Common threat, conflicting theories
by J Sri Raman on 12 Mar 2009 2 Comments

Terrorism in South Asia may take a long time to prompt formation of a regional task force against the threat, as officially proposed by Bangladesh. But it has already yielded many mystery thrillers. The Mumbai outrage of November 26-29, 2008, which claimed 173 lives, still remains unsolved on many scores. Even while cooperation on the case between the rulers of India and Pakistan stays in the realm of remote possibilities, the subcontinent has suffered two more major strikes of terrorism.

One must know South Asia intimately to imagine the impact of the latest of such attacks to be reported from Lahore, the most sophisticated city of Pakistan. Tuesday morning [3 March], terrorists opened fire on a team of cricketers from Sri Lanka touring Pakistan and travelling to the venue of a five-day match that was halfway in progress. Six of the players were injured (none critically), while five policemen were killed. The breaking news pushed all other headlines far behind in a region where cricket is often said to be “a religion,” where the game is at least the opiate of the great masses.

The shock was the greater for the fact that the Lankans were among the more likable of the world cricketing fraternity. The attack was all the more unexpected because Sri Lanka had sent its team as “a goodwill gesture,” after India, Australia and the West Indies had scrapped plans to send theirs, citing security concerns. And this was the first-ever of such incidents in the annals of “the gentleman's game.”

The cruel blow to South Asian cricket, which may never quite be the same again, came a week after the outbreak of a mutiny in a paramilitary force of Bangladesh. On February 25, soldiers of the Bangla Desh Rifles (BDR), a border security force, went berserk. They claimed to be agitating for parity of pay and working conditions with their counterparts in the Bangladesh Army, but the revolt went out of control rapidly.

Bangladesh, which had only returned to democracy after two years of army-backed rule, and its newly elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed were shocked on the morrow of the revolt to discover mass graves containing the decomposed bodies of 76 army officers (assigned to command BDR units). Hasina, who had originally offered a general amnesty to the mutineers, hastened to modify the offer drastically and to order an inquiry into the whole affair.

The most conspicuous outcomes of both cases of terrorism have consisted in a clutch of conspiracy theories. Conflicting whodunits are what the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh are being offered in place of clear answers to questions about the crimes and action based on them.

In Pakistan's case, militant groups associated with al-Qaeda are the main suspects, certainly to the section of opinion concerned over their rise in the recent period and the threat they pose to regional peace. Leading Lahore-based newspaper Daily Times pinpoints the Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in this regard, recalling that, in May 2002, a New Zealand cricket team abandoned its tour of Pakistan after an LeJ suicide bomber attacked it in front of its hotel in Karachi.

Mass-circulated daily Dawn tied up the terrorist strike with Islamabad's attempts at a truce with these groups. It said: “(The) assault ... highlights the folly of negotiating with those bent on destroying our way of life. The peace deal, or capitulation, in Swat has been described by officialdom as a regional solution to a regional problem.... Militancy and terrorism are national problems that are not confined to a specific region.”

India's government-friendly media have blamed Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), with its Kashmir background and Qaeda links, for the Lahore attack, as they did for the Mumbai outrage as well. Ahmed Rashid, the Lahore-based author of the recent best-seller “Descent into Chaos” about Pakistan's struggle against militants, has said the attackers were almost certainly part of this “extremist network.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has argued that the attack must be the handiwork of forces opposed to Pakistan-Sri Lanka friendship. The point is at least as pertinent as the one made before by others about Mumbai as a strike at the India-Pakistan peace process. The logical corollary to the Gilani line would shift the blame onto the two best-known foes of this “friendship” - New Delhi and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka's own terrorists. Official India's concern over Pakistan's offer of military ties to Sri Lanka against the Tiger militancy is not a closely guarded secret.

Gen. (retired) Hameed Gul, a former chief of the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has accused India of “trying to weaken Pakistan” through the terrorist assault. He told a local TV channel that “India wanted to declare Pakistan a terrorist state and the firing on the Sri Lankan team was related to that conspiracy.”

