ISI’s subterfuges in Bangladesh as India struggles to strengthen politically weakening Sheikh Hasina

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hand with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina during her ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan on 6 September 2022. AP File

Even as Bangladesh readies to go to the polls exactly a year hence, on January 2024, the atmospherics in the country seems less than predictable. Reliable reports from Dhaka have suggested that there is a wave of anti-Indianism in erstwhile East Pakistan. New Delhi’s “inability” to strengthen Sheikh Hasina’s hands with robust aspects such as the Teesta waters is not stemming either the growing anti-India sentiment or aiding Hasina’s bid for a comeback. After all, one of Hasina’s raison d’être, albeit her forte is
that she is considered to be close to India and has—in the past—exhibited great cooperation with India including the handing over of insurgents that were using Bangladesh soil for sustenance and action against India. However, observers of the Indo-Bangladesh relationship seem to be of the opinion that New Delhi has not been as magnanimous to her as it should have been, a shortsightedness that might even cost the country dear—Hasina’s ouster would spell disaster for India’s security in its eastern seaboard, especially as there is a visible and growing Chinese presence in Bangladesh.

The present situation in Bangladesh also seems to be one of confrontation with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party seeking a comeback by riding on some of the frailties thatcharacterised Sheikh Hasina’s two terms in office. The Islamists which have been bearing the brunt of Sheikh Hasina’s tirade against them, too, are countenancing Hasina’s removal. There is also a plethora of “court intrigues” inside the Awami League that seem to be seeking a replacement for Hasina’s leadership.

It is in the backdrop of the above that strategists in India must comprehend the anti-India strategy that is afoot in the neighbourhood and beyond. After all, Sheikh Hasina alongside Bhutan’s royalty is the only two real allies that India has at this time in South Asia. The much-touted “Neighbourhood First” has been a complete failure and the subterfuges of China and Pakistan have succeeded in ensuring that much of the neighbourhood has got alienated from India. Diplomacy and high-grade espionage operation that India has been boasting of for the last eight years has certainly not borne any fruit. If anything it has succeeded in estrangement of the last vestiges of goodwill that India had in the subcontinent.

In his introduction to a treatise on (Pakistan’s) Inter-Services Intelligence’s Afghan adventure, The Bear Trap: Afghanistan’s Untold Story” Brig Mohammad Yousaf (one time Director of the ISI’s Afghan Bureau) says, “Death by a thousand cuts—this is the time-honoured tactic of the guerilla army against a large conventional force.” It is precisely this dictum that the ISI is employing in India. In the words of the South American revolutionary Che Guevara Pakistan wants to raise “so many prairie fires” that India cannot extinguish them. The ISI in concert with its masters in Beijing is preparing the ground for just such an outcome.

The manner in which Bangladesh could revert to a time when its armies used to term India as the prototype “wolf-land” in its war games seems to be on the cards. In such an eventuality the North East would not only become the primary “proxy war” theatre for the ISI’s forward intelligence operations against India (with a staging ground in Bangladesh) but would (as indeed it has already become) the gateway by which ISI-backed Islamists would be able to achieve their nefarious objectives against India. The demographic jungle of Lower Assam has been acting as a veritable launch pad for the Islamists to enter the innards of mainland India.

The activation of the Islamists by way of mass ingress of Al Qaeda affiliated Ansarullah Bangla Team into Assam from Bangladesh, the growing radicalisation inside India and the manner in which there is a polarization in India’s polity seems to proclaim this aspect.
While it is true that there has been—of late—a “cold war” between the democratic forces inside Pakistan and the ISI, the fact of the matter is that the ISI is a “state within a state”, and very few democratically elected leaders of Pakistan in the past have been able to rein in the rogue organisation. The deep-state operational imperatives of the ISI are independent of democratic control and the present ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum is in on probabilityalready calibrating his organisation’s sight on offsetting Sheikh Hasina and preparing the pastures of Bangladesh that about India for a fresh anti-India offensive.

As a matter of fact the ISI’s presence inside Bangladesh is not a new phenomenon. This author has—during his visit to Bangladesh in 2016—held long-drawn discussions with members of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), National Security Intelligence (NSI) and Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC). While the anti-India attitude—although palpable—did not come across forcefully, the fact that most of the senior cadres had affiliations with officers of the Pakistan Army was clear. This was made plain because most senior Bangladesh army officers—who were manning important positions in the DGFI and the NSI (not so much in the CTTC which is loyal to Sheikh Hasina) had undergone higher military and other courses in places such as Quetta alongside Pakistani counterparts.

This author is a product of the Rashtriya Indian Military College, Dehra Dun and, therefore, has a fairly good idea about how the “old-tie” network functions. As a matter of fact, this author has counselled that there should be more seats in places such as the National Defence College, New Delhi, the Army War College, Mhow and the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington (where this author regularly lectures and trains officers of the Indian armed forces) for officers from Bangladesh offsetting thereby their placements in the Pakistani military training establishments. But such counsel has fallen on deaf ears. It is time that India’s
security managers and strategists arrive at a correct analysis not only about the ISI’s new gameplan, but also about the importance of correct cultivation of the armed forces of India’s neighbourhood. It must also be understood that religion is not the only conduit by which relationship between Pakistan and Bangladesh is engendered. Although important, the fact remains that there are enough sham scriveners inside both the country that have misrepresented history to falsely showcase bonhomie between Bangladesh and Pakistan and how India conspiratorially severed the eastern appendage from its western wing in 1971. This perception is particularly true of the post-1971 generation and ones that this author met and interacted with during his research in the United States.

Anti-Indianism is, therefore, the most important aspect that has been binding Bangladesh-Pakistan relationship. Another important aspect that the myopic Indian establishment has not comprehended is that contrary to belief, the Pakistan army—from which much of the ISI’s operatives are drawn—is not (despite Zia-ul-Haq’s efforts) an Islamist army. Indeed, the armies of both India and Pakistan continue to be run on the lines of the British system, and the typical Pakistani army officer is more or less secular in his outlook and enjoys “drinking whisky to the tune of bagpipes at regimental dinners” The battle that is being presently waged is political and the ambiguities in Islam are being utilised for political gains. With confusion about Islam being at its peak at present, “politics and political interests have obfuscated and corrupted the ability to see Islam as a faith that is followed by well over a billion adherents in the world.” Indeed, these are the subterfuges that are occupying the ISI and its operatives in Dhaka.

It is, therefore, a matter of time before ISI operatives come onto their own in Bangladesh.

Not many years ago, there was an infamous ISI “resident” in Dhaka, one Col Ershad Cheema. He was better known as “Honda Saheb”. “Honda Saheb” earned the name because he used to ride around the conspiratorial streets of Dhaka and the hubs that housed North East Indian insurgents in a Honda.

The author is a celebrated conflict theorist and bestselling author. Views expressed are personal.

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