Irfan Ahmed’s pontification on journalistic principles (Response, June 2001) is not backed by exposure of new facts or points of analysis. His dismissive attitude towards the bombings must have blown up in his face in view of the latest bomb attack at Narayangunj, where an explosion ripped through an Awami League office killing 22 people and injuring over a hundred including the local Awami League MP. The huge bomb of Kotalipara had “military origins” according to Ahmed, but how is he so sure it was not planted by Islamic terrorists? If he accuses me of using intelligence sources who I cannot name because that would jeopardise their jobs, can I not accuse Ahmed of using “foreign experts” who could obviously be named but have not been named.
Bombings by Islamic terrorists have been rampant in the entire arc between the West Asia, erstwhile Soviet Central Asia, even China, all the way to India and Bangladesh and beyond. What objective evidence can Ahmed provide to prove that the Kotalipara bomb was not planted by Islamic terrorists like Harkat ul Jehad—unless of course he is keen to shield them. I am astounded by Ahmed’s assertion that the “Breda conspiracy has disappeared from Dutch papers”. It was never reported in the Dutch papers in the first place.
But I have the transcript of the conversation between two ISI officials, one sitting in Brussels after the meeting at Breda and the other, his boss, in Karachi. When I broke this story in the Sunday Times, the Pakistanis did not contest it. Just as they had greeted the transcript of the conversation between General Pervez Musharraf, while on a visit to China with his chief of staff, Lt General Aziz at the peak of the Kargil war. I have the expertise to pick the wheat from the chaff. I have exposed many a conspiracy of intelligence agencies of my own country—one has only to read my book Insurgent Crossfire to get an accurate account of the RAW’s involvement in fuelling the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. No Bangladeshi, I can challenge, can match the depth of my expose on that issue—unless all they do is speculate. But I have contacts in Indian and other intelligence agencies of this region and have very often got my facts crosschecked by playing off one’s version against another’s. That is where the skills of the reporter come into play. My recent exposure of how Indian military intelligence betrayed the leading Arakanese rebel group in Burma has upset many of our top brass but should I care? After all, in India, reporters are not afraid of taking on the military-security establishment, unlike our colleagues in Bangladesh.
I can only say that I have hard information on the conspiracy to kill Sheikh Hasina. Last year, the Mujibkillers managed to get the LTTE to agree to perform a suicide bombing on her for ten million dollars. The money was to reach the LTTE through an Indian software magnate who was bumped off by Indian intelligence and the money stayed frozen in his account without reaching the LTTE, who then backed off in the absence of payment. I have two reports—one of the Indian Intelligence Bureau and the other of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh— on how this conspiracy was foiled. These are original reports feretted out through painstaking effort, not plants offered over a bottle of whisky. I got some of my BBC colleagues in South Asia to check the details of these reports. They testified to their accuracy in terms of names, places, activities.
The border incident was an attempt to catch Hasina in a Catch 22 situation. I have it from my sources in the Bangladesh intelligence that she had no option but to back the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) chief. Certainly, the BDR chief is a staunch nationalist and a capable soldier, and his tough handling of the Naaf river crisis must have convinced him that he had to act tough with the Border Security Force (BSF) as well. But the Padua situation was certainly aggravated by local commanders, many of whom are strongly anti-Indian. Now I can, of course, see very good reasons why many Bangladeshis feel very upset with the way India treats them. As a Bengali, I also feel very upset with the way things happen between India and Bangladesh. At the peak of the Padua crisis, I was asked by a Zee TV presenter about what more should be done to chastise Bangladesh. I was very angry and this precisely is what I said in response: “If Delhi wants to fritter away diplomatic and political gains made over the last five years in five days of border clashes over five hundred metres of disputed territory, the choice is India’s. If India is not just happy with the trouble it gets from Pakistan and wants Bangladesh to go the same way, the choice is India’s. But if the Bengalis of Bangladesh did not tolerate the nonsense of Pakistan, they will not tolerate Indian high handedness as well. I am as much of an East Bengali with firm roots in Bangladesh as Ahmed. And, I don’t need Indian intelligence to tell me what’s going on in Bangladesh. There is still a strong section of repatriate officers in the Bangladesh army who feel strongly for Pakistan and against India. After all that Pakistan did to the Bengalis in 1971, the Jamait argued for undivided Pakistan. Now they talk of the lack of democracy in a country they never wanted to emerge in the first place.
How preposterous to think India engineered the border crisis to strengthen Sheikh Hasina’s hands. India added to her woes by aggravating the crisis by opening the attack at Boroibari because the BJP had its own domestic compulsions. The party wanted to win the elections in Assam and that was more important to them than protecting Sheikh Hasina’s interest. If the death toll was the reverse of what finally happened and if more of the Bangladesh BDR people died than India’s BSF, Indian home minister LK Advani would be beating his chest in rally after rally in Assam about how the bad and troublesome Bangladeshis had been taught a lesson. The BJP’s vote would go up. The score on body count went wrong, and so did the BJP’s fate in Assam. Actually conspiracies often have a very bad habit of achieving effects quite the opposite of the intended ones.
Targetting Bengali secular cultural groups like Udichi or Chayanat has been a old practice with Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Has Ahmed forgotten the Rairbazar massacre of the eve of Bangladesh’s liberation? The people killed by the Razakars and Al-Badars were not freedom fighters with arms- they were poets, writers and intellectuals, who undermined Pakistan by their role in the emergence of the strong Bengali identity. That brand of fundamentalist politics is still in existence in Bangladesh. A recent report by a respected Bangladesh journalist detailed the fresh efforts made by such religious groups to reorganise.
I am aware of problems within the Sheikh family. Conflicting ambitions, corruption and political feudalism exist in the first family of Bangladesh, but to overlook the fact, yes fact, that the killers of Sheikh Mujib continue to plot is something no journalist can afford. Before the Kandahar hijack of the Indian Airlines Airbus, airports across eastern India had been alerted by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) about a possible attempt to hijack a Bangladesh Biman plane to secure the release of Colonel Farook and his sidekick Major Bazlul Huda. I have a copy of that BCAS order which was issued at the behest of RAW. This was no plant to the press, it was an official memo released to all concerned.
Intelligence agencies do plant a lot of disinformation, but Ahmed can trust me more than many of his countrymen to pick the wheat from the chaff. My tenure in Northeast India, far from “colouring my views” gave me tremendous exposure to the way these agencies function. In my book, I detail the operations of most subcontinental intelligence agencies and try to expose them. Ahmed seems to be aware of my reporting from Assam but not of my main research work. He will do well to read it.