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Dont Let Hawks Hijack Foreign Policy

by Sanjib Baruah, 4 November 2008

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Indian Express, November 4, 2008

Don’t blame the neighbours

: Foreign policy can figure prominently in the political calculations of terrorist groups. For instance, train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004 were cleverly timed to influence the Spanish elections. The Socialist party won an upset victory in the elections three days later, and replaced the Government of José María Aznar, and the new Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero kept his election promise of pulling 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq. Aznar had hoped that by blaming the Basque separatists, he would draw attention to his tough anti-terrorist stance at home, and away from his relations with George Bush. It backfired. The electorate did not like being politically manipulated by unproven charges being presented as facts.

Apparently Indian politicians don’t have to worry about such things, so they do not hold back on their speculation. Our wonderful democracy even allows our police officers to share their pet theories with the press. There are two such theories, substantially different, about the deadly Terror attacks in Assam.

Responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by the Islamic Security Force - Indian Mujahideen. It was formed in 2000 in Bodo-dominated areas with the goal of “defending” Muslims of Bengali descent from Bodo militancy. Ethnic violence in Assam has involved these two ethnic groups in the past two months. That the targeted cities include Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, and that the Gogoi government is politically allied with former Bodo militants provide context for the possibility of this group’s complicity. However, the ISF-IM does not have the capacity to carry out attacks that are unprecedented in scale, intensity and simultaneity. This explains the pet theory of a senior police official, G.M. Srivastava, currently Director General of the Home Guard. He says he is “certain” that the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is behind the blasts. ULFA has strongly denied any involvement.

Assam’s Home Department is playing it safe and has come up with a clever formulation: an “ULFA-jihadi hand” to imply a possible link between Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad (HuJi) and ULFA. Our officials of course could not care less that the Bangladesh Foreign Office dismisses these allegations. Bangladesh pointed out that India offered no evidence that HuJi, an outlawed group based in that country, is involved; and went on to tell India that “this is no time for finger-pointing without proof.”

India is not Spain; but it is not the case that the shenanigans of our politicians and police officers have no consequences, though they may not have to pay for them as directly as did Aznar. Indian intelligence has a very bad track record with providing definitive proof of the involvement of any particular group in terror attacks. It certainly could not have done it within minutes of these unprecedented blasts.

Given the sensitive state of inter-ethnic relations in Assam today, its statements are irresponsible as well. Very few people in Assam believe that ULFA is responsible. The scenes of bodies strewn all over, the numbers wounded and mangled, the images of burnt-out cars in familiar places are unlike anything the Assamese have seen before. In this moment of grief, shock and bleakness there are serious dangers to appearing to be politically manipulative.

They’re irresponsible when it comes to relations with Bangladesh as well. The current state of Indo-Bangladesh relations is dysfunctional from the perspective of Assam and Northeast India — not because of Assam, but because Bangladesh does not fit the Indian security establishment’s view of a good neighbour. Its ideal neighbour, after all, is Bhutan, which cooperated with the Indian army in operations against Northeast Indian militant groups in December 2003.

However, the dysfunctional relations apply to other aspects too. India ceaselessly complains about porous borders and lakhs of illegal Bangladeshis in India. Bangladesh says that there are none. That country’s refusal to acknowledge its citizens who reject what its system has to offer by voting with their feet does not speak well of its political health. But that is beside the point. What do such dysfunctional relations mean for Assam?

When India deports a Bangladeshi, the person is dropped in the no-man’s land between the two countries. No sovereign country is required to accept a person unilaterally deported by another country. But on this issue it is unlikely that India and Bangladesh can ever speak a shared language; how can we, when we are not doing that even inside our own country? There is already perennial confusion about the cut-off points and what separates “homecoming” from “infiltration”; many of our politicians and senior security establishment figures behave as if they have never heard of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact or the Indira-Mujib pact. We cannot let this carelessness extend so far. Letting the security establishment hijack our foreign policy priorities mortgages the future well-being of Assam.

The writer is honorary professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi