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The ISI Reaches East
Anatomy of a Conspiracy
Jaideep Saikia*


The geo-strategy of a region normally hinges - at least in one primal sense - on its proximity or susceptibility to alienation. The susceptibility to alienation, in this context, implies proximity to 'outer lands', which, although not overtly hostile, possess a measure of, or potential for, sustained outward subversion.

If this thesis is to count as even minimally true, then the Northeastern States of India [1] expressly qualify as a region of immense strategic importance. As a result, the security considerations of the Northeast, threatened by way of the strategic encirclement [2] it is heir to, cannot be glossed over.

If the geography of the region mandates its strategic encirclement, history provides the reasons for its fortification. Until 1826 and the Treaty of Yandabo concluded between the Burmese and the British, whereby, on 24 February 1826, the King of Burma 'renounced all claims' upon, and agreed to 'abstain from all future interference with the principality of Assam and its dependencies', [3] the region, [4] at least in a strict political sense, [5] was itself something of an 'outland'. However, British policy in the region (after its annexation) was an all-encompassing attribute and its geo-strategy took into account the policies of the encircling nations. Independent India's policies towards the bordering nations, unfortunately, and at least during the early years, were rather impressionistic and did not seek to consolidate the position inherited from the British. Indeed, India engaged reluctantly in a war with China in 1962 over territorial disputes in the region. And although recent years have witnessed lesser sabre rattles, an amicable solution to certain disputes continues to elude these two countries.

'The little wars' of the Northeast have also found (active) covert support by neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and China. [6] In addition, Myanmarese fringe outfits (primarily the Kachins) have deepened existing historical-cultural ties further by supporting local movements by offering training, safe havens and outward routes. As a matter of detail, the Myanmarese connection in the separatist campaigns of the region predates almost all other such external aid. [7]

According to at leas one theory, India's intervention in, and contribution to the formation of, Bangladesh - erstwhile East Pakistan - was motivated by a desire to thwart a Sino-Pakistani pincer formation which was thought to be gaining in ground in the late 1960s. Discounting the convenient theory of simply an Indo-Pakistani rivalry, which brought about the dismemberment of Pakistan, a noted South Asia watcher and journalist writes:

A close look at the map of the subcontinent and the growing Sino-Pakistani nexus in the late 1960s would surely convince anyone with a sense of geopolitics and military strategy that in the event of a total war between India on the one hand and China and Pakistan on the other, a determined Chinese drive through Assam or North Bengal could link up with Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and cut off the Northeast. Two decades after the break up of Pakistan into two countries and the relative stability achieved by the Indian politico-military effort in the Northeast, Pakistani talk (notably from Z.A. Bhutto) of entrusting the security of East Pakistan to the 'China factor' might, in retrospect, seems to have been without substance. But to an Indian decision maker in New Delhi in the late 1960s, besieged as he was with growing overtly pro-Chinese left radicalism in West Bengal; virulent guerrilla movements in Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura; language riots in Assam; and a number of ethnic insurrections on the doorstep in North Burma, many directly backed by China, Bhutto's threat raised India's worst fears of a Chinese sweep through the region, an eventual link-up with Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, and the secession of the entire Northeast Indian states [8] .

Quoting a senior Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) source, the author goes on to state that the late P.N. Banerji, the then Chief of RAW's Eastern division, in a briefing to RAW Field Officers at Calcutta in August 1971 had insisted that a fear of the Northeast being cut off was primarily the reason for the Indian enthusiasm for supporting the Bengali liberation struggle in 1971 [9] .

But three decades of independent statehood for Bangladesh and pre-liberation Indian concern as detailed above - while achieving the absence of a proactive Pakistani state in India's Eastern fringes - have not prevented radical pro-Pakistani Islamic elements from emerging in that country and providing aid and sustenance to separatist groups waging a war against India. The reasons for this, as a former Foreign Secretary states, are that:

…a metamorphosis in the social and political scene of Bangladesh had occurred, first because of Mujib's own lack of conviction about transforming his country into a genuine secular-democracy and, second, because he had consciously allowed reinduction of pro-Pakistani and anti-liberation elements into Bangladesh's politics, civil services and armed forces. He adopted such a strategy in order to reduce the influence of political leaders and armed forces personnel who were actively involved in the freedom struggle. My assessment is that he hoped to ensure supreme power for himself by counter-balancing and playing of these two groups against each other in the domestic political processes. With the passage of time, Bangladesh became an Islamic republic. It must not be forgotten that the first step in the direction was taken by Mujib himself who attended the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) Summit conference in Lahore in 1974. Whosoever came to power in Bangladesh had to fulfil two stipulations for surviving in power: first, that he or she should maintain a certain amount of distance from India and second, the person should confirm the Islamic identity of Bangladesh [10] .

