General (Retd) Abdur Rahim, then a retired Army officer, was appointed to the top NSI job by the BNP-led coalition government. He was succeeded by Major General (Retd) Rezzaqul Haider who was, however, removed immediately after emergency was clamped by the Army-backed government. The case was reopened after the supposedly India-friendly Awami League of Sheikh Hasina returned to power in Bangladesh in December 2008.

It is not surprising that the government of Sheikh Hasina has decided to pursue the case that has actually exposed the links between a section of Bangladesh’s security establishment with the ULFA, a claim made by New Delhi for years now. Soon after her party’s thumping victory at the December 2008 national elections, Sheikh Hasina had talked of combating terror jointly in South Asia and had even mooted a joint anti-terror task force to tackle terrorism in the South Asian region. One is not surprised, therefore, to find Bangladesh’s State Minister for Home Tanjim Ahmad Sohel Taj saying after the NSI officials’ arrest that “anyone linked to the incident using political identity, government position and state mechanisms will be brought to book and the government will not spare anyone.”

By trying to crack the case and book those officials who had exceeded their brief in trying to assist an outlawed separatist group in neighboring Northeast India, the Awami League regime in Dhaka wants to accomplish two things—bring relations with India back on track and assure the international community that it won’t allow Bangladesh to remain a global terror hub. Dhaka has obviously realised that backing, encouraging or remaining indifferent to terror groups operating from within the country has the potential to turn against the government ruling the nation as is the case in the neighbourhood, particularly Pakistan.

In recent years, New Delhi and Dhaka have maintained a hot-and-cold relationship, largely defined by who has been in power in Bangladesh— either the seemingly secular Awami League, or the conservative BNP. To a dispassionate observer of South Asian politics, however, India-Bangladesh relations have more specifically been held hostage to the bitter ‘battle of the begums’, between Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina and BNP supremo Khaleda Zia. Either way, both parties have found it to their benefit to pursue a policy against India.

The Awami League had in the past sought to shake off its pro-India image to please the domestic audience, by not coming out with proactive measures for improving ties with New Delhi. The BNP on the other hand has been more open in its anti-India posturing. Under both parties in Dhaka, New Delhi had earlier received very little cooperation on matters of illegal migration, or shelter for the Northeast insurgents who India says operate out of 200 or more camps inside Bangladesh. Furthermore, Dhaka has regularly continued to deny India transit facilities from West Bengal through Bangladesh, to service its landlocked northeastern states.

Now, it appears that the Awami League government in Dhaka wants to be seen as a regime that is decisive and one that is bent on improving ties with India. As the larger and more powerful neighbour, India is in a position to cut some ice with the regime, by taking unilateral, proactive action on a few particular issues. New Delhi can demonstrate its support to Dhaka’s battle against militancy by rounding up Bangladeshi criminal elements who may be operating from India’s border areas. Towards this end, Dhaka has already been regularly furnishing the names of such criminals to Indian officials, just as India has been providing Dhaka with details of Indian militants said to be operating from within Bangladesh.

But the most important area where New Delhi needs to intervene is in correcting the balance of trade between the two countries, which has long been weighted heavily against Bangladesh. In 2001-02, Bangladesh’s exports to India were a meagre USD 50.2 million, while imports from India that year stood at more than USD 1 billion. That trade imbalance continues, with Bangladesh’s exports to India in 2005-06 standing at USD 251.6 million, and imports from India going up to nearly USD 1.8 billion during that period. Part of this process is already underway, and offers an immediate opportunity for the Indian government. Since mid-2006, India has offered duty-free import of seven new items from Bangladesh, and promised to do away with duty on 4200 additional items within three years. Time is right now for New Delhi to reach out to Dhaka and remove the trust deficit between the two sides, although both nations would not like to admit there was any trust deficit at all.