Combating Islamist militancy has already emerged as the top-most priority to every country in the world. If we look into Nigeria or some of the African nations, we can clearly witness how militancy groups like Boko Haram are already posing a grave threat of hijacking power by replacing democracy with Caliphate. In Asia, we can take the example of the Philippines where President Rodrigo Duterte is struggling in fighting Abu Sayyaf jihadists in the Mindanao Province. Philippine’s economy and its tourism industry already are affected by the Islamist militancy. Unless President Duterte succeeds in defeating Abu Sayyaf, the fate of the people of this country may ultimately go into the hands of Islamists, which would be terribly horrifying.
Sheikh Hasina’s goodwill towards India:
With President Donald Trump visibly implementing a phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, India has good reason to worry over intensified Islamist militancy by the Taliban and other Pakistan-backed proxies who may not only jeopardize Indian interests in Afghanistan but turn their gaze on Kashmir. The Indian security establishment is bracing for heightened militancy in Kashmir in 2019. At the same time, India may witness a sudden rise of a notorious jihadist group named AQIS (Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent) as well as terrorist groups in its northeastern states. Pakistani spy agency may take the fullest advantage of this situation in implementing its notorious desire of devastating India.
In such a scenario, can India afford a fresh spell of intense militancy in the troubled northeast? The answer is no.
Ethnic militancy has dropped in the northeast since 2009 after Sheikh Hasina came to power and ordered a tough crackdown on all northeastern guerrillas and ISI-backed Islamist militants who were operating from Bangladesh during the BNP-Jamaat regime (2001-2006). The pro-talks faction of the ULFA and the Daimary faction of the NDFB are on the table because their leaders were nabbed and handed over to India on Sheikh Hasina’s explicit orders. The decimated rebel groups in Tripura and Meghalaya have also seemingly given up on armed struggle after the crackdown in Bangladesh. ULFA’s Paresh Barua, in hiding reportedly somewhere on the Sino-Burmese or Sino-Nepalese border, was keenly awaiting Sheikh Hasina’s ouster from power during the December 30, 2018 general election to make a comeback in Bangladesh, where he now faces a death penalty for his involvement in the 2004 Chittagong arms case (whose verdict was announced after Hasina returned to power).
Sheikh Hasina’s zero tolerance against terror and her determination not to allow her soil to be used by the enemies of India is as crucial to contain, if not defeat, the insurgencies in the northeast as it is to crush Islamist militancy in her own country.
Since ISI remains the chief patron of all these radical armed groups, denial of operational space to Pakistani intelligence in Bangladesh remains a strategic imperative for Indian policymakers, as ‘kicking Pakistan out of the East’ was for Indira Gandhi in 1971. The 1971 creation of Bangladesh was a defining moment in the containment of northeastern insurgencies, as it was for India’s emergence as the prima donna in South Asia.
Apart from security concerns, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also addressed India’s connectivity needs. Use of Bangladesh ports and her land territory to access northeast will now make it far easier for India to pursue its ‘Act East’ policy. That India had to go for the much more expensive and not yet implemented Kaladan Multi-Modal project to access northeast through Myanmar earlier in the century was because the Khaleda Zia or more precisely anti-India bloc BNP-Jamaat coalition regime in Dhaka was not willing to play ball with India.
Sheikh Hasina’s challenges ahead:
It is clearly understood, Pakistan and its allies in Bangladesh may not sit idle digesting the humiliating defeat of Pakistan-friendly Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat e Islami. There will be series of conspiracies against Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina both from Pakistani ISI as well as other anti-India forces. It is not unlikely that Pakistan will now become desperate in bringing-down Awami League from power by playing any dangerous card. Pakistan and Jamaat may intensify its diplomatic desperations in the West and increase its budget for hiring lobbyists and even buying politicians. The reaction of some of the Western nations following the December 30 general election has in fact already ring the bell. Under such a crucial situation, it will be totally unwise for Indian policymakers in not immediately coming in defence of Sheikh Hasina openly. Indian media in particular and those anti-militancy media in the world also need to extend support to Sheikh Hasina and confront that fabricated propaganda against her, for the sake of saving this region from going into the grips of Islamist militants.
Rajesh Bhushan is a security analyst