Gul may not be a glittering example of credibility on such subjects. But if some others too see “a foreign hand,” a formula for India, behind the attack, a big share of the blame must go to hawks on the other side of the border as well. After the Kabul blast of July 2008, India's National Security Adviser, M. K. Narayanan, declared: “We should pay them (the ISI) back in their own coin.” The media briefed by India's mandarins then threateningly recalled reprisals of this kind carried out by India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the External Affairs Ministry, in the eighties.

As for the LTTE, Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, has refused to rule out the group's involvement in the Lahore attack. The Tigers, said to be losing their 30-year-old war for a separate state for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamils, recently carried out an air raid on the headquarters of the country's air force. They were seen as sending out a signal about their capacity to survive and strike back. The assault on the cricketers could well have been a second attempt with the same aim.

According to some other sources, the attack could have been mounted by Qaeda-linked militant group Markat-u-Mujahideen, with which the LTTE had been allegedly associated during the eighties and nineties in trafficking drugs and arms.

According to Lahore-based journalist Ali Sethi, street-level observers see the hand of their own government as well in the attack. A typical reaction cited by him is: “... this was done to show the Indians that we in Pakistan are also the victims of terrorism.” Subscribers to this theory see evidence in its favour in the dismal level of police efficiency that let all the assailants get away in mere rickshaws! The theories about the BDR revolt in Bangladesh also reveal a tantalizing diversity. The most prominent among them sees the mutiny as an attempt to provoke the army and deal yet another blow to the country's oft-disrupted democracy. Hasina's initial offer of general amnesty to the mutineers was seen as helping such a conspiracy.

Harsh Pant of the Washington-based International Relations and Security Network (ISN) writes: “The army may have temporarily moved out of politics, but such incidents might give it an excuse to reclaim an active role.”

Pant, like many other observers, suggests the involvement of Islamist extremists in such attempts at sabotaging Bangladesh's hard-regained democracy. As he puts it, “In the absence of political participation, mosques have become central in shaping the domestic political discourse. A politicised military is a grave danger to the underpinnings of a constitutional democracy and Pakistan's example should be enough of a warning for Bangladesh not to go down that route.”

A more direct involvement of Pakistan in the mutiny has also been more than hinted at. Quite a few analysts connect the revolt to the proposal of the Hasina government to hold trials for “war crimes” and to punish the pro-Pakistan collaborators of 1971 who are still suspected to nurse covert links with Islamabad. The Gilani government, according to these sources, was so concerned over the coming trials that it sent special envoy Zia Ispahani to Dhaka to discuss the issue and dissuade the Hasina regime.

The involvement of anti-India forces, if not Pakistan directly, is implied in reports about the association of businessman Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury, a member of parliament close to opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), with the revolt. He has been named before in reports alleging use of his transport company for supply of arms to separatist groups in India's north-east region.

Some observers also see significance in the fact that the revolt followed the reported compliance of Dhaka with New Delhi's request of deportation of Indian separatist leader Anup Chetia. He has been in a Bangladesh jail since 1996 and has now made a formal plea for asylum in order to avoid deportation.

Anti-India theories are in circulation as well. One of them says that the mutiny was staged as a “revenge” for the death of 19 soldiers of India's Border Security Force (BSF) after their alleged “intrusion” into Bangladesh in 2001. It is also charged that the mutiny was aimed at forcing Dhaka to accept an Indian proposal - for a “peace mission” to protect the Kolkata-Dhaka Friendship Train introduced on April 14, 2008. Opponents of the proposal see it as a ploy to set up an “occupation force” on Bangladesh soil.

The rulers of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh never tire of talking about terrorism as a common threat and indulging in rhetoric about meeting it collectively. It is difficult, in reality, to find a more divisive issue in the region. This makes terrorism in South Asia a far greater tragedy than mere figures about its grisly consequences show.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author of “Flashpoint“ (Common Courage Press, USA). Courtesy Truthout


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