Pakistan's renewed interest in the Northeast, therefore, received a boost as a result of Bangladesh's acts of affirmation. Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence's (ISI) 're-entry into the game' became possible either because of direct support of the Bangladesh authorities or through the Bangladesh Field Intelligence or other agencies on the old-tie net. [11]

The roles of Bhutan and Nepal in 'the little wars' have largely been those of accessories. The two Himalayan nations have provided safe havens to separatist groups from the Northeast, as also transit facilities. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have their headquarters in Bhutan, [12] and although latest reports suggests that the Royal Bhutan Army is planning a clamp down on the Assamese rebels [13] , many an anti-India agency has reportedly set up operations and bases in these countries. [14] Recent reports have also spoken of a Nepal-based ISI operation through which counterfeit currency, in connivance with some local agents, is being pumped into Assam. [15] Such reports notwithstanding, the Nepalese Ambassador to India, B.B.Thapa, during the course of a press conference in Guwahati, said that his country has never allowed anti-India activities to grow on its soil and that vigilance has been stepped up along the border. [16]

To be fair to the separatist groups of the region, however, it must be added these foreign interventions are far from an adequate explanation of militancy, and that a situation of discontentment and upheaval was already prevalent in the region when foreign support was sought or provided. Samir Kumar Das, in his political analysis of the ULFA thus provides a strong critique of the 'foreign hand' theory:

It is sometimes believed that the ULFA movement is the handiwork of some neighbouring foreign powers like China, Bangladesh and Burma. The Government of India reportedly possesses 'impeccable evidences' that can decisively prove the involvement of the foreign hand. The erstwhile Assam movement is taken to be part of a greater CIA sponsored project of Operation Brahmaputra with the sole objective of curbing Soviet influence in India and in South East Asia via India. The ULFA movement is allegedly masterminded by Bangladesh and Burma.

The theory of the 'foreign hand' suffers from a number of limitations, two of which deserves mention at this point. First, to say that the movement is sponsored and masterminded by foreign powers might imply that it has no internal basis. It thus glosses over the economic, political and cultural variables that are taken into consideration here. However, there is no denying the fact that the foreign powers might have taken advantage of large-scale unrest, violence and breakdown of law and order, particularly in Assam and in the Northeast, in general. The foreign powers usually fish in already troubled waters. Secondly, it is true that the foreign powers might have a hand in keeping the disturbances alive and destabilising the region with an eye to carve out a separate state (sometimes, named, United States of Bengal) and thereby inflicting a dismemberment on India to avenge that of Pakistan in 1971. But there is no independent source to verify their role in aiding and abetting unrest and 'insurgencies', political turmoil and subversion, whether by financing these activities or by supplying sophisticated arms and training to hard-core rebels. Hence, their latent motives in most cases, remain unknown and we have nothing to do but to rely helplessly on the assertions and counter-assertions of the respective governments. [17]

Nevertheless, while it is not a matter of debate that long years of neglect and subversion have led the region to the present state of affairs and the rise of militancy, the aid which most separatist movements have been receiving from foreign powers cannot be discounted.

As a matter of analysis and case study, this paper examines the role of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence in Assam. A cursory look at the agency in question is, perhaps, in order in this context.

Founded in 1948 by a British army officer, Major General R. Cawthome, then Deputy Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, the role of the Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) was expanded by President Ayub Khan in order to safeguard Pakistan's national interests, monitor opposition politicians and sustain military rule in Pakistan.

The ISI is tasked with the collection of foreign and domestic intelligence; co-ordination of intelligence functions of the three armed services; surveillance of its cadre, foreigners, the media, politically active segments of Pakistani society, diplomats of other countries accredited to Pakistan as also of Pakistani diplomats abroad; the interception and monitoring of communications; and the execution of covert offensive operations. Staffed by hundreds of civilian and military officers, and thousands of other employees, the ISI has its headquarters in Islamabad. The Agency reportedly employs a total of about 10,000 officers and staff members, a number which does not include informants and other assets. It is reportedly organised into between six and eight divisions.

The division of the Joint Intelligence Bureau which is responsible for political intelligence consists of three sections, one of which is devoted to operations against India. The Joint Intelligence/North is responsible for operations in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) including propaganda, infiltration, exfiltration and other clandestine operations. The Joint Signal Intelligence Bureau operates a chain of signals to militants operating in Kashmir.

