Ahead of 2021 Bengal polls, NIA arrest of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in state puts TMC in fix; BJP likely to cash in
According to Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, a former principal of Presidency College in Kolkata, the BJP will sharpen its campaign against the state government and the state’s ruling party will find itself in a defensive position.
Kolkata: On Saturday, within hours of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) announcing the arrest of six suspected Al Qaeda operatives from West Bengal’s Murshidabad – the district having India’s highest Muslim population (4.7 million in 2011) – the top Bengal leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), started taking digs at the state’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) government for allegedly allowing Bengal to turn into ‘a hub of jihadi activities’ for the sake of her ‘politics of vote-bank’.
“The arrests are a massive and sensitive issue with respect to national security,” BJP state unit president Dilip Ghosh said in a video message uploaded on his Facebook page on Saturday. “From Bangladeshi terrorists to operatives of SIMI (Students’ Islamic Movement of India), Al Qaeda, and the IS (Islamic State), these people find shelters in several districts of West Bengal. I have a hunch that the state government knowingly provides them shelter to reap political benefits.”
Ghosh alleged that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was not cooperating with the Centre in getting land for erecting fences along the porous borders with Bangladesh because terror operatives who sneak in from the neighbouring country work towards her political purpose.
“The TMC and the terrorists have a give and take policy. The TMC helps infiltrators get false nationality documents and now, the party is colluding with the Maoists and Islamic terrorists to eliminate their political opponents,” Ghosh later said.
Notably, the three others who were arrested from Ernakulam district in Kerala in a simultaneous raid by the NIA also hail from Murshidabad.
Over the past five years, Central and state agencies have arrested alleged operatives of the IS, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, or JMB, from the state. Bengal shares 2,217 kilometres of border with Bangladesh. Nearly half it remains unfenced to date.
In a press statement issued on Saturday, the NIA said that ‘large quantity of incriminating materials including digital devices, documents, jihadi literature, sharp weapons, country-made firearms, a locally fabricated body armour, articles and literature used for making home-made explosive devices’ had been seized from the possession of the arrested persons.
They were ‘radicalised by Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda terrorists on social media’ and ‘were motivated to undertake attacks at multiple places including the National Capital Region’, the NIA said, adding that they were ‘actively indulging in fundraising’ and that some of them had a plan to visit New Delhi procure arms and ammunition.
On Sunday, the BJP’s state unit general secretary Sayantan Basu upped the ante on the state government, saying the party had been rightly pointing out since 2014 that there was a plan to turn West Bengal into West Bangladesh.
“We warned that the government’s patronage of unregulated madrasahs was creating (Osama bin) Laden-factories. The latest arrests were of persons born and brought up here. We no longer have only terrorists who infiltrated from Bangladesh and got their (nationality) documents here but now we also have our homegrown ones, thanks to the chief minister’s policy of going to any extent to appease a community of 30 percent,” Basu said.
Bengal BJP leaders use ‘thirty percent’ usually to refer to Muslims, who made 27 percent of the state’s population, according to the Census of 2011.
The TMC tried to divert the salvos at the Centre. “The border is protected by the Border Security Force (BSF), which operates under the Union government. What were the BSF and other Central agencies doing when dangerous terrorists crossed over the borders?” TMC Lok Sabha MPs Sougata Roy asked. Kalyan Banerjee, also a Lok Sabha MP, echoed him.
However, political analysts and independent observers said the arrests were going to add to the BJP’s ammo for their political campaign in the run-up to the 2021 Assembly elections, as the spread of Islamic terror networks in the state has been one of the BJP’s key issues against the state government over the past six years.
The reaction of Sujan Chakraborty, the leader of the Left parties in the state Assembly, indicated that he apprehended the BJP would gain mileage from these arrests. “What was the state administration doing? Were they sleeping? Why are they giving opportunities to the Centre?” he asked.
Psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, said that the Murshidabad arrests were going to have ‘a far-reaching’ impact on the state’s politics ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections.
“Terror links to the state have helped the BJP since 2014 in building its campaign branding the Mamata Banerjee government as a patron of Islamic radicalism. Now, it’s time for their campaign to intensify,” the psephologist said.
Bengal’s link to cross-border terror organisations first came to the limelight in October 2014, when an accidental blast at Khagragarh in Burdwan district opened the lid of a flourishing network of JMB across the districts of Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan, and Nadia -- all having a significant Muslim population.
The JMB was banned in Bangladesh in 2005 and the investigation in the 2014 blast revealed some of Bangladesh’ most-wanted terrorists were building the organisation’s India networks staying in West Bengal over the past few years.
Soon after the revelation of JMB links to the Khagragarh blast, the BJP and other organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Jagran Manch — launched a sustained campaign seeking ‘jihadi-mukto Bangla’, or a Bengal free from Islamic terror operatives.
Since then the NIA, and the state police as well, made a series of arrests of operatives linked to the JMB’s pro-Al Qaeda faction and the pro-IS faction, from different Bengal districts. Some of them were associated with small, unregulated madrasahs is nondescript localities. Some of the blast accused were later arrested by authorities in Bangladesh after they crossed over to that country. Overall, more than two dozen JMB operatives, including Indian and Bangladeshi nationals, have been arrested from the state.
