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West Bengal Is Becoming A ‘Terror Hotspot’ And This Is Why The Government Needs To Act Now

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By Annesha Ghosh:

In less than a month, six people have been arrested from different parts of Kolkata by the Special Task force (STF) of the Kolkata police in connection with an Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)-module operating out of West Bengal.

Given the impenetrability of the anti-national schemes the six accused are known to have partaken in while living at the very heart of Bengal’s capital city, the slew of arrests have sent alarm bells ringing across the corridors of power in Bengal and has yet again lent irrefutable currency to the state’s long-established infamy as a safe haven for militant elements.

For anybody even remotely conversant with Bengal’s enduring tryst with terror, these developments may not come as a surprise after all. Be it Amir Reza Khan, the alleged mastermind behind the 2002 American Centre attacks attacks, or Lashkar-e-Taiba’s eastern operation head Abdul Karim Tunda or Indian Mujahideen’s Yaseen Bhatkal, the uncomfortable reality of militants deriving succour from the state have resurfaced time and again.

As often the blame games may have panned out, the collective imprudence of central and state intelligence agencies in having invested greater time and resources in containing the Maoist threats to the near neglect of the need to monitoring terror of a different kind, has resulted in the steady proliferation of sleeper cells across the state over the years.

In fact, Bengal’s intelligence gathering mechanism has often proved flawed, to say the least. The ammonium nitrate for the IEDs that killed 20 people in the 2006 Varanasi twin explosions was purchased from Burrabazar market in Kolkata. Yaseen Bhatkal was let off in 2009 by Kolkata Police after he was arrested for carrying fake currency. Reports also suggest that the raw material for explosives that rocked Pune’s German Bakery in 2010 was handed over to Bhatkal in Kolkata by an IM operative native to the border district of Nadia.

If observations made by the STF of the Kolkata Police are to be believed, that parts of Kolkata and border districts of Bengal have for long been in use as hideouts by terrorists, is no more mere conjecture. Districts like Malda, North and South Dinajpur and Murshidabad serve as routes to smuggle arms and explosives along with counterfeit currency.

Early in 2014, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) had laid bare the ugly truth of Kolkata being leveraged as an important hub for activities of the IM. According to the NIA, Yaseen Bhatkal’s trusted aide, Asadullah Akhtar,had revealed that Aftab Ansari had started the IM in 1999-2000 with the help of Asif Reza Khan, a resident of Kolkata.

Tracing The Roots Of Terror In Bengal

One of the many reasons that have steadily abetted Bengal’s emergence as a terror hotspot is the porous and almost unguarded 2,200km border with Bangladesh that makes it a convenient passage into India for militants associated with several organizations. Spread across 232,752 km², this state on the eastern bottleneck of India has been the preferred transit point for militants to facilitate a logistic supply of subversive activities from Bangladesh.

The prevailing socio-economic inequities in certain minority-dominated belts in the state help terror elements successfully spread their networks, capitalizing on factors such as illiteracy and large-scale unemployment among the youth.

Moreover, the presence of two key railway stations – Howrah and Sealdah – is known to provide easy connectivity to immigrant militants with the rest of the country.

Image Source: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Image Source: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

This has been further compounded by the relaxed stance of the incumbent Mamata Banerjee government towards illegal immigration into the state from its eastern neighbour. The lackadaisical attitude of Bengal’s ruling party on this issue has often been perceived by the political fraternity as an indefatigable means to consolidate the chief minister’s minority support base in the state.

The Hawala-Terror Nexus:

Since the onset of the new millennium, most terror activities in the West Bengal have been known to be linked with the unaccounted crores of currency routed through hawala networks transcending international boundaries.

On September 26 this year, a hawala crackdown in Kolkata and Siliguri had led to the confiscation of nearly 80 crore in cash. The preferred hawala route to move money out of West Bengal to Pakistan and UAE has always been Bangladesh. An inter-state illegal lottery racket is also known to be in operation between in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, whereby the money generated is eventually route into West Bengal, facilitated by large pool of Bangladeshi and Pakistan-based operatives.

The Lurking IS Threat:

In August, following a meeting with DGPs of 12 states where West Bengal police chief GMP Reddy was also present, the Ministry of Home Affairs had asked the West Bengal government to form a team of cyber experts to monitor social networking sites for any suspicious activities. However, even after 4 months, the state government has failed to form a team.

Recent reports released by central agencies portend troublesome days ahead for Bengal. According to a survey by the cyber cell of the Intelligence Bureau, Howrah is the fourth city after Srinagar, Guwahati and Chinchwad (a suburb of Pune) where youths aged between 16 to 30 years have shown online interest in joining the IS.

What’s been even more worrying is the recovery of 147 IS posters over the past two months, from 17 villages in the bordering districts of Nadia and Murshidabad. The content of the posters promise a Mughalstan (or Mughalistan) – an independent homeland proposed for the Muslims of India.

In October 2014, the accidental blasts at a safe house in Burdawan’s Khagragarh, which allegedly housed a Trinamool Congress (TMC) office, had blown the lid off a noxious terror network traversing several districts of West Bengal. Although party general secretary Mukul Roy had denied the allegation, complaints of central agencies about the ‘non-cooperation’ received from TMC officials and the state police, had led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) charge Trinamool with having direct links with the blast.

The investigation into the Khagragarh case had thrown up cues on how the Jamaat-ut-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a banned Bangladeshi terror outfit, has been facilitating movement of Islamic State sympathizers–­­including women–from Hyderabad and Maharashtra to Bangladesh through the Bengal-Bangladesh border.

After the JMB was beaten down significantly by the Bangladeshi government in 2006, the group has reinstated substantially itself in the country and has also managed to establish a pervasive presence in at least 4 districts of West Bengal.

Furthermore, in a series of intriguing developments, the NIA had exposed how several “illegal madrasas” in Bengal and Assam were being used by Islamist terrorist outfits to train new recruits including women. In fact, the NIA probe revealed that one of the terror masterminds in the state, Mohammad Yusuf, who had gone to a madrasa at Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh as a teenager to study, had returned after 14 years in 2014 to set up a large unrecognized madrasa at Shimulia in Bardhaman district.

In this regard, the state government’s inability to uproot the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), running several illegal madrasas in remote corners of the western fringes of Bengal is to be squarely blamed.

Time For The TMC Government To Bite The Bullet?

Be it the arrest of the ISI agents, the rising incidence of JMB-sponsored activities or the IS eyeing the state as a potential reservoir for recruits—all of these unnerving realities point to a very palpable danger: West Bengal is a ticking time bomb.

Seemingly oblivious to the threats posed by such flaccid disposition towards curbing terror activities in her backyard, a resistance to change in tack on the part of the Mamata Banerjee government will only aggrandize the chances of the Bengal chief minster’s becoming more captive to recalcitrant forces that are inimical to national interests.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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