The ISI is of paramount importance at the joint services level. Its importance stems from the fact that it is in complete charge of all covert operations outside Pakistan. Democratic governments of the past have had only very loose control over the Agency. The Agency also reportedly supplies weaponry, advice, training and other forms of assistance to separatist groups in the Indian Punjab and Kashmir, as also to the ones waging a war against the Indian state in the Northeast.

The 1965 Indo-Pak War provoked a major crisis of intelligence in Pakistan. The War revealed the inefficiency of the intelligence agencies, which had, until then, been committed primarily to domestic investigative work. Ayub Khan set up a committee headed by Yahya Khan (who was later to succeed him) to examine the working of the agencies.

The ISI has been deeply involved in domestic politics and has kept track of the opponents of various incumbent regimes. Before 1958 and the imposition of Martial Law, the ISI reported to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. When Martial Law was promulgated in 1958, all intelligence agencies fell under the direct control of the President and Chief Martial Law Administrator.

It was the late President Zia-ul-Haq who initiated the present pattern of the ISI's interventions in India after the failure of 'Operation Gibraltar' in 1988. 'Operation Topac', a realistic representation of the Pakistani strategy, envisaged a three-part action plan for the 'liberation' of Kashmir. [18] Phase I of this strategy envisaged a low-level insurgency in J&K, a subversion of all major state, administrative, financial and political institutions, mass mobilisation on religious issues, the training of subversive elements and the development of means to cut off lines of communication between Jammu and Kashmir, and within Kashmir and Ladakh. The road upto Kargil and the road over Khardungla were to receive 'special attention'. The Phase also envisaged collaboration with the then very active Sikh extremists in neighbouring Punjab. The primary Phase II objective was to "Exert maximum pressure on the Siachen, Kargil and Rajouri-Punch sectors to force the Indian Army to deploy reserve formations outside the main Kashmir Valley." This was to be backed up by a campaign of co-ordinated attacks against a wide range of military and infrastructure targets, including airfields, the Banihal Tunnel and the Kargil-Leh highway. Infiltration by 'Afghan Mujahideen' was integral to this stage. Phase III conceived of the liberation of the Kashmir Valley and the establishment of an "independent Islamic State". [19]

According to a report compiled by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) of India in 1995, the ISI spent roughly Rs. 24 million every month to sponsor its activities in J&K. Although all militant groups receive arms and training from Pakistan, the pro-Pakistan groups - who advocate the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan - are reported to be favoured by the ISI. At least six major militant organisations, and several smaller ones, are presently operating in J&K. Their strengths are variously estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000. They are roughly divided between those who seek azaadi (independence) and those who support accession to Pakistan. The oldest militant organisation, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), had spearheaded the movement for an independent Kashmir. The JKLF has, however, fallen from the ISI's grace, and is now largely an overground political organisation with secessionist aims. Its thunder has been stolen by the powerful pro-Pakistani group, the Hizbul-Mujaheddeen. The other major groups are Harakat-ul Ansar (which absorbed the Afghan veterans of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Harkat-ul-jihad-ul-Islami), a group which reportedly has a large number of non-Kashmiris in it; the Al Umar; the Al Barq; the Muslim Janbaz Force; and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which is also made up largely of Mujahideen from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and includes a suicide cadre, the fidayeen. An emerging group is the Jaish-e-Mohammad-Mujahideen-e-Tanzeem, established by Maulana Masood Azhar, who was released by the Indian Government after the hijack of the Kathmandu-Delhi Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 to Kandahar in Afghanistan. Several thousand fighters from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries (estimated variously at strengths upto 5,000 men) have also joined some of the militant groups or have formed their own tanzeems (groups). [20]

Recent evidence suggests that the ISI is now executing a much wider strategy of encirclement, exploiting every potential area of conflict, and the extensive, sensitive and poorly managed land borders all along the East and Northeast of India. It is under this larger programme that the ISI now operates training camps near the border in Bangladesh where separatist groups of the Northeast, collectively known as the 'United Liberation Front of Seven Sisters', are trained in terrorist activities. These groups include the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), People's Liberation Army (PLA), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Northeast Student's Organisation (NESO). [21]

