Pakistan’s Northeastern India Agenda

Lt. General Nadeem Taj, the current head of the ISI

Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, already accused of ongoing support for Islamist terrorism in Kashmir and Afghanistan, has been snagged in allegations that it is meddling in India’s troubled northeastern region.

Indian officials have long accused the ISI, as it is known, of fueling separatist movements in the northeast, aided by intelligence agencies from Bangladesh. However, on December 14, Indian police arrested a 35-year-old Bangladeshi identified as S.M. Alam and accused him of being a linchpin in a network of Pakistan-backed support for separatist groups. Using a string of aliases, including Mujibullah Alam and Asfi Alam, police officials say Alam was in charge of ISI operations in Assam state and across the northeast region. He is said to have been a member of both Jamati Islami and Chitra Shibir of Bangladesh as well as the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul Mujahideen.

Alam reportedly underwent training in a Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir before joining Jamatul Mujahideen, an outlawed Islamic group in Bangladesh, in 2005, after which he was said by police to have been recruited by the Pakistani intelligence service. Police claim he entered Assam in 2006. He had been under surveillance for several months before his arrest.

Through Alam, police told Asia Sentinel, the ISI funded as many as 24 violent militant organizations in the region. He is said to have engaged scores of operatives and sponsored indigenous armed groups, the biggest of which include the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Muslim Tiger Force of Assam, Muslim United Liberation Force of Assam, Muslim United Liberation Army and the United Muslim Front of Assam. Local militants, particularly ULFA, which was launched in 1979, have been blamed for numerous killings, explosions and kidnappings, for which they demand huge ransoms. Some of the region’s rebel groups are so small that intelligence officials have never identified them.

Certainly the poverty-stricken seven-state enclave, surrounded by Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh has been alienated for generations, accusing the central government of being interested only in exploiting the region’s natural resources. The region, with 50 million people, is home to India’s second largest Muslim population. Assam alone has 26 million, a sizeable number of them Muslim migrantss from Bangladesh.

An official of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations for the country’s armed forces said that the arrest of an ISI operative in Assam was “not in (his) knowledge.” Despite a promise to check and respond, neither he nor another official did so. Queries to the agency’s website went unanswered.

Indian security agencies say they have convincing evidence that the ISI has been sponsoring violence in other parts of India as well. Retired Indian Army Brigadier S.P. Sinha, who served in the northeast for decades, claims that Pakistan's ISI has a base in Bangladesh to launch anti-India operations. In his recent book, “Lost Opportunities: 50 years of Insurgency in the Northeast and India's Response,” Sinha writes that Pakistan shifted nearly 200 terrorist training camps from the Pakistani side of the Kashmir line to Bangladesh recently.

Allegations of Pakistani links to Northeastern militants have stirred concern in the Indian Parliament. “Available inputs indicate that some Indian insurgent groups active in the northeastern region have been using the territory of Bangladesh, and have links with Pakistan's ISI," Shriprakash Jaiswal, the junior minister of state for Home Affairs, told the upper house of India’s Parliament on December 5, before Alam was arrested. The minister, describing reports of alliances for tactical purposes among insurgent groups added that New Delhi had taken up the issue with Islamabad.

Earlier, Stratfor, a US-based think tank, reported on ULFA's increasing financial clout with Islamic militant groups. ULFA leaders, Sratfor said in a recent report, maintains a financial network with Pakistan's intelligence agency and “its financial enterprise and strong links with Islamist militant groups have made it a threat that New Delhi will not be able to ignore much longer.”

The report added that “though India has largely turned a blind eye to militant groups operating in its far-flung Northeast, the growing Islamization of the region provides more than enough reason for New Delhi to start paying closer attention to its Northeastern border.” It is an area, the think tank wrote, “where ideology, religion and ethnicity hold little or no regard, as each militant group works with another to promote its cause. ULFA, in particular, has shown a growing propensity to work with Islamist militant groups in the area, and has even begun to outsource operations.”

The Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi urged New Delhi to take up the issue of terrorist camps within neighboring countries — Bangladesh and Burma — and better patrol the porous international borders.