There was a belief in some circles of the ruling Trinamul Congress that the Centre had deliberately over-reacted to the bomb blasts in Burdwan to create conditions for the uninterrupted expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal. There have also been suggestions that chief minister Mamata Banerjee believes that the danger posed by Bangladeshi Islamist extremists operating from inside India (and West Bengal in particular) has been mischievously sensationalised by a media conglomerate to settle scores with her.
To what extent the Trinamul Congress dispensation will persist living in denial after her exhaustive discussions with the national security adviser and the head of the National Investigation Authority is a matter of conjecture. A shrewd politician with an acute sense of ground realities, there are some indications that the chief minister has finally come down to earth and promised New Delhi complete cooperation.
This shift from an earlier policy of pooh-poohing the security threats may have stemmed from two factors. First, with elections to municipal bodies, including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, due in the summer of 2015, Ms Banerjee may have gauged her growing unpopularity in the urban West Bengal. The unpopularity stemmed from the high-handedness of Trinamul Congress activists and the re-creation of another version of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) dreaded cadre raj. But it was bolstered by the charge that the ruling party was shamelessly pandering to the worst forms of minority appeasement to keep her Muslim votebank intact. The Burdwan blasts and the state government’s initial stonewalling of investigations reinforced the growing urban distaste for the Trinamul Congress. The middle classes in particular appear to have detached themselves entirely from the Trinamul Congress.
Secondly, the alert sent by Indian intelligence agencies to the authorities in Dhaka warning of a possible Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen plot to assassinate political leaders in Bangladesh and create mayhem may have forced a rethink in the state government. For the past four years at least, Bangladesh has been expressing concern over Bangladeshi radical Islamists crossing the porous India-Bangladesh border and setting up base in West Bengal, apparently with local political patronage. Their movement to safe havens in West Bengal was a direct consequence of the Awami League government’s crackdown on organisations that had a history of “collaboration” with the Pakistan state during the Liberation War of 1971.
The West Bengal government chose to not react to these warnings possibly because it calculated that there was some electoral mileage to be drawn from appearing to be welcoming to those who professed to be religious hardliners. In the 2011 Assembly election, the Trinamul Congress-Congress alliance benefited substantially from the perception in some Muslim communities that the erstwhile CPI(M) chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was somehow “anti-Muslim” on account of his distaste for madrasa education.
If some of the disclosures in the media of the investigations into the Saradha chit fund collapse are to be believed, the sanctuary in West Bengal wasn’t entirely governed by misplaced humanitarianism. There are now suggestions that the masterminds of the ponzi scheme despatched gunny sacks of Indian currency to Bangladesh for hawala transactions to a third country. The allegation that Islamist political outfits in Bangladesh were the facilitators of hawala is serious. It would suggest that there are politicians in West Bengal and, perhaps, even linked to the governing establishment who are entirely at ease compromising national security for the proverbial 30 pieces of silver.
As far as the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen was concerned, the Burdwan blasts were a mishap. There is as yet no evidence to suggest that the deadly bombs that were being manufactured were intended for use in India. On the contrary, details have now emerged of the bomb factories supplying these lethal weapons for export to Bangladesh. Yet, in the aftermath of the investigations into the Burdwan blasts, aspects of the elaborate networks, involving madrasas and jihadi training for Muslim women, have stumbled out. They make it quite clear that the West Bengal authorities were both negligent of national security and allowed Indian territory to be used as a terror hub against Bangladesh. On both counts, the Mamata Banerjee government stands, even if it has belatedly recognised it was playing with fire.
The state government, it would seem, was being wilfully disingenuous in believing that the subversion of Bangladesh would not have a spill over effect on West Bengal. Even a perfunctory understanding of Islamist radicalism should have persuaded the “ultra-secular” chief minister that the political theology of groups that have grown out of Maulana Maudoodi’s teachings don’t recognise the sanctity of national boundaries. These groups make no distinction between Indian Muslims and Bangladeshi Muslims: to them, both are part of the same community of true believers.
Indeed, more and more evidence is now emerging that the network of radical Islamism is not confined to Bangladeshi émigrés. The huge, one-lakh strong demonstration in Burdwan earlier this month against any involvement of the NIA in the blasts investigations was a show of strength by the supporters of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen. Most worrying was the fact that the jihadi terror group was able to draw upon a network of those who had earlier been active in fighting the CPI(M) over Nandigram. Clearly, the demonstration was also a veiled threat to the Trinamul Congress to desist from acting on the threat to national security.
However, it is important to point out that the influence of the radicals on the Muslim communities in West Bengal is still small. The so-called “armed action” by Trinamul Congress supporters against the BJP enclaves in Makhra village in Birbhum district an action very reminiscent of the CPI(M) “class action” in Nandigram cut across the Hindu-Muslim divide. Indeed, there was the unique spectacle of Muslim peasants siding with the BJP against the Trinamul Congress.
True, there have been small-scale communal riots, particularly in North and South 24 Parganas districts but the subliminal polarisation evident in, say, large tracts of Uttar Pradesh is absent. West Bengal is getting increasingly more violent but this regression hasn’t yet been accompanied by overt sectarian hate.
The danger is that this delicate balance could very easily change if groups like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen have a licence to make West Bengal a laboratory for its hateful and violent politics.