Easterly winds

The Kolkata rally of March 31 should transmit disturbing warnings to the authorities of a possible fundamentalist renaissance brewing in West Bengal

Monsoon clouds had not yet gathered over Kolka-ta, but political outriders had already manifested themselves in the city as early as March 31 in the form of a large, well organised “gathering of minorities” at the Shaheed Minar in Kolkata Maidan to voice resentment against Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, for instituting war crimes trials in Dhaka against Razakars who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in committing horrific atrocities on the local population during the War of Liberation in 1971.

Members of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) faced trial courts and their leaders like Abdul Qader Mollah and Delawar Hossain Sayeedi were sentenced to life imprisonment and death respectively. During the proceedings, street battles erupted between the police and supporters of the Hefazat-e-Islam, a hitherto unknown fundamentalist organisation which has suddenly assumed a major presence in that country. The Hefazat seems to be closely associated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and succeeded in paralysing life in Dhaka, Chittagong and other important towns in Bangladesh through general strikes, street battles and incidents of arson.
Events in Bangladesh are an internal concern of that country, but a matter of extreme concern for India as well, because they were re-enacted in Kolkata on March 31 where speakers vociferously attacked Ms Hasina for her “un-Islamic” action of instituting war crimes trials against members of the Jamaat-e-Islami and other fundamentalist organisations.
These reports are not good news for West Bengal or India and should transmit disturbing warnings to the authorities of a possible fundamentalist renaissance brewing in West Bengal.
The organisation behind the Kolkata rally was reportedly the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a fundamentalist organisation with strong roots in West Bengal, as well as transborder links with the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and the BNP led by Begum Zia. The BNP has been the principal sponsor of the fundamentalist revival in Bangladesh, which specially targets whatever religious minorities still remain in that country and their alleged loyalties to “Hindu” India.
Ms Hasina is a staunch secularist, known to be a friend of India, as she demonstrated recently by a series of official programmes organised in Dhaka in remembrance of the War of Liberation of 1971 and to honour the many “Friends of Bangladesh” from abroad who had protested the genocide in that country by the Pakistani military. It was a gracious and public acknowledgement of India’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh as well as an act of considerable personal courage, considering the virulent hatred towards Ms Hasina displayed by fanatical Bangladeshi fundamentalists and the many personal threats made against her. A large number of personalities from India had been invited to those gatherings where the goodwill for this country was evident.
A secular and friendly Bangladesh on India’s eastern border is absolutely vital for India’s own security, something which has been conspicuously absent under other regimes in that country. That is the reason the Indian leadership must appreciate the secular leadership of Ms Hasina and demonstrate strong and visible support for her efforts to maintain a non-communal regime in her country, now
under attack by communal organisations like the Hefazat.
At the March 31 Kolkata rally organised by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, ostensibly a social and charitable organisation working for the welfare of Muslim minorities, speakers referred to Ms Hasina’s trials of Razakars as “un-Islamic”. These are disturbing statements to be publicly articulated on Indian soil, and raise justifiable concerns about the antecedents and linkages of the organisers. They indicate a requirement for the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind to be kept under watch, because it would not be at all surprising if the organisation has been targeted for infiltration by virulent extremists from the Indian Mujahideen or the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). SIMI is known to be home-based in peninsular India, but nothing prevents them from extending to additional areas elsewhere as well, including West Bengal. In fact, such a process could already be under way, because under normal circumstances, the framework of democracy inhibits the capability of the state for strong and rapid remedial actions unless emergency conditions are declared.
Internal security needs of the country demand firm and uncompromising action whenever necessary, which is often easier said than done given the realities of the political environment. Minority support has always been a glittering electoral prize for all political parties, given the compulsions of competitive secularism and democracy.
That said, it must be noted that minorities also constitute the prime focus for psychological actions by hostile covert agencies and important targets for exploitation by extremists to create major civil unrest. This was graphically demonstrated not too long ago in Mumbai, where a meeting organised by a little-known minority organisation, the Raza Academy, to protest against communal riots in Assam quickly exploded into major civil disturbances which paralysed the city and rapidly spread to other major urban centres. Let a similar experience not be repeated in Kolkata, a major eastern metropolis of this country, with a long reputation for political volatility and communal sensitivity. The gathering in Kolkata has sent out clear warning signals on internal security which the authorities would do well to take note of, particularly in West Bengal as well as eastern India.
The Dhaka-Kolkata gatherings and their potential for repercussions within the country and the close neighbourhood demonstrated once again that the East, whether Bangladesh, or the eastern zone of India, remains India’s forgotten frontier. Notwithstanding current preoccupations with Coalgate and Railgate, New Delhi cannot afford to take its eyes off the internal security radars facing the East.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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