On October 2, as most of West Bengal was engrossed in the annual five-day Durga Puja celebrations, mayhem reigned in a house in Khagragore in the district of Burdwan. Two deaths and several arrests later, investigations revealed that what had sounded like an LPG cylinder explosion to neighbours, was actually an accidental blast caused by the workings of a terror outfit with roots in Bangladesh.Officials now believe that the group intended to target members of Sheikh Hasina's government in Dhaka. Suddenly, the western border with Pakistan with its cross-border firing and insurgency seemed to pose less danger than the eastern one, that had seemed, at worst, too porous to check illegal immigration.
"I will not say that the eastern borders are neglected. But it is true that there is a dramatic failure of intelligence coming in from this region. I hope that after Doval's visit (national security advisor Ajit Doval visited the state on October 27), the state and the centre will work together on addressing these issues," says former Indian army chief, General (Retd.) Shankar Roychowdhury.
Security analysts believe that terrorist groups have been expanding their network in West Bengal for more than a decade. It has been alleged that madrasas, which do not have state recognition, are being used to spread these operations. The number of such institutes is believed to have increased. It has also been alleged that political parties with an eye on the minority vote bank have been supporting these madrasas. In the wake of the Burdwan blast, the union ministry of Home Affairs has sought a report from the state government about madrasas in the state. "Unrecognised madrasas should not be allowed to operate till formal recognition is issued from the state government," insists Sandhi Mukherjee, former inspector general of the state intelligence branch. In 2001, former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had alleged that many madrasas harboured terrorists.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee resisted the centre's intervention even after improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and jihadi literature was found in the house where the blast had taken place. She allowed the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to join the probe after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) insisted. According to NIA officials, a big concern here is the political support, covert or otherwise, that separatist elements seem to be receiving in the state. This makes them safe in districts such as Burdwan and Birbhum that have no borders with Bangladesh. Earlier, members of these terror outfits would mostly remain close to border districts such as Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia and North 24 Parganas, so they could quickly cross the border if they feared detection.
"There is enough proof that direct and indirect help from the ruling party has been provided to members of such terror groups. The police and administration have turned a blind eye to this," alleged Dipanjan Chakraborty, former National Security Guard (NSG) official. On June 13, a delegation of the BJP visited Sandeshkhali in West Bengal. Workers of the party had been attacked here earlier. The delegation sent a report to union home minister Rajnath Singh accusing the Trinamool of harbouring Jamaat-e-Islami (Bangladesh) elements in Bengal. Delegates alleged that some of these elements had also campaigned for the Trinamool in the Lok Sabha polls.
West Bengal's links with prominent terror-accused is not new. Indian Mujahideen founder member Yasin Bhatkal, was arrested in Kolkata in 2009 before being released, when officials of the West Bengal police failed to identify him. He was subsequently apprehended at the Indo-Nepal border in 2013. Another Indian Mujahideen senior leader, Amir Reza Khan, is from Kolkata. Expert bombmaker and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terror-accused Syed Abdul Karim Tunda is married to a girl from West Bengal.
Officials have, in the past, also intercepted explosives and ammunition being supplied to other states through West Bengal. But even if LeT and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami operatives have been using Bengal as a 'safe' corridor, the target of their attacks till now had always been other parts of India. This is the first time that authorities have uncovered a terror network, involving Bangladeshi infiltrators, who are planning to strike east.
The NIA is almost convinced that the terror network was working on a plan to eliminate Sheikh Hasina. Bilateral relations with Bangladesh have been choppy after Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee openly opposed the Teesta water-sharing deal and exchange of enclaves with her eastern neighbour.
The subsequent discovery of this terror plot makes the situation uncomfortable for the ruling Trinamool government. "The border with Pakistan has always been a hotbed of action. China, too, has a menacing presence in the north. Ironically, our eastern neighbour was the only country that was trying to bust terror camps that worked against India," rues Chakraborty. After the Burdwan incident, there is little hope of support from even that quarter. "The Sheikh Hasina regime cracked down on terror bases and organisations in Bangladesh be it the Jamat-ul-Mujahideen, Bangladesh, or any other factions. While India has sometimes alleged Bangladesh territory was being used for anti-Indian activities, in Bengal somewhat of a reverse situation exists where Bengal's soil is being used to target the Hasina regime," said General (Retd) Shankar Roychowdhury.