The situation in Assam is of special significance in this context, primarily because of the demography of the State, and of the historical movement of populations. Long years of a tryst with separatism and a continuous stream of illegal immigration from Bangladesh accords the State a unique place in the examination of the ISI's activities in the Northeast. The State has a sizeable Muslim population and has, in fact, had two Muslim Chief Executives in the past. [22] The demographic mosaic also includes a tribal population as well as a smattering of people from other parts of India, mainly from Bengal, Bihar and Rajasthan. A tea workers community, largely comprising Santhal tribals, transferred into the region by the British in the nineteenth century in order to quell a Central Indian rebellion, has also become an inalienable part of the Assamese soil. In this scenario, there has been a mushroom growth of separatist groups in the State whose search for newer, elusive identities occasioned an outward look for external assistance. The most significant groups operating in the State include the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), though there are a myriad of others, swearing allegiance to almost every identifiable ethnic sub-group. [23] There has, moreover, been a recent and sudden proliferation of Muslim militant organisations in the State. [24]

The ULFA, which had initially looked to the Myanmarese fringe outfits for help and an outward conduit, came under some pressure during the early nineties. [25] As B.G. Verghese mentioned in his seminal work on the Northeast, pressures in Myanmar led the ULFA a couple of years later to establish contacts with the ISI and the Afghan Mujahideen in Pakistan, and still later with the Bangladesh Field Intelligence in Dhaka, and less successfully with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). [26] Indeed, the Assam Assembly was told in March 1994 that some 200 ULFA militants had reportedly received training with the help of Pakistan's ISI, many of them in Afghanistan, over the preceding two years. [27] It is interesting to note that a newspaper report attributes a statement by the present Assam Chief Minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, where he accused his predecessor, the late Hiteswar Saikia, of inaction even after being informed about ISI activities way back in 1994. A senior officer of the Barak Valley district administration had reportedly informed the then Chief Secretary, H.N. Das, through a letter about a group comprising the ISI, the Hijbulla Mujahid of Iran, ULFA and other Islamic fundamentalist groups planning to carry out violence, particularly in Hindu villages. [28]

The first comprehensive report on the subject was placed before the Assam State Assembly on April 6, 2000 by Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, after almost a year-long engagement with the ISI's activities throughout the State. [29] The Report followed the penetration and eventual dismantling of one of the Pakistani intelligence Agency's network in the State. On August 7, 1999, the Assam Police achieved a major breakthrough and arrested two officers of the ISI as well as two other agents of the same Agency from a hotel in Guwahati. The police also arrested twenty seven other persons belonging to different Islamic militant groups. The four ISI operatives arrested were identified as Mohammad Fasih Ullah Hussaini alias Mamid Mehmood alias Khalid Mehmood of Hyderabad (Sind), Pakistan' Mohammad Javed Waqar alias Mohammad Mustaffa alias Mohammad Mehraj alias Abdul Rahman of Karachi, Pakistan; Maulana Hafiz Mohammad Akram Mallik alias Muzaffar Hussain alias Atabullah alias Bhaijan alias Abdul Awal of Mukam Shahwali village of Jammu and Kashmir; and Kari Salim Ahmad alias Abdul Aziz alias Sadat of Mehilki village of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh.

The Chief Minister's Report to the State Assembly - while seeking to establish the scale, nature and degree of the ISI threat - was mainly a glossary of the events which had occurred in the period following the August arrests of 31 persons. In the interregnum, according to the Report, the State police had exposed the modus operandi of the foreign Agency. The 16-page Report (which included photographs and profiles of the main accused) identified the activities of the ISI mainly in the following areas:

1.        Promoting indiscriminate violence in the State by providing active support to local militant outfits.

2.        Creating new militant outfits along ethnic and communal lines by instigating ethnic and religious groups.

3.        Supply of explosives and sophisticated arms to various terrorist groups.

4.        Causing sabotage of oil pipelines and other installations, communication lines, railways and roads.

5.        Promoting fundamentalism and militancy among local Muslim youths by misleading them in the name of Jehad.

6.        Promoting communal tension between Hindu and Muslim citizens by way of false and highly inflammatory propaganda. [30]

The Report goes on to state that the Assam Police has adequate evidence in its possession to show that the top ULFA leadership is in close touch with certain officials of the Pakistani High Commission in Dhaka. ULFA leaders have also been travelling to Pakistan regularly, and Pakistani agencies have already imparted arms training to hundreds of ULFA cadres. According to the Report, the confessional statements of many ULFA leaders, including its Vice Chairman, Pradip Gogoi, have revealed that the Pakistani officials in their High Commission at Dhaka make arrangements for their passports under various fake identities.

