Engaging Bangladesh for Lasting Peace In North East : Lt. Gen. (Dr.) D. B. Shekatkar (Retd.)

Bangladesh The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi on His First Stete Visit to Bangladesh

For almost 60 years entire North East (NE) has faced insurgency, taking NE backward by almost 50 years. For any insurgency, revolt, revolution to succeed, there have always been and there shall always be certain basic requirements, basic factors,  “basic cause to fight for”. Unless there is a convincing cause to fight for, the support of local population which is one of the most important  factor for success of insurgency; will not be available.  People support is a must. Unless people are convinced in the cause they will not support insurgents, extremists.  The causes of insurgency, unrest, revolt can be: desire for independence, elimination of foreign exploitation, relief from alleged and social improvement, elimination of corruption etc. Unfortunately since India’s independence, due to lack of “perception management capability” and “image management capability” people of NE were indoctrinated in justification of all the above cause to fight for.

Foreign support for success of Insurgency

In any insurgency, uprising, revolt, there are always at least four participants: the government in power, local population, insurgents and external powers, specially the immediate neighboring countries.

Apart from these four, favorable terrain, secured bases (within the area of insurgency and outside), intelligence, mobility, and propaganda are important.  The key factor for growth of insurgency in NE has been the support from neighboring countries – China, East Pakistan (New Bangladesh) and Pakistan. North East’s proximity to Bangladesh, Myanmar and China has also encouraged insurgents from Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Mizoram Tripura and Meghalaya, to use those these countries as place to retreat, safe sanctuary, training ground, for procurement of weapons, equipment and safe parking of funds.  Pakistan, China and Bangladesh’s support for insurgency is linked to larger geo-political rivalries, and geo-strategic interests between these countries. For Pakistan, China and Bangladesh insurgency in NE provided and continue to provide a favorable environment and fertile territory to weaken and destabilize India.  Pakistan’s interests in supporting the insurgency also had “tit for tat” quality to it because this support was seen and continues to be seen as “pay-back” for India’s attempt to foster rebellion in East Pakistan, that succeeded when Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971.  Even after the emergence of Bangladesh as independent nation, successive government except the present (Awami League) government in Bangladesh continued to offer support to insurgent in NE as a response to “perceived” and “alleged” attempts to cause trouble in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Despite the loss of East Pakistan, the Pakistan Army, ISI and diplomats continued to seek support from Pro-Pakistani elements in Bangladesh specially the Jamat-e-Islami to destabilize NE.

Deep Rooted conspiracy and Hidden Agenda

If the propagated thought process and philosophy of some important political figures in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Pakistan is studied and analysed carefully it becomes clear as to why and how NE became of conflict zone due to foreign involvement.

In mid 1950’s Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (who later became President of Bangladesh) wrote in the book East Pakistan: its population and Economics: “Because East Pakistan must have sufficient land for its expansion and because Assam has abundant land, forest and mineral resources; East Pakistan must include Assam, to be economically and financially strong”.

It must be acknowledged and remembered that Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh were all part of Assam up to the beginning of 1960’s. Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal became State carved out of Assam in 1960s and 1970s.  The author has witnessed the emergence of all these districts in to states.

Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan wrote in a an article Myth of Independence : “It would be wrong to think that Kashmir is the only dispute between Pakistan and India, though undoubtedly the most significant one; one at least is nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute is that of Assam and some districts of India adjacent to East Pakistan.”

Detailed analysis would reveal as to why East Pakistan actively supported insurgency in different parts of NE specially in Mizoram & Tripura.  Mr. Lal Denga who engineered insurgency in Mizoram in 1966 continued to enjoy safe sanctuary, protection, training, financial support, weapons and equipment etc for 20 years from East Pakistan.  (The author as Major had entered Mizoram as part of Indian Army’s response to insurgency in 1966 and was also serving as colonel in Mizoram when the Peace Accord was signed by Mr. Lal Denga, Mizo National Front and Government of India).  Even after emergence of Bangladesh Mr. Lal Denga continued to got all the support from Pakistan through Pro-Pakistani elements specially Jamat-e-Islami of Bangladesh.

