Bangladeshi Immigrants Stoke Terror in India

Investigations into the serial terrorist blasts that killed 80 and injured 216 in the northern Indian tourist city of Jaipur Tuesday point to the Bangladesh-based terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Indian intelligence officials say. The trademark style of the attack as well as the local context in Jaipur adds weight to suspicions on the part of the security agencies that Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami is the lead perpetrator, they say.

A day after the blasts, an unknown group calling itself the homegrown 'Indian Mujahideen' released an email claiming responsibility, depicting them as acts of reveng for injustices committed against India's Muslim minorities. However, the Hindustan Times quoted intelligence sources saying that “It is now almost certain that the Jaipur blasts were caused by the HuJI module responsible for the serial blasts in Uttar Pradesh last year." Intelligence Bureau officers told the newspaper that the email had been sent in an attempt to throw authorities off the trail.

The slums around the walled city of Jaipur are known to be thickly populated by illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and are believed by Indian intelligence agencies to be sheltering Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami terrorists. Security alerts had been issued by India’s central authorities to the Rajasthan state government against Bangladeshi immigrants who they say have played crucial roles in abetting terrorist strikes in other parts of the country.

The choice of May 13 as the date to detonate the Jaipur bombs is being interpreted by Indian intelligence sources as a salvo fired by Islamist terrorists on the tenth anniversary of India’s nuclear tests, which heralded the country’s rise as a military power in Asia. Islamists depict India’s nuclear weapons as ‘Hindu bombs’ and have threatened to raid the country’s heavily-guarded nuclear installations.

Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, founded in 1992 with the assistance of Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front, seeks to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh and to assist in the formation of an international Islamic Caliphate. Its recruits, trained in coastal Bangladesh and on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, have attacked targets in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region and even as far afield as Chechnya.

As scrutiny of Pakistan’s jihadi organizations mounted after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami filled the gap by launching its own attacks in South and Central Asia. Abetted by permissive Islamist governments in Bangladesh, the organization’s cadre strength has risen to about 15,000. Since 2004, its name has been linked to most terrorist attacks that have taken place in distant corners of India, from New Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangalore to Varanasi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad.

Historical and demographic factors account for the Harkat’s focus on India. Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan from 1947 to 1971 and its security agenda was India-centric until it became independent. Antagonism between Pakistan and India since the partition of 1947 meant that the thrust of Islamist ideology in Bangladesh was anti-Indian from the time the British left a divided subcontinent.

New Delhi’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 briefly weakened the anti-India Islamists in what had been known as East Pakistan. However, the 1975 military coup in Dhaka and the subsequent alliance between the dictatorships of Bangladesh and Pakistan swung the pendulum back in favor of Islamist propaganda that India was the core obstacle to re-establishing Muslim rule in South Asia.

The fuelling of Islamist fundamentalism by military regimes in Dhaka and Islamabad in the 1980s and 1990s forged new ties between terrorist-cum-spiritual organizations of the two countries. Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, for instance, developed strong coordination and exchanges with its namesake in Bangladesh in a bid to impose sharia law throughout the region. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is said to be one of the lead financiers of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, many of whose operational commanders have been educated in Pakistani madrassas.

The upward trajectory of India’s economy over the last 15 years has generated an increasing pull on destitute Bangladeshis wishing to improve their living conditions by crossing the border. There are an estimated 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh residing in India. Bangladeshi migration into India is somewhat comparable to that on the Mexico-United States border. Rich households and labor contractors in eastern Indian states reap profits by encouraging Bangladeshi migration, a la orchard owners in the American South who want open borders to attract cheap labor. The difference, however, lies in the fact that many Bangladeshi migrants gravitate towards Islamist outfits with undisguised terrorist intentions. Upon arrival in India, they become natural havens for Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami terrorists owing to linguistic affinity and shared heritage of radical Islamism.

The Jaipur terrorist attacks ironically took place in the wake of significantly improved relations between India and Bangladesh. In February 2008, the military-backed caretaker government in Dhaka sent Bangladesh’s Army Chief General Moeen Ahmed to India on a high profile visit that was hailed by New Delhi as a new chapter in neighborly bonhomie, consecrated by the gift of six thoroughbred horses to Moeen by his Indian counterpart. (See Asia Sentinel, 12 March 2008 )

Apart from boosting defense ties, according to Bangladesh’s leading newspaper, The Daily Star, New Delhi “took the opportunity to apprise Moeen on its concerns over ‘illegal civilian migration’ from Bangladesh.” The terrorist outrage in Jaipur this week raises questions over how effective Moeen’s visit was in terms of tackling the immigration menace. It also shows that the crux of the problem lies not as much in Bangladesh’s internal politics and economic deprivation as in the permissiveness towards illegal immigration in Indian political circles.

Even if General Moeen kept his part of the bargain with India on reining in Islamists or curbing the exodus of emigrants from Bangladesh, India’s chaotic democratic melee defeats the whole exercise by dangling magnets at the very elements that are terrorizing the country. The painting of Jaipur, known as the ‘Pink City’, in red blood by suspected Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami terrorists is ultimately a reminder of the compromised ‘softness’ of the Indian state and its provincial branches that border Bangladesh.

Sreeram Chaulia is an analyst of international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York.