The Chief Minister's Report further speaks of the ISI being involved in the provision of different passports for the ULFA Commander-in-Chief, Paresh Barua. Providing a facsimile of Paresh Barua's passport, the report also reveals that the ULFA leader has been travelling to Karachi under the name of Kamaruddin Zaman Khan. [31] The ULFA-ISI nexus had, in fact, begun way back in the early nineties. An enumeration of a list of some of the early events and meetings which had taken place between the two is perhaps necessary at this juncture.

       In the month of November 1990, ULFA decides to send Munin Nabis and Partha Pratim Bora alias Jabed to Bangladesh to contact the ISI at Dhaka, to arrange the supply of arms and ammunition. They were instructed to set up a base camp in Bangladesh.

       Munin Nabis sets up a base camp in Dhaka in 1990 with the help of a certain Colonel (Retired) Faruque of the Bangladesh Freedom Party and Gani Shapan of the Jatiya Party. Nabis rents a house at Mogbazar in Dhaka.

       Munin Nabis assumes the name 'Iqbal' and contacts Samsul Siddique, the Second Secretary in the Pakistan High Commission at Dhaka. Contacts with the ISI are established through Siddique.

       Munin Nabis visits Pakistan to negotiate with a terrorist group headed by Mustafa Ali Jubardo to negotiate training for ULFA cadres on payment.

       The Vice Chairman of ULFA, Pradip Gogoi visits Dhaka in January 1991 and contacts an ISI officer called Haque and signs an agreement for the training to ULFA cadres. He also meets another ISI officer, Jalal, there.

       After the agreement with the ISI, Munin Nabis calls a group of ULFA members for training in Pakistan in April 1991. Pradip Gogoi accompanies a six-member group to Islamabad for training with the ISI.

       Hari Mohan Roy alias Rustar Choudhury of ULFA, along with ten other ULFA cadres, undergoes training in camps organised by the ISI in Pakistan in 1993. Hari Mohan Roy obtains a passport under the name of Jamul Akhtar son of Akhtar Hussain of Bangladesh [32] .

The ISI had also organised training for ULFA cadres in association with the Directorate General of Field Intelligence of Bangladesh, at a camp located 35 kilometres west of the Karnaphulli Hydro-electric project in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1993. The training was supervised by Brigadier Joimullah Khan Choudhury. The ISI had reportedly also imparted specialised training to 48 ULFA cadres in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) along with Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA) cadres. There is also evidence to suggest that the ISI is activating the border areas in Nepal for relocation of some separatist groups. ULFA and the NDFB have reportedly already set up camps in Jhapa, Tapegunj and Panchthar in eastern Nepal.

The Pakistani misadventure in Kargil brought the ULFA-ISI nexus into the open. According to the army operating in Assam, the ULFA was involved in the passing of information of troop movements to and from Assam to the ISI. The ULFA was also allegedly pressured by the ISI to make anti-Indian statements - primarily supporting the liberation of Kashmir. Informed intelligence sources also spoke of the Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) meeting the ISI backed Sipah-e-Sahiba at the Hathajari Jamait Ul Ulum Ali Madarsa in Chittagong. The Sipah-e-Sahiba, whose links with the Taliban are well known, was represented by a Didar Bakth [33] .

The ULFA has, of course, in a statement to the Press, denied any links with the ISI. [34]

There has been a great deal of activity in the days following the foiling of 'Mission Assam'. Newer insights into the ISI threat are now available. The refrain that is heard the most relates to the ISI blueprint to form an Islamic State in the Northeast, and there are widespread reports of Muslim social institutions such as madarsas [35] (religious schools and seminaries), and in certain cases, mosques, aiding the cause of the ISI.

The present situation is one of continued confrontation. The Barak Valley of Assam has reportedly emerged as a hotbed for anti-India activities by the ISI. The arrest of Bilal alias Nanoo Mian, the ISI courier implicated in the Indian Airlines hijacking episode, has further revealed the extent to which the Pakistani intelligence Agency has spread its tentacles. Interrogation of the courier revealed that he had helped 40 Muslim youth from Assam to cross over to Bangladesh for training under the Harkat-Ul-Mujahideen. The immediate emphasis of the ISI, it would appear, is of breaking into the Assamese Muslim psyche. However, reports have suggested that it has not been very successful in its efforts in this direction. Indeed, many an Assamese Muslim intellectual has condemned the activities of the ISI.