When Ajit Doval met Mamata Banerjee
On Monday (October 27), Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor (NSA), met West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at Nabanna, the state secretariat. He had also visited the Khagragore blast spot in Burdwan prior to his meeting with the chief minister. Doval was accompanied by the director general (DG) of National Security Guards (NSG) Jayanta Narayan Chowdhury, DG of National Investigation Agency (NIA), Sharad Kumar and special secretary of union home ministry (Internal Security), Prakash Mishra.
Chief secretary, Sanjay Mitra, home secretary, Basudeb Bandopadhyay, DGP, GMP Reddy, Kolkata police commissioner, Surjit Kar Purkaystha, additional DG (law & order) Shibaji Ghosh and inspector general (law & order), Anuj Sharma were among those who accompanied the chief minister.
Reportedly, at the meeting, Doval highlighted the problem of terror and its international significance with Bangladesh in focus. The NSA communicated to the chief minister the Prime Minister's message urging the state to cooperate with the central investigation.
The fact that Bengal's territory was being used by jihadis to uproot the Sheikh Hasina government and target her personally was communicated to Banerjee. Sources said that officers pointed out Jalpaiguri as the next terror stop in the state, even as the focus of the administration was trained on the border districts of Murshibabad, Malda, Nadia, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas, besides Burdwan and Birbhum. The chief minister assured the NSA that all possible help would be provided.
The central officers highlighted how ill equipped and ill trained state forces were in handling cross-border terrorism. The question of better co-ordination and intelligence sharing among state and central agencies was also discussed.
Look back on Burdwan
On October 2, residents of Khagragore in Burdwan town heard a loud explosion in a two-storied building, which had been given on rent. Initially, locals thought an LPG cylinder had exploded causing the sound. Soon personnel from fire and emergency services rushed to the spot. They were not allowed to enter the flat.
From inside the flat, a women warned that anyone who tried to enter would be shot. When officers of the Burdwan police force reached the spot, they forced their way in by breaking the door. Three men were found lying in a pool of blood and two women with two babies (both about a year old) were trying to burn papers, destroy SIM cards and wipe the blood from the floor. Of the three injured, one was found to have died on the spot. He was identified as Shakil Ahmed. Two were taken to hospital.
One of them, identified as Sobhan Mondal, died shortly afterwards. The third person, Abdul Hakim, was shifted to Kolkata's SSKM hospital and is being treated for injuries to the leg. He is yet to be handed over to the NIA. The police found IEDs, jihadi literature, a good number of SIM cards and a chip, that had the attack on the World Trade Centre downloaded on it. It was found out that the men and women were Jamaat-ul-Mujahidden members, a banned terrorist outfit of Bangladesh (JMB). They were making explosives to launch attacks in Bangladesh and planned to eliminate Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
On October 11, the NIA started investigating the case. Assisted by NSG explosive experts, the NIA conducted raids across Burdwan and from a house on Badsahi Road, found about 39 IEDs. The CID had sealed the premises of the house a few days prior to the NIA raid, after failing to find anything at the place.
Ground reports from the Bangla border
Following the Burdwan incident, theNIA conducted raids in houses and madrasas in Lalgola, Murshidabad, Karimpur and Nadia. These districts in West Bengal share borders with Bangladesh and have been known to serve as entry-exit points for terrorists. Lalgola is also a hub of heroin-making and smuggling, and is presently under the radar of both state and central security agencies. After the October 2 incident, the BSF has increased its vigil, but sources say that cross-border infiltration continues.
There is little change in ground reality in places along the semi-porous, unfenced sections of the border, including riverine areas, where smuggling and trafficking are common. Private madrasas, unrecognised by the state, continue in districts such as Burdwan, Birbhum, South and North 24 parganas. There has been no initiative from the state government to scrutinize these outfits. Sources in the districts told Hindustan Times that jihadi elements have been told to lie low with some of them making their way to Bihar and Bangladesh after the Burdwan incident. Tension between communities is on the rise.
Clashes have erupted in Kaliachak of Malda (on October 28-29) where curfew had to be imposed in three police station areas. Meanwhile, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, the largest organisation that controls nearly 1,000 madrasas in Bengal held agitations in the districts alleging that the minority community and its institutions are being persecuted.