Terror in our backyards: Northeast India on alert by Patricia Mukhim


The terror attack inside Holey Artisan Bakery Café in upmarket Gulshan area, Dhaka was meant to send shivers down the spine of the international community stationed there.  Bangladesh is India's closest neighbour in the North East. While the Governments of the two countries are looking at trade relations, and there is merit in that since states like Meghalaya and Tripura can only think of Chittagong port as an outlet to the sea for their exports, these terror attacks are a cause of genuine concern for the North Eastern states. East Pakistan has long been a trading partner of the undivided Assam. Later Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura and to an extent Mizoram continued trade relations  with Bangladesh after it creation in 1971.

It must also be noted that the borders between Bangladesh on one side and Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura on the other are porous. Entry in and out of the two countries is easy since border guards of both countries are not known to keep strict vigil. If they did then the number of cattle heads smuggled from India to Bangladesh right from West Bengal to Assam, Meghalaya etc. would not have been possible. That said, cattle, gold, weapons et al are not the only commodities smuggled across.  Now we know that terror too is crossing borders much more easily because while there is a possibility of checking tangible commodities and preventing smuggling, how do countries insulate themselves from the import of radical ideologies?

When religion which transcends international boundaries and binds the co-religionists is used as a trigger to commit horrendous and senseless acts of terror, then the entire security apparatus adopted by countries and their hitherto unassailable security architecture needs to be revisited.  Many young people are radicalised by ideas floating on the internet. We are seeing a section of youth who find no meaning in life, veering towards religion as a soul mate and a comfort zone.  They quickly demonise liberal thinkers and those who differ with them ideologically and theologically and mark out those as possible targets of attack. Often the attack is over social media but there is a thin line separating the person who froths at the mouth as he types out a few angry retorts and one who quickly joins a radical group to inflict physical terror on selected targets.

That the self-professed ISIS terrorist who attacked the café at Gulshan wanted their acts to create an international sensation goes without saying.   And they managed to do so because 17 of the 20 victims were foreigners, the majority of them Italians and Japanese.  An Indian girl was among the slain. And this was no ordinary killing. Those who spoke Bangla and could recite the Koran were spared. Others were not just shot but also brutalized. You begin to wonder how such rage can reside inside a person who also professes to follow a religion that believes in a period of fasting as a propitiation for acts of omission and commission.

Thirteen hours after the terror attack on Friday, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed spoke but did not sound convincing. This attack was perhaps not entirely unexpected considering the climate on intolerance that had overshadowed Bangladesh in these last few years. Anyone with an independent mind was not allowed to survive. Bloggers were hacked and Hindus bore the brunt of the new radicalism that has become part of the politics of Bangladesh. It is no longer just the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by opposition leader Khaleda Zia that is fomenting trouble in Bangladesh. Other radical Islamist elements have captured the democratic spaces and are now targeting LGBT groups and free thinkers. You begin to wonder if Bangladesh has the capacity to tackle this new kind of terror or whether like Afghanistan it has become a problem that is way beyond the national government to tackle.

What does this new form of terror mean to us in the North East where a significant population of Bangladeshi immigrants are settled? Terror/ extremism/insurgency is not new to the region but so far the perpetrators were identifiable and are home grown "freedom fighters" with a grouse against India which they often label as the new colonialist after the British left this country. Although most of these insurgent outfits found succour and shelter in Bangladesh under the BNP regime, they have largely been   smoked out of the safe-houses in Cox Bazar and Sylhet after Sheikh Hasina's Awami League took over the reins of government.

Now that things seem to have spiralled out of control in Bangladesh one wonders what shape and form the new security arrangements in that country will take. Another incident like the Friday one would turn Bangladesh into another violence driven zone like Syria etc. Ordinary people of Bangladesh already feel a sense of deep insecurity. Nothing can be worse than when citizens feel that the Government has failed to provide them basic security. It's a sinking feeling that rickshaw pullers and others who earn their livelihoods from hard work are sensing. Disruptions cost them their livelihoods. When disruptions become the order of the day there is hopelessness all around.

Governments of the North Eastern states have maintained a stoic silence about the terror attack in Dhaka. Perhaps they are wary about upsetting the trade and commerce applecart with the neighbouring country.  But at some point the states have to come together to think of a security framework that will address the present challenges from radical Islamic groups. And one would add a rider here that the intent is not to tarnish Islam but to accept the reality that the terrorists used Islam to justify their killings.