There are, nevertheless, critical danger signals, the most important being the success of Pakistan's strategy of encirclement. In Bangladesh an Islamic resurgence is reportedly taking place, [36] and a number of extremist groups are now operating openly in that country. The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), led by Shawkat Osman alias Sheikh Farid, was established in 1992, and is estimated to have a strength of about 15,000. The HuJI maintains six camps in the hilly areas of Chittagong, where the cadres are imparted arms training. Several hundred recruits have also been trained in Afghanistan. The cadres are recruited mainly from among students of various madarsas and style themselves as the 'Bangladeshi Taliban'. HuJI activists regularly cross over into several Indian States and maintain contact with 'sources' there. Reports indicate that the ISI has an open hand in the activities of the HuJI. The ISI has intensified subversive activities in Bangladesh since the Awami League came to power in June 1996. [37] A party called the Freedom Party, formed by the convicted killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has also raised the slogan "Amra hobo Taliban,Bangla hobe Afghan" (We will be the Taliban; Bangladesh will be Afghanistan) and it seems that this sloganeering has been carried into rural Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and its students' wing, the Islamic Chattra Shibir, have also escalated their activities, and recently killed five pro-Government students of the Bangladesh Chattra League (BCL). The BCL is the student wing of the ruling Awami League, and the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, condemned the Razakars for having "crossed the limit." The Jamaat is currently led by Golam Azam, who is widely held responsible for the activities of the Razakars whom he led, and who collaborated with Pakistan's Army in the genocide in Bangladesh during the 1971 War that resulted in the country's independence. After the War, Golam Azam fled to Pakistan, but was allowed to return to Bangladesh during the predecessor regime of Prime Minister Begum Khalida Zia. The present Home Minister, Mohammad Nasim, at a condolence meeting for the murdered students stated, "I am deeply shocked that the defeated forces of Golam Azam, who led a genocide throughout the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, are now again craving for blood to take revenge." [38] The Jamaat has close and continuous links with Pakistan.

There is now also incontrovertible evidence of the ISI's increasing success in consolidating its hold in Nepal, and in engineering critical demographic changes along the Indo-Nepal border. There has been an 'alarming' increase in Islamic institutions (madarsas and mosques) on both sides of the Indo-Nepal border, including the no-man's land that lies between. [39] A study conducted by the Nepalese Government has revealed that about 225 madarsas have come up in the border districts during the past few years. An Indian intelligence report lists as many of 26 active Islamic organisations in Nepal, and identifies as many as 66 madarsas on the Indo-Nepal border that are known to be linked with and backed by the ISI. [40]

With India's tenuous land link with the Northeast along the Chiken's Neck located between Nepal and Bangladesh, these demographic shifts and subversive activities clearly have a critical and sinister significance. Moreover, with an active ISI network at work in Dhaka, there appears to be no foreseeable end to the assistance extended to separatist groups in the Northeast (primarily Assam). Moreover, recent developments in Bhutan will probably see at least one faction of the ULFA returning to Bangladesh. And for all its denials, it is quite clear that the separatist group is controlled by the ISI. An invigorated ULFA presence in Bangladesh could, consequently, significantly further an ISI agenda of abetment to and facilitation of the continuing illegal immigration into, and destabilisation of, India's troubled Northeast.


* The writer is a Guwahati based political and security analyst.

[1] The Northeast of India comprises of the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Collectively these states are sometimes lyrically referred to as the 'Seven Sisters', a coinage set into currency by Jyoti Prasad Saikia, a serving member of the Assam cadre of the Indian Administrative Service, in 1976.

[2] The Northeast of India borders Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Nepal is placed slightly afield near the corridor. The Northeast of India is the only region in the SAARC to be situated amid five countries.

[3] H.K. Barpujari, ed, The Comprehensive History of Assam, Guwahati: Publication Board of Assam, 1992, vol II.

[4] But for the principalities of Manipur and Tripura, the present states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland were all districts of Assam. They were accorded Union Territory-status and eventually Statehood (in the case of Meghalaya, direct Statehood) many years after Independence. Arunachal Pradesh was formed from the erstwhile Northeast Frontier Agency.

[5] Economic and socio-religious ties, however, existed with the rest of India.

[6] See for details, Nirmal Nibedon, Nagaland: The Night of the Guerrillas, New Delhi: Lancer, 1983, second edition. Also see, Subir Bhaumik, Insurgent Crossfire, New Delhi: Lancer, 1996. A military source recently informed this writer of possible renewed Chinese aid to separatist groups from the Northeast conduited through the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence in Dhaka. This claim, however, is yet to be corroborated by other security agencies.