Insurgency in Tripura and Assam was also supported by Pakistan through Bangladesh. The situation is gradually changing after the present Government of Awami League came into power in Bangladesh.  Shri Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister of India after his visit to Bangladesh had stated clearly and officially that “There is a good percentage of people in Bangladesh, specially the religious hardliners and fundamentalist who support and sustain Pakistan’s grand designs to keep NE in a state of unrest and violence.”  This is based on the designs of ISI and Pakistan Army to keep India focused and keep Indian Army as well as security forces committed in NE, at the cost of security of Western & Northern Border as well as LOC with Pakistan.

Western Interests and perceptions of NE India

A. Z. Phizo who had engineered the insurgency in Nagaland was given shelter and support in Britain and some other
European countries through religious organizations and NGOs. Whereas the self styled commander in chief of Naga Army Mau Argani and his group of insurgents got training, weapons, equipment, training and funds from China.  What was the connection between China and Britain ? (The author had tracked the insurgent going in May 1969, comprising of 300 insurgents under Mao Angami which was returning from China to Nagaland from a Town Hkampti in Myanmar to Phisami in Tuensang District of Nagaland for 8 days.  The gang was surrounded and disarmed under the leadership of Brigadier (later General) A S Vaidya who was the Brigade commander, and Lt General Maneksha (later who was elevated to Chief of the Army staff at Field Marshal) the General officer Commanding in chief of Eastern Command.  The present top leadership of NSCN (IM) was part of this gang).  Such are the foreign connections even today !

A study was conducted by western Think Tank about the feasibility of carving out of Independent Nation out of NE ! Report by Agencia – International De Prensa (International Press Service) was released in 1966. The study was conducted about possibility of carving out “united and Independent Bengal” comprising of East Pakistan, West-Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim. The study was based on assumption that “the separatists and insurgents are counting on USA and other western powers to give them necessary assistance. They are confident that these powers would be interested in establishing an independent state in “South East-Asia” which could help to normalise conditions there and provide shield against Chinese aggression”. Such perceptions should explain as to why china and Pakistan through East-Pakistan was sustaining insurgency in NE. Insurgents in NE continue to get Chinese help even in 2015.

Another example of Western interests in NE was “Project Brahmaputra”. A special research cell was established at George Washington university with approval of US state Department. The objective was to conduct research on NE and Sikkim to “throw light on public opinion in the region to establish in what measures the present status of the state remain acceptable or whether there are indications, that the formation of a New state is a current problem”. This project was launched towards end of 1960’s.

It is certain that foreign countries are keeping a close watch and contacts with the insurgent in NE even today in 2015. The large scale illegal migration from Bangladesh in NE is not only economic or employment issue; but this is also a part of “grand design” to create a voting constituency based on vote power of illegal migrants and capture political power in Assam to start with followed by Tripura, Meghalaya in due course of time.  There are indications that the Chief Minister of Assam by 2026 will be a person of Bangladeshi origin or a person claiming to be from Assam from a specific community, duly supported by illegal migrants who have acquired voting rights and continue to expand their influence and strength. The funds for such ambitions designs are collected from the some sympathizers and supporters based at Maharashtra, Sema Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala and of course Middle East. The threats issued by Al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS have meaning and purpose.  Of course some experts sitting at Delhi’s air conditioned rooms will not agree with such predictions. At least three governors of Assam and two corps commanders dealing with ULGA and BODO insurgency have warned the central Government at Delhi about the dangerous implications of “Strategic Migration” and “Demographic Imbalance” in NE and specially in Assam.  Illegal migrants have already impacted the social, political and economic landscape of Bengal.  There is a gradual spread of this cancerous growth of “strategic migrants” into Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh provinces. To protect the interests and security of the illegal migrants, the extremists organizations like Bengal Tiger Force (BTF), Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) have been formed and are active.  Such organizations can always be used as vanguard and sleeper cells for Al-Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS when the need arises.  These organizations are operated by ISI of Pakistan through cells in Bangladesh.

During the BNP regime in Bangladesh the insurgency in NE got encouragement and boost. A large number of sleeper cells had been established in NE and other parts of India.  It is reported that ISI and Pakistan Army had outsourced insurgency and terrorism in NE and East India to BNF and Jamat.  The operatives of special service groups of Pakistan and Al-Qaeda were operating in Bangladesh to train the insurgents of NE and extremists of Indian Mujahideen (IM), Harkat-Ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and SIMI.  It is only a matter of time when these organizations will get aligned to the most dangerous terrorist organization ISIS.

