Spilling the beans

I am again forced to join issue with Irfan Ahmed and respond to his Response "The inescapable circularity of spytalk" (August 2001, p. 46). Mr Ahmed's love for "metaphor, irony and stylistic devices of language" ensures he says in three pages what he could have said in four paragraphs.

I would reiterate that Bangladeshi journalists fight shy of reporting on military matters and issues they believe are sensitive with the security establishment. That is one Pakistani legacy the media in Bangladesh has not been able to shrug off—and I will say this again and again until the situation changes. No reporter working on defence issues can afford to "be not on talking terms with the military establishment". If a general does not speak, your skill is to ensure that a colonel will spill the beans.

Four years ago, when the leader of the Assamese rebel group ULFA, Anup Chetia, was arrested in Dhaka, I scooped the story, not my BBC colleagues in Dhaka. The BBC's Dhaka office—and every Bangladesh paper for that matter— stayed away from reporting it because no military or police source was owning up. I knew it because I know the ULFA as closely as any security agency in my country, and they gave me the details, which was confirmed to me by a personal secretary of a senior minister. Only later, when Chetia was produced in court, did the press in Dhaka pick up the story. Meanwhile, I had a tough time convincing my BBC colleagues in London and Dhaka on the veracity of the story.

The Bangladesh government denies the presence of Northeast Indian militants on its soil despite the substantial degree of patronage they receive from the DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence). It is obvious why the military-security establishment is reluctant to confirm events like the arrest of Anup Chetia, or for that matter, three attempts on the life of ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, two of them in the busy Gulshan locality of Dhaka. In exposing the role of the Assam police and Indian intelligence in launching these attacks, I even named the angladeshi mafia syndicate used to perform the planned hits. Sections of Indian intelligence is very upset with me because the DGFI has cracked down on the crime syndicate. If Mr Ahmed wants to see how these criminals are being sheltered in Indian safe houses, he will have to visit Calcutta and I will show him. (If of course he can recognise some of the leading crime bosses of his country.)

Dhaka journalist Saleem Samad (the only Bangladesh journalist I know who enjoyed the confidence of the Shanti Bahini because of his unbiased reporting on the Chittagong Hill Tracts situation) was able to confirm the latest attack on Paresh Barua near the Egyptian embassy in his report to Tehelka.com, though he says he was snubbed and heckled by DGFIoperatives for trying to unravel the case. The Paris-based RSF observation quoted at the end of his piece by Mr Ahmed vindicates my contention—that reporting on sensitive matters like defence can bring major trouble for a journalist, which is why he or she avoids it. However, the situation is different in India, where journalists do enjoy the advantages of institutionalized democracy as a result of which Tehelka-type expose are possible. However, many reporters still get jailed or killed in Northeast India, from where I have reported for two decades now.

Going over my record of covering the work of insurgents and intelligence agencies, let me say that I was able to expose RAW's role in supporting the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts because I had good contacts with both factions of the Shanti Bahini. Also, people within RAW spoke against their own officials because even the RAW is no monolith—as the Nis in Pakistan. Recently, I exposed the Indian military intelligence's first using the Burmese rebel group, National Unity Party of Arakans (NUI'A), and then dumping them. Himal carried that expose, as did The Times of India, Tehelka.com and the BBC. That was Operation Leech, projected as an inter-services operation by India but what in reality evolved as a coldblooded killing of the entire NUI'A top leadership. This was a story of how spies play foul with all human ethics and how they perpetuate their interests in the name of defending the nation. Truth, Mr Ahmed, is stranger than fiction.

Can Mr Ahmed show one Bangladesh media report which comes even close to the expose of Operation Leech or the expose of the RAW's role in the Chittagong Hill Tracts? I have reasons to be very proud of Bangladesh for so many other things, for the great work its NGos have done in the field of micro-credit, gender emancipation and even population control (contrary to popular image in India), but I am sorry there is hardly any tradition of investigative journalism in the country.

I think I know more about explosives than Mr Ahmed does. But even he must know the difference between country-made bombs that Bengalis have hurled since the days of Khudiram Bose (1905 attack on a British official) and a 76-kilogram explosive police found at Kotalipara. Also the difference between remote controlled bombs that exploded in the Awami League office at Narayangunj and the country-made bombs gangsters hurl at each other in street fights (where casualties are rarely double digit). If you don't understand explosives, don't talk about them.

The conversation between the ISI's Colonel Nasir and his boss Brigadier Riaz was intercepted, taped and handed over to Gholam Rehman, chief of Bangladesh's internal security agency, the NM. I have a complete transcript of it, and a copy of the tape as well. It was verified and found authentic by Rehman and his officials, whose competence in security matters is surely more profound than Mr Ahmed's. It is after that exercise, and not on the basis of my report that the Bangladesh government prepared a bill ensuring special `SSF' security to the daughters of Sheikh Mujib for all time to come. The whole parliament in Bangladesh passed the bill. Now, Islamic fundamentalists and the Mujib killers would have reasons to feel upset about that.

About the LTTE involvement in the plot to kill Sheikh Hasina, I can fax or mail Mr Ahmed a copy of a DGFI report on this issue. And also one by the Indian intelligence bureau which was procured with great difficulty. Everything that I have said or reported as a journalist can be established. If the government in Bangladesh was happy with the BDR's exercise in Padua and had endorsed it, why should it remove the BDR chief on the eve of its handing over power to a caretaker government. I am sure the BJP' government in India decided to up its ante and escalate the crisis by asking the BSF to attack the BDR at Boroibari, for that would have helped the Bic' in the Assam elections where the Bangladeshi is the favourite whipping boy. But I agree with Mr Ahmed on one point. No party in Bangladesh can afford to be anti-Indian in reality.

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