[7] See for details, Dipankar Banarjee, Myanmar and Northeast India, New Delhi: Delhi Policy Group, 1997.

[8] Bhaumik, Insurgent Crossfire, p. 32.

[9] Ibid., p 33.

[10] J.N.Dixit, Liberation and Beyond, New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1999, p. 249.

[11] B.G.Verghese, India's Northeast Resurgent, New Delhi: Konark Publishers,1996, p. 302.

[12] See for reference, Jaideep Saika, "India's Neighbours and the Separatists," Guwahati: Sitrep, Sentinel, Guwahati, March 30, 2000.

[13] “Bhutan tells ULFA to move, Barua looks to IBRF for help”, Sentinel, July 12, 2000 & “Bhutan Army ready to oust militants”, Assam Tribune, Guwahati, July 12, 2000. Reliable sources informed this writer that the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) has already moved into four districts of the country, replacing the District administration. Indeed, Northeast Daily, Guwahati, July 15, 2000, reports that 4,000 RBA soldiers have been deployed between Kalokhola and Daifam along the Assam-Bhutan border. This is being thought to be - in select security circles - a prelude to a military intervention in the areas dominated by the ULFA and the NDFB. However, independent reports have maintained that the RBA does not have the capability to match the separatist groups’ firepower. In this context, the recent demand by Assam Chief Minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta to New Delhi wherein a joint operation by the Indian army alongside the RBA can be motivated is of some significance.

[14] 'ISI carrying out anti-India activities from Nepal', Sentinel, June 12, 2000 & “Harkat's bid to set up base in Bhutan”, Assam Tribune, July 4, 2000.

[15] “ISI pumping counterfeit currencies into State”, Assam Tribune, February 25, 2000.

[16] “No anti-Indian activities in Nepal: Envoy”, Assam Tribune, July 13, 2000.

[17] Samir Kumar Das, ULFA - A Political Analysis, Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1994, p 45.

[18] “Op Topac: The Kashmir Imbroglio”, authored by the India Defence Review ‘Think Tank’, was first published in 1989, and was described by the journal as: "Part fact, part fiction, the scenarios visualised have been based on the trends, which have become manifest in the subcontinent in the last few years." The paper was republished in Indian Defence Review, New Delhi, 14 (2), April-June 1999, pp.19-34, after Pakistan's open engagement in Kargil, which had been substantially anticipated in the scenarios projected in 1989.

[19] Ibid., pp. 24-25.

[20] The South Asia Terrorism Portal identifies the following 'minor' groups: Al Fateh; Al Barq; Al Jehad; Al Mujahid Force; Al Mustafa Liberation Fighters; al Umar Mujahideen; Ikhwan-ul-Mujahideen; Islami Inquilabi Mahaz; Islami Jamaat-e-Tulba; Islamic Students League; Jamait-ul-Mujahideen; Jammu & Kashmir National Liberation Army; Mahaz-e-Azadi; Muslim Mujahideen; Tehrik-e-Jehad; Tehrik-e-Jehad-e-Islami; Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqar Jafaria; Tehrik-e-Mujahideen. The Dukhtaran-e-Millat is a quasi-militant, Islamic fundamentalist organisation of women. Cf. Outfits/Terrorist Groups J&K.htm .

[22] Mohammad Saadullah was Premier (as he was then known) for a tenure between April 1, 1937 and February 4, 1938. He was then in the Muslim Party and headed a coalition Ministry that came into being after the 1935 Government of India Act. His second tenure as Premier began on February 5, 1938 and extended till Septerber 18, 1938. He once again headed a coalition ministry, only, this time around, he had joined the Muslim League. Syeda Anwara Taimur was Chief Minister of the State between December 6, 1980 and June 28, 1981. She headed a Congress (I) Ministry during the 'difficult years'.

[23] As many as 33 such groups have been identified in the State, with 20 of these currently described as 'operative'. They include the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF); Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO); Dima Halim Daogah (DHD); Karbi National Volunteers (KNV); Rabha National Security Force; Koch-Rajbongshi Liberation Organisation (KRLO); Karbi People's Front (KPF); Tiwa National Revolutionary Force (TNRF); Bircha Commando Force (BCF); Bengali Tiger Force (BTF); Adivasi Security Force (ASF); All Assam Adivasi Suraksha Samiti (AAASS); Gorkha Tiger Force (GTF); and the Barak Valley Youth Liberation Front (BVYLF). Cf. groups_Assam.htm .


