From Dhaka, with Love

Can Khaleda Zia, with her protracted baggage and apparent links with extremist groups, replicate Sheikh Hasina’s feat in addressing India’s security concerns? 

Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury Delhi


Begum Khaleda Zia made the right noises during her recent India trip, much to the delight of her hosts, and tried to strike a positive chord by harping that her party will not allow Bangladeshi soil to be used for anti-India activities, including cross-border terror and insurgency. However, there is little to exult over because her statements cannot be taken on face value. 

History, in the not so distant past, speaks for itself. There is a significant trust deficit between Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and India, for which the former has to be blamed. There is a yawning gap between Zia’s statements and actions. The current pronouncements in Delhi have been made by her several times in the past (even while she was the prime minister) but she did little on the ground. While India seeks bipartisan political support in Bangladesh to enhance bilateral ties, particularly development initiatives, Zia has to reciprocate by giving up on her anti-India plank and delinking from a fundamentalist organisation like Jamaat-e-Islami. Merely saying that her party will sign an extradition treaty with India if voted to power makes little sense on the ground. 

Her words never matched her actions even while she was prime minister for the second time during 2001-06. This period in Indo-Bangladeshi history was marked by rampant anti-India activities with Bangladesh becoming a thoroughfare for cross-border movement of Pakistan-backed terrorists and a launching pad for terror attacks in India. Zia’s BNP was complicit in many of these plots and members of the administrative machinery, including the army and intelligence with ISI links, played a critical role in the process. Bilateral ties touched a new low during this period.

Earlier this year, media reports revealed that Zia herself was hand-in-glove with the ISI, with a former boss of the spy agency admitting to having funded the BNP chairperson in elections, thereby vindicating allegations links between the party and the most powerful institution in Pakistan. There are allegations that the ISI was active in Bangladesh whenever the BNP was in power — in 1991-96 and during 2001-06. Former ISI chief Asad Durrani told the Supreme Court in Pakistan that the agency had funded the BNP during the 1991 elections. Durrani further admitted to having funded insurgency movements in India’s northeast.

The spy agency was also alleged to have launched a campaign from Bangladesh to destabilise India’s northeast region by patronising and providing logistic support, including funds, to the insurgent groups operating from Bangladesh. The ISI has actively supported a dubious network in Bangladesh during the BNP regimes, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, the BNP and northeast insurgent groups.

The nexus between Pakistani and Bangladeshi intelligence is old. Several cadres of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) arrested in India admitted that batches of their cadres were flown to Pakistan from Dhaka for training by the ISI. Before the creation of Bangladesh, Mizo and Naga rebels were trained and sheltered in erstwhile East Pakistan by the Pakistani army.

It may be recalled that, belying all expectations, bilateral ties dipped to a new low from October 2001, when the BNP-led coalition returned to power. Apart from a few high-level visits by the then Indian ministers for external affairs, Yashwant Sinha (2002) and Jaswant Singh (2005), and Bangladeshi foreign minister Morshed Khan (2004), the relationship could not gather any momentum. So much so that the last visit of Khaleda Zia to India as prime minister in March 2006, months before she demitted office, did not make any significant impact.

That the Khaleda Zia government largely ignored Indian security concerns is no secret. India’s claim that northeastern insurgents were maintaining terror camps on Bangladeshi soil was firmly denied by the BNP government. The then Bangladeshi border guards chief even went to the extent of accusing India of involvement in the nation-wide blasts that rocked Bangladesh on August 17, 2005.

Islamist groups in Bangladesh flourished with vast financial help from outside; they thrived under Khaleda Zia’s BNP regime during 2001-06

Khaleda Zia’s last term in office was marked by credible reports of the growing presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda elements in Bangladesh. Links between terrorist activities in India and terrorist groups in Bangladesh also came to the fore. Bangladesh also witnessed a spate of terrorist attacks against the minority community, secular institutions and prominent personalities.