In 2017, the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS), or the highest decision-making body of the RSS, adopted a resolution expressing ‘grave concern over the unabated rise in violence by Jehadi elements in West Bengal, encouragement to the anti-national elements by the state government due to its Muslim vote bank politics’. The resolution called upon ‘the countrymen to create awareness against this Jihadi violence and communal politics of the state government’.
During the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 when the state witnessed widespread protests against the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), Bengal BJP leaders repeatedly cited terror operatives’ links with the state to justify their demand for a citizenship screening exercise to weed out infiltrators.
After Saturday’s arrests, Ajay Kumar Nandi, the eastern regional sanghachalak (president) of the RSS, said that the state government must take the responsibility for the mushrooming of terror networks.
“There should be a ceaseless flow of information between the state government and the Centre on terrorist activities. But there is no claim even on part of the state government that they supplied the Centre with any information. This is a question of national security and politics should have no part in influencing a government’s role. The state government will have to answer before the people,” Nandi said.
Political observers said they could foresee the political ramifications of the arrests. According to Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, a former principal of Presidency College in Kolkata, the BJP will sharpen its campaign against the state government and the state’s ruling party will find itself in a defensive position.
“The BJP has been saying for the past five-six years that Bengal has turned into a hub of terrorist activities due to Mamata Banerjee’s policies that encouraged infiltration. They also accused her of giving patronage to radical Islamists. Now, they will claim to be standing vindicated,” Mukhopadhyay said.
Biswanath Chakraborty said that the BJP will also look the exploit the issue projecting the rationality of the CAA and NRC.
“The TMC will remain quiet and take a soft stance, without committing itself to any position. They certainly do not want to be seen as acting against the national interest. However, the TMC is more than likely to launch a whispering campaign and make attempts to find a converging point with the voices that allege socio-economically backward Muslims are being unjustly targeted by the Centre,” Chakraborty said.
Recent rapid activities
The NIA stepped up its activities involving possible terror links to West Bengal in 2020. They have registered as many as six cases of suspected terrorist activities involving the state in this year, compared to only one each in 2016, 2015, and 2014. Most of the arrests of alleged JMB operatives that took place during 2014 and 2019 were connected to the accidental blast in Burdwan in 2014.
In April 2020, the NIA took over the investigation into the case of a 21-year-old women college student’s alleged links with Lashkar-e-Taiba. Tania Parvin, a resident of Baduria in North 24-Parganas district, an area bordering Bangladesh, was first arrested by the state police in March.
The second case that the NIA took over in April was regarding the discovery of a major illegal firecracker factory at Naihati area in North 24-Parganas district. A fire at the factory led to a blast, causing five deaths on the spot and leaving two others badly injured.
In May, the NIA took over a case of January 2020 in which the home of a Malda resident was found to be a storehouse of explosives. This storage, too, had come to the light after an explosion took place at the residence.
Early in September, the NIA took over the investigation into two cases from the state police. One of them was a one-year-old case of an explosion at the home of a resident of Birbhum district. The state police had started an investigation in September 2019. The other case, too, was of storage of explosives and crude bombs at the home of a Birbhum district resident. The state police had started an investigation in the previous month.
Besides, the special task force of Gujarat policed picked up a man from North 24-Parganas district in August for having LeT links.
The NIA also reopened an 11-year-old case against Chhatradhar Mahato, who served as a spokesperson of a Maoist-backed tribal outfit during 2008-09. He was released earlier this year after serving 10 years in jail and joined the TMC soon after. TMC leaders had alleged that the NIA was being used by the Centre to harass and intimidate Mahato. After facing the NIA’s grilling several times in August, Mahato has now been asked to appear before an NIA court.
Ranjit Sur, vice-president of Association for Protection of Human Rights (APDR), the state’s largest human rights organisation, said he suspects the NIA could be acting in the political interests of the BJP. He was expecting arrests of more persons from West Bengal with alleged terror links in the coming days, he said.
“We do not yet know much about the persons arrested from Murshidabad and Ernakulam. However, the role of NIA into the investigation of Maharashtra’s Elgar Parishad case and the recent reopening of a case against Chhatradhar Mahato prompts us to strongly suspect political interest behind NIA’s moves. It has come to our knowledge that the persons arrested from Murshidabad were associated with the movement against CAA. There are reasons to suspect that the arrests could be an attempt to weaken the anti-CAA movement,” Sur said.
Incidentally, Ghosh, too, spoke of the anti-CAA movement with reference to the Murshidabad arrests.
“Murshidabad turns out to be a hub of terrorists. From JMB to Al Qaeda, every terror group has a presence here. And it was Murshidabad where the anti-CAA movement took the most violent shape in the state. It appears that I had rightly pointed out at that time (December 2019) that the anti-CAA protesters indulging in violence had terror links,” Ghosh said on Sunday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a TMC Rajya Sabha MP said that the party would take time before coming to any conclusion on whether there has been any political motive behind these arrests.
“Our government is very serious about terror networks and the state police have made a series of arrests. However, we are aware that the BJP has a plan to frame rules for the CAA in the coming few months and re-launch its campaign in support of the CAA ahead of the Assembly elections. At present, we prefer to watch their next steps,” the Rajya Sabha MP said.
The CAA, which offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from India’s neighbouring Islamic countries, is one of the BJP’s key weapons to win over the Bangladeshi Hindu refugees settled in West Bengal. The TMC has been strongly opposing both CAA and NRC, accusing the former of being discriminatory towards Muslims.
The author is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of ‘Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment’
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