[24] The Muslim militant groups in the State include: Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA); Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA); Muslim Security Council of Assam (MSCA); United Liberation Militia of Assam (ULMA); Islamic Liberation Army of Assam (ILAA); Muslim volunteer Force (MVF); Muslim Liberation Army (MLA); Muslim Security Force (MSF); Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS); Islamic United Reformation Protest of India (IURPI); United Muslim Liberation Fromt of Assam (UMLFA); Revolutionary Muslim Commandos (RMC); Muslim Tiger Force (MTF); People's United Liberation Front (PULF); Adam Sena (AS); Harkat-ul-Mujahideen; Harkat-ul-Jehad. Cf. ibid.

[25] Operation Golden Bird mounted by an unintended joint operation of the Indian and Myanmarese armies in April-May 1995 ambushed a contingent of ULFA (and an assortment of other separatist groups) cadres as they were infiltrating back into India carrying a shipment of arms and after receiving arm's training. As many as 50 separatists were killed and a substantial number apprehended. The major engagements took place in the Champai and Chhimtuipui sectors of Mizoram. ULFA's 'Foreign Secretary', Sasadhar Choudhury, was among those caught. He was later released on bail. The value of the shipment captured together with delivery costs was placed at $250,000. See, Verghese, op. cit, p. 58.

[26] Ibid, pp. 59-60.

[27] Ibid., p. 60.

[28] “Letter of July 27,1994 (No.COM-3/93-94/50)”, Cf., “Govt was aware of ISI activities in '94, admits CM”, Sentinel, November 22, 1999. The letter to the Chief Secretary also spoke of some new maulvis and Muslim youth who were seen taking shelter in Muslim villages, and meetings were being organized 'by these people in different places' including mosques. "These persons usually spend about 3-4 days at one place, then move on; the subject of their discussion is reported to be incitement of terrorism." The letter goes on to talk of a "fear being fuelled by some recent instances of gang rape of Hindu women and dacoity by Muslims."

[29] ISI Activities in Assam, Statement laid on the table of the House of Assam Legislative Assembly under item no. 12, dated 6.4.2000. The full text of the Report is available at Activities in Assam.htm.


[30] Audio cassettes containing inflammatory speeches by Maulana Masood Azhar, the terrorist freed in the wake of the Indian Airlines hijacking in December 1999, were being distributed all over Assam. The speeches include rhetoric such "jihad wohi jisme goli chalti hai aur kafir ke sar se nikalti hai" (This was first reported in Saikia, Jaideep, Assam's aliens and the ISI connection, Guwahati: Sitrep, The Sentinel, March 23, 2000 ). Later in an interview to the author on April 20, 2000, G.K.Pillai, Joint Secretary(Northeast), Ministry of Home Affairs, said that he has ordered the seizure of all copies of the cassette.

[31] In August 1997, Anup Chetia, the 'General Secretary' of ULFA had also travelled to Geneva on a fake Bangladeshi passport under the name of John David Salomar in order to address the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights then in session. It was learned that he was slated to appear before the Sub-Commission under both his actual and assumed identities. He was, however, identified and prevented from speaking by vigorous action from the then Indian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN office at Geneva. Cf. Arundhati Ghose, "Terrorists, Human Rights & the United Nations", Faultlines, New Delhi, vol.1, 1999, pp. 73-86.

[32] Information made available to the writer by the Assam Police's Special Branch.

[33] Made available to the writer by informed sources.

[34] ISIre Amar Samparka Nai: ULFA”, Asomiya Pratidin, Guwahati, March 18, 2000.

[35] According to reports which emanated during the period following the August 7, 1999 certain madarsas. See for instance, Jaideep Saika, “The ISI factor: Anatomy of a Conspiracy”, Northeast Daily, June 30, 1999. They had a curriculum with a definite Islamic fundamentalist emphasis and little of the usual (secular) subjects. As a matter of fact, on August 20, 1999, a special convention of religious leaders of Islamic institutions in the State urged all madarsas and other religious institutions to help the government fight the ISI menace.

[36] S.R. Chakravarty lists as many as 31 Islamic parties currently active in Bangladesh. Cf., Chakravarty, “Communalism and Fundamentalism in Bangladesh”, in Nancy Jetly, ed, Regional Security in South Asia: The Ethno-Sectarian Dimensions, New Delhi: Lancer Books, 1999, pp. 340-41.

[37] “Bangladesh: Assessment”,

[38] “Islamic parties in Dhaka under fire over student deaths”, Asian Age, New Delhi, July 17, 2000.

[40] Ibid.





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