Ten months after the attack, Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina citing an investigation by her party claimed that at least 50 criminals had carried out the attack in cahoots with the police.
Addressing a press conference on June 13, 2005, Hasina said BNP chief Khaleda Zia, her son Tarique, then home state minister Lutfozzaman Babar, Nasiruddin Pintu and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury organised the attack, says a US embassy cable released by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
“After the attack, the criminals, who were earlier given training at Dewanganj in Jamalpur, went for Singair in Natore where a petrol pump owner gave them shelter. Prior to the attack, they held a series of meetings at Thanthonia Bazar in Bogra.”
She said: “I have heard that four persons wearing veil offloaded a consignment of arms from a tinted jeep in Tarique’s in-law’s residence at Dhanmondi on the night of August 20. The arms were used in the attack on the Awami League rally.”
Hasina also alleged that the police had fired tear gas after the attack to provide cover for the fleeing assailants, says the cable sent to Washington by then ambassador to Dhaka Harry K Thomas on June 15, 2005.
The former ambassador in the same cable mentioned: “On June 14, Babar claimed to us that the BDG [Bangladesh government] has identified the individuals involved in the August 21 attack, but acknowledged there is no concrete evidence of ‘direct’ involvement by AL leaders.”
It also stated that the government’s official inquiry, which was never released, concluded that India had been behind the attack but acted without Awami League’s knowledge.
In another cable sent on February 7, 2005, Thomas said: “We have serious concerns given our experience after the August 21 attack, when the BDG denied ATF consultants access to key witnesses and failed to protect the crime scene from severe contamination.”
After a meeting with BNP leader Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, then foreign secretary, on September 13, 2004, Thomas said: “BDG is getting inventive in explaining why they are not able to conduct a police investigation into the attacks of August 21. They blame the AL, they blame ‘intelligence failure’ and they blame the Indians for the attack but are unable to produce evidence behind these allegations.”
Shamsher said: “No government is foolish enough to inflict this (attack) on itself.” He criticised the AL for any future problems saying that the politics of blaming the government is “bound to set something off.” And as for the attack itself, he said it was an “intelligence failure” that allowed this to happen, and that the US itself was not immune from this sort of thing.
In searching for a culprit, he noted that one “can’t choose your neighbors.” He cited “certain reactions from abroad” and described a recent discovery of some Indians smuggling grenades into Bangladesh, asking rhetorically, that in South Asian politics, “whose interest is it to have instability in the region?”
Following the August 21 grenade attacks, David Campbell Mulford, who was the US ambassador to India from January 23, 2004 to February 2009, sent a cable to Washington on September 10, 2004 citing the reactions of India’s different quarters.
Summary: Bangladesh watchers in New Delhi have reacted with concern to recent violence there, citing the August 21 attack on opposition leader Sheikh Hasina as symptomatic of a deterioration in the country’s political culture, fueling instability in Bangladesh which contributes directly to violence in India’s northeast. Home Secretary Dhirendra Singh will raise these issues and others when he travels to Dhaka later in September. In a new twist, some prominent Indian commentators are now blaming the GOI for having an inadequate Bangladesh policy. The Bangladeshi High Commission insists Indo-Bangladesh relations are excellent.
While the April 2 Chittagong arms haul and the attempted assassination of the British High Commissioner in Sylhet, have worried Indian Bangladesh watchers, the August 21 attack on Awami League Leader Sheikh Hasina set off a new round of concern in New Delhi.
General (retd) Dipankar Banerjee, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) called the grenade attack “a violent manifestation of Islamic extremism,” which had grown in Bangladesh.
“The Hindu” editorialised that the incident was a result of the BDG’s “laissez faire attitude towards extremist groups.”
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) warned us that pervasive lawlessness in many parts of Bangladesh enables extremist individuals and groups to operate outside Dhaka’s reach.
These concerns about extremist groups based in Bangladesh, reiterated by MEA officials during Ambassador Cofer Black’s Counterterrorism Joint Working Group meeting (Ref C), are nothing new. What is new is that the GOI may be prepared to engage more directly with Dhaka to tackle some of these issues.
During his upcoming September 16-17 trip to Dhaka, Home Secretary Dhirendra Singh will provide to the BDG a list of insurgents’ installations, for the sixth time, according to MEA Under Secretary (Bangladesh) Puneet Kundal.
He told Poloff the meeting is intended to restart a dialogue on security issues that has been stalled since 2000. Singh will also request the BDG to turn over fugitives the GOI believes have taken refuge in Bangladesh, reportedly including United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) Commander-in-Chief Paresh Barua. The problem, Kundal explained, is that Bangladesh sees India’s northeast as its “backyard.”