In Meghalaya new criminal organizations are emerging under the garb of insurgent organizations. Prominent among them is the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA).  These outfits are involved in large scale smuggling and trafficking to include illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and smuggling of cattle, narcotics, and minerals including coal, cement etc and worst of all the smuggling of “raw uranium” are through Bangladesh. This can assume dangerous proportions one day.  The uranium must be going beyond Bangladesh to some part of the world.  There is likely hood of links between terrorist organizations.  Thanks to smuggling of nuclear technology under Mr. A Q Khan of Pakistan, it is reasonable to assume that the technology smuggled out of Pakistan is preserved and perfected by some non state actors under the protection and support of a recognized state.

The important point to consider is as to why Bangladesh became a safe heaven for the insurgents from NE? It needs to be considered that Pakistan did not want India to succeed in Bangladesh. USA, UK and China did not want India to succeed in Bangladesh.  Both Pakistan and China would like to retain Bangladesh as launch pad against India.  NE is just part of it.  It was unfortunate that India’s political leadership – Government and Security Mechanism was not clear or keen on establishing a permanent influence in Bangladesh. Fortunately with the change of political and national leadership in India things have started improving since 2014.

“Influence” in Bangladesh should not be misunderstood or misinterpreted as dominance over Bangladesh.  Both Bangladesh and India have common history. Culture, language, food habits, source of river water, agriculture, means of sustenance and also common threats; from man-made disasters as well as natural disasters. With so many commonalities and similarities between the two nations and two neighbors the future and destiny of our coming generations will be same and together.  It is therefore essential that both Bangladesh and India must remain engaged to ensure safety, security, progress, prosperity and peaceful co-existence for the good of our people and coming generations.

How should India engage Bangladesh to ensure peace, stability, progress and prosperity in Bangladesh?

It is heartening to note that the present government in Bangladesh and even the leadership of armed forces of Bangladesh have realized the philosophy, importance and need for peaceful co existence. A good number of positive steps are being taken by the Government of Bangladesh.  However “misdeeds” of the previous BNP government and the “mind set” towards India of the political leadership and hardliners as well as fundamentalists will take a long time to be erased from the minds of youth of Bangladesh.

In the recent past there have been major recoveries of arms cashes in Bangladesh and also the inception of large quantity of weapons and ammunition at sea ports; which were meant for insurgents and terrorists organizations operating in NE and other ports of India. The present government in Bangladesh has initiated steps to ensure that Weapons Transit Routes (WTR) through Bangladesh are blocked. Bangladesh has also banned a number of terrorist groups operating in Bangladesh. Most of these groups have links with insurgents in NE and terrorists in India.  In last few years the present government has arrested prominent ULFA leaders and operatives.  The government is also attempting to trace and track the bank accounts and transactions being operated by ULFA and their supporters; in Bangladesh. Periodical meetings and contacts between border security forces of India and Bangladesh as well as intelligence agencies, hopefully should create a functional understanding and effective mechanism to deal with insurgency and terrorism.

To restrict the uncontrolled illegal immigration of Bangladeshi citizens into India there is a need to help Bangladesh to improve agriculture, industry, economy, commerce, trade and shipping. Attraction of employment and means of sustenance attract the immigrants into NE  and other parts of India.  There is a need to strengthen magnetic factors in Bangladesh so that the people specially youth do not drift towards magnetic force for human sustenance and lively hood in India.  India should take a lead and seek investments into Bangladesh for economic development. Nowhere in the world the walls and border fencing have been able to fully stop migration of human beings.  There is a need to improve conditions so that people do not get attracted and motivated to leave their own country and migrate to other countries.

Infrastructure development, rail, road connectivity and sea port as well as airport development will generate employment to Bangladeshi nationals. This will also open new avenues of transportation through Bangladesh to NE, Bhutan and Nepal. This will result in saving of cost of fuel and time.  There is no harm to study, analyse and understand the reasons as to why china is investing heavily to build infrastructure, rail, road, pipelines through Pakistan to China.  This is why China has invested heavily at Gwadar Port.  This is one of the reason China has invested heavily to transport goods from Bay of Bengal, through Myanmar to South China. India should assist Bangladesh to get funds from western countries and world financial institutions.