Islamist groups in Bangladesh flourished with vast financial help from outside; they thrived under the BNP regime during 2001-06. They set up hundreds of madrassas (religious schools) in the country, which they have been using as recruitment centres for fundamentalist ideas. The Bangladeshi army, during its political-power tenures, drew heavily on the support of Islamic fundamentalist parties to win over the masses. The BNP, with its roots in the army, has always followed suit.

The BNP struck a deal with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami in order to capture power. The Jamaat, through its contacts in the government, has systematically filled the civil services, police, intelligence and military posts with its sympathisers. At the time, there were arrests of Bangladeshi nationals in connection with the October 2005 Delhi blasts; links of the perpetrators involved in the Mumbai serial blasts in 2006 only lend credence to suspicions. The role of Bangladesh-based terrorist groups like the HuJI that was also under the scanner during the Varanasi attacks, came under sharp scrutiny yet again.

Islamist extremists in Bangladesh have for long maintained operational links with foreign groups. According to reports, militants from the Jemaah Islamia—which is connected to the Al Qaeda and seeks to set up an Islamic State encompassing Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and southern Philippines—are also hiding in Bangladeshi terror camps. NGOs have also played a major role in the rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh.


In 2001, Khaleda Zia returned to power for the second time on an essentially anti-India platform. Her predecessor, Sheikh Hasina, whose late father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was independent Bangladesh’s first president, and their party, the Awami League, were tagged as pro-India. The presence of the pro-Pakistan Jaamat and Islami Oikya Jote in Khaleda Zia’s government ensured that her regime worked in close cooperation with Pakistan and their agencies. The ISI started re-growing its roots in Dhaka during Khaleda Zia’s earlier stint, from 1991 to 1996. The rapid rise in fundamentalism in Bangladesh and its growing nexus with Pakistan’s ISI added to India’s concerns over its eastern neighbour during the Khaleda Zia regime.

However, Indo-Bangladesh ties underwent a significant transformation with Sheikh Hasina’s return to power in 2009 as she addressed India’s key demand by acting against northeastern insurgent groups on Bangladeshi soil.  Immediately after coming to power, the Sheikh Hasina government reopened the Chittagong arms haul case (2004) and arrested the former National Security Intelligence chiefs Maj Gen (retd) Rezaqul Haider Chowdhury and Brig Gen (retd) Abdur Rahim, who were involved in that case. This sent the right signals to India.

Besides handing over ULFA’s top leadership, the Sheikh Hasina government has also arrested some of the ‘noted’ Indian terrorists based in Bangladesh. The investigation into the Mumbai attack had revealed links between outfits in Pakistan and the HuJI of Bangladesh and this concern was conveyed to the authorities in Dhaka. As a follow-up in May 2009, Abdul Rouf Daud Merchant, an operative of Dawood Ibrahim hiding in Bangladesh, was arrested with his accomplices from Brahmanbaria in the Chitttagong division. In July 2009, another notorious terrorist, Moulana Mohammad Mansur Ali, an Indian national linked to Pakista-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), was arrested from a madrassa in the Dakkhin Khan area of Dhaka.  Effective security cooperation between India and Bangladesh is likely to form the basis of a lasting bilateral relationship.

The Awami League government adopted a pragmatic foreign policy towards India under Hasina’s leadership. It charted out a new path of friendship and cooperation with India. The joint communiqué signed between the prime ministers of the two countries in New Delhi in January 2010 included new areas of bilateral cooperation.

Significantly, Indian and Bangladeshi militaries are working together as well. With a perceptible change in Indo-Bangladesh relations, there are better prospects of Bangladesh developing as a hub for inter and intra-regional trade and transit.

However, can Khaleda Zia, with her protracted baggage and apparent links with fundamentalist and extremist groups, replicate Sheikh Hasina’s feat in addressing India’s security concerns? This remains a decisive question.  

The writer is Programme Director, Aspen Institute India, Delhi, and a commentator on foreign and strategic affairs.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012