Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat
THE Indian government’s diplomatic outreach following the abrogation of Article 370 has ensured that almost all countries, except Pakistan and to some extent China, have accepted the stand that the Kashmir issue is an internal matter of India. As regards the humanitarian impact of the security clampdown in the Valley, some countries and the UN, while expressing concern, have chosen to give the Indian government some more time for the situation to normalise and for clarity to emerge on the way forward.
Not surprisingly, Pakistan came out stridently against the Indian move to abrogate Article 370 and sought to internationalise the Kashmir issue by approaching the UN and Western powers. However, given Pakistan’s track record of practising democracy and respecting human rights, its attempt to speak on these subjects on behalf of the Kashmiri people may find little traction. Therefore, what should be of concern to India are Pakistan’s efforts to capitalise on the Kashmir situation and promote terrorism directed against India.
In this context, Pakistan’s outreach to its erstwhile constituent, Bangladesh, following the Indian move on J&K, is noteworthy.
This is especially significant given the recent frosty diplomatic relations between the two countries, largely attributable to the War Crimes Tribunal (WCT) verdicts, and the clampdown on ISI activities in Bangladesh. The WCT reopened the wounds of the 1971 liberation war and the sordid chapter of the Pakistan army’s complicity in using its proxies in the genocide during that period. Some of these henchmen later joined the political mainstream by becoming members of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Jamaat.
The relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan reached a new low in 2015 when officials of the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka were caught and expelled due to their direct involvement in pushing fake currency notes and funding Islamist terror organisations, such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), and Jamaat.
The relations between the two countries soured further when, in October 2018, Bangladesh refused to accept Pakistan’s new High Commissioner to Dhaka. Further, in May this year, the Bangladesh High Commission in Dhaka stopped processing visa applications of Pakistani nationals on the ostensible ground of shortage of staff.
Against this backdrop, it was indeed a matter of astonishment that Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi contacted his Bangladesh counterpart AK Abdul Momen on September 5 to discuss the Indian action in Kashmir. The Pakistan Prime Minister also spoke to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the eve of her visit to New Delhi on October 3 with a similar agenda in mind.
The Pakistan government’s move in biting the bullet underscores the importance it accords to its overtures to Bangladesh vis-à-vis its current strategy on Kashmir. The Pakistani deep state is quite happy that its political and diplomatic leadership engages in rhetoric on the Kashmir situation while it pursues a more sinister agenda, much like the cover fire the Pakistani army provides to infiltrating terrorists.
Notably, in the midst of Pakistan’s diplomatic exertions in different parts of the world, including in Bangladesh, evidence has now emerged of a member of the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B) returning to Dhaka, tasked to stitch up a team to carry out anti-India activities, capitalising on the Kashmir situation and stirring up emotions on the basis of stories of the plight of Muslims there. Last month, the anti-terror squad of the Dhaka police managed to arrest HUJI-B operative Mohammed Atiquallah, an Afghan war veteran and IED specialist who had fled to Saudi Arabia via Dubai in 2006 and was motivated to return to Bangladesh by his handlers in Dubai. In the past, Atiquallah had travelled to Pakistan on several occasions.
The resurfacing of the HUJI-B is particularly disturbing as this organisation epitomised the close nexus between politics and extremism in Bangladesh. The HUJI-B was complicit in carrying out the August 2004 grenade attack on Awami League leaders, including Sheikh Hasina. Its leader Mufti Hannan had confessed to having met, days before the attack, Tarique Rahman, son of the then Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and current acting chairman of the BNP. Interestingly, in May 2008, during the time of the military-backed caretaker government, the Bangladesh intelligence agency, Directorate General Forces Intelligence (DGFI), had floated a political party called the Islamic Democratic Front (IDP) which largely comprised HUJI-B members.
As is well known, despite a pro-India Awami League government in Dhaka for over a decade, there still exists a sizeable section of radicalised and anti-India elements in Bangladesh. So much so, that even the Awami League has periodically shed its secular credentials and tried to project itself as an upholder of puritanical Islam and sought to placate fundamentalist outfits such as the Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI). It is this constituency that Pakistan seeks to tap in its quest to rejuvenate anti-India terror and radical groups in Bangladesh.
As per its reckoning, such a tactic would serve the twin purpose of reviving the disarrayed opposition BNP and Jamaat in Bangladesh by providing them a rallying issue, and at the same time set up a network to carry out operations against India.
The protests by the HeI at the Baitul Mukkaram mosque in Dhaka on August 24, and the earlier pre-Id rally by Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB) are ominous signs. In the HeI rally, its leader Nur Hossain Kashemi had declared that “the Kashmir issue is a crisis not just for Kashmiris but for Bangladesh as well.” In earlier protests, IAB leaders confirmed giving a memorandum to the Awami League government, urging it to come out against the developments in Kashmir.
However, going beyond the Pakistan-sponsored rhetoric on the developments in Jammu and Kashmir, what poses a direct security challenge to the Indian establishment is the possibility of the revival of terror outfits such as the HUJI-B that were earlier painstakingly neutralised with the active cooperation of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government. Also, attempts by Pakistan to leverage the Kashmir issue to once again play a role in Bangladesh politics is yet another threat to the peaceful growth of Bangladesh and stability in the region. Therefore, keeping a close eye on developments there is a critical necessity in order to prevent Pakistan from arousing the latent pan-Islamic sentiments in the only other Muslim-majority country in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
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