The development projects and process, should not be blocked on the pretext of security concerns as has been the case so far.

With due consent from Government and people of Bangladesh, India can help in increasing agriculture production, live stock, poultry, marine products vegetable, and milk production and so on for which there is a great demand across the world, specially in Middle East. This will create meaningful and gainful employment to young generation of Bangladesh.

Private academic institutions and Ministry of Human Resource of Government of India should open academic institutions specially medical, engineering colleges and skill development institutions to train less academically qualified youth. India should help Bangladeshi youth to be absorbed in any part of the world based on advance skills needed in 21st century. Establishment of training facilities to meet the increasing demand of merchant shipping across the world will open new avenues to the youth of Bangladesh.  Shipping industry is on the path of growth and needs trained, skilled, human resource across the world.

There is an age old philosophy that it is the interdependence of economics, survival, stability, progress, and security that reduces the chances of conflicts between nations, specially the neighbours. Stability, peace, progress, and security of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar are interlinked and interdependent due to our common interests, future and our destiny.

India can assist Bangladesh in disaster management mechanism. Natural and man-made disasters force and at time encourage people to migrate to other places, other nations to seek means of survival and economic gains. The geographical location of Bangladesh, climate, environment, demographic realities, sea cost, are a kin to India’s coastal region. Same hold good for the hilly region of NE, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar.  In fact India should take a lead to establish a disaster management mechanism and response system for the entire SAARC region to start with and later extend it to ASEAN region. India could also take a lead to launch a space surveillance system to cover Bangladesh, Myanmar East and NE, Bhutan, Nepal and Andaman Nicobar for advance weather, climate, environmental warning and quick disaster management response.

Without harboring a big-brother attitude, India’s governing mechanism should assist Bangladesh to ensure stability, security, peace, development and prosperity. India’s recent initiative in May 2015 to solve the long standing old emotional issue of enclaves is a very good political and diplomatic gesture on the part of present Government.  This has been done in consultation with and with the consent of Government of Bangladesh.  The next issue which could be mutually resolved in consultation with state government of Bengal is the issue of sharing of river water.  With the consent and cooperation of Nepal and Bhutan India could also establish a common energy and electricity grid which can cater for the electricity requirement of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, NE and Bengal.  There are many more such areas where there is a scope to work together and ensure meaningful bright, future for the coming generations of Bangladesh and NE.

Issues for consideration

If the state governments of NE, the people, the young generation as well as the Central Government is serious to resolve the insurgency in NE (which has taken back NE to 50 years in development); and the same will hold good for the people of Bangladesh also to neutralize the extremists, hardliner fundamentalists, the separatists etc) following needs to be considered honestly and seriously.

  1. Do we wish to manage insurgency, militancy or we want to eliminate insurgency? Continuation of insurgency; terrorism unrest becomes a source and mechanism to make easy money. It is across the world and NE is no exception.  Insurgency in NE has now become a “cottage industry” to make easy money without any hard work and investment.
  2. What is important, short term monetary results or long term sustainable gains for the coming generations
  3. What is important from Nations Point of view and what is urgent from immediate narrow, political point of view ?
  4. Criminalization of insurgency and militancy. Almost all insurgent organizations in NE today are nothing but criminal armed gangs.
  5. Are the people, youth of NE and the state governments serious to eliminate insurgency?


Finally, based on my combat experience of four decade of which 22 years has been in NE combating insurgency (from the rank of captain from 1964 to the rank of Lt General in 2001); having combated terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir, I am a firm believer and advocate of the Philosophy:

Do not believe in the alliance of money and machine guns. Because, yours children will not inherit money; but the machine gun which will kill them and others.

The average life of a insurgent, terrorists, extremists across the world is just 17 years.  Why people want to get killed at young age? People in North East and most importantly in Bangladesh must seriously consider this harsh unacceptable reality and truth.

Lt. General (Dr) D B Shekatkar (Retd) was Director General of Indian Army’s Perspective Planning. General Shekatkar has also been part of Indian delegation which was negotiating with China about India-China boarder dispute. During his career General Shekatkar has been awarded Param Visisth Sewa Medal (PVSM), Ati Visisth Sewa Medal (AVSM), & Visisth Sewa Medal (VSM) for his outstanding work. General Shekatkar is the President of Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS).

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