New Delhi can take no other approach, Kundal added, except to continue to have talks, biannually between the Border Security Force and the Bangladesh Rifles, and at the Home Secretary level.
The August 21 attack on Hasina has deepened Indian concerns about the links between Bangladesh-based groups and guerrillas in India’s northeast.
The group that Indian media reported as responsible for the incident, Harkat-ul-Jehad-I-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B), has connections that can be traced to India, according to Delhi-based South Asia Terrorism Portal’s SATP.org.
SATP reports that HUJI-B is affiliated with the ULFA and runs ULFA camps in Bangladesh as well as sending its own members into West Bengal and Assam.
Retired General Banerjee remarked that corruption among India’s Border Security Forces facilitates cross-border infiltration. The MEA’s Kundal added that there is an “ethnolinguistic homogeneity” among Bangladeshis and Indians in the border area which in combination with Dhaka’s desire for “leverage” over New Delhi, contributes to the BDG’s unwillingness to limit militant activity (Ref A).
The Sheikh Hasina incident has prompted a spate of analysis of New Delhi’s policy towards Bangladesh by some of India’s more prominent foreign policy commentators, with widespread concern that New Delhi’s approach has been inadequate.
Head of South Asia Studies at Jawarhalal Nehru University (JNU) and strategic affairs writer C Raja Mohan on August 27 accused the GOI of “drift” in its regional foreign policy. Compared to India’s current relationships with Pakistan and China (its “two most difficult neighbors”) India’s policy on Nepal, Bangladesh, and Maldives suffers from a “lack of sustained attention and a seriousness of purpose.” The attempt on Hasina “showcased the gathering storm,” in Bangladesh, he wrote.
Similarly, Prem Shankar Jha, former editor of the Hindustan Times, wrote of the negative effects on Dhaka of India’s “past inaction.” The GOI has taken decisions that have profound impacts on
Bangladesh, including river interlinking, without consulting Dhaka, which has fostered a deep resentment in Bangladesh about India, Jha argued.
Echoing Mohan and Jha, the IDSA’s Datta argued that New Delhi has contributed to poor ties with Dhaka by not keeping its neighbors happy, and that the countries suffer from a “communication gap.”
General Banerjee described India’s policy towards Bangladesh as “deliberately hands-off,” although he noted that the GOI has few alternatives as India cannot interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs.
Wary that India may have to pay a price for that policy, retired intelligence officer Bibhuti Bhusan Nandy charged in a long, two-part September op-ed piece that the NDA looked the other way while minorities became victim to “fundamentalist forces.”
Prompted by these events “Hindustan Times” Editor Manoj Joshi recently took his analysis of events in Bangladesh a step further asking whether India will go the way its dysfunctional neighbors already have. Joshi argued that the domestic political situation of complete non-cooperation between the two dominant parties in Dhaka has “allowed space for scores of uncontrolled extremist groups.” Urging New Delhi to heed the warning sounding from India’s borders, Joshi wrote that PM Singh should “make the political-administrative system functional again,” lest India go the way of Bangladesh.
Our contacts at the Bangladesh High Commission (BHC) have consistently maintained that reports of terrorist camps in Bangladesh are “baseless” and “outrageous.”
Nonetheless, BHC poloff Bodiruzzaman told us on September 2 that while there are temporary irritants in the bilateral relationship, relations are excellent, and Indians and Bangladeshis are “brothers.”
During her late July visit to India, opposition leader Sheikh Hasina was received with nearly all the formalities of an official visit. With the exception of a Hyderabad House reception, which is strictly reserved for heads of state or government, Hasina’s trip to India included all the trappings of a state visit, including calls on Manmohan Singh, Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh, and Leader of the Opposition LK Advani, and a dinner hosted by the Foreign Minister. Denying the visit any particular significance, the Bangladesh High Commission’s Bodiruzzaman said that such treatment is to be expected and is simply a function of a long and good relationship.
Ambassador’s Comment: It is notable that the UPA government that began its term with a strong focus on its immediate neighbors is now facing criticism from respected commentators of doing just the opposite with regard to Bangladesh. Although Prime Ministers Singh and Zia met at the July 31 BIMSTEC Summit, GOI red carpet treatment of Hasina fueled the widely held view here that India simply prefers to deal with the Awami League and does not have the vision to build a constructive relationship with the BNP. While the Home Secretary’s visit is high-level, there is no talk of a Foreign Minister’s trip to Dhaka until the PM and Natwar Singh travel to Dhaka for the January SAARC Summit. Meanwhile, Bangladesh presents a collection of fears for India, which is worried about the spillover of extremism and anti-Hindu sentiment, the implications of political instability for India’s own internal security in the northeast, groups inimical to India operating from within Bangladesh, and the demographic consequences of Bangladeshi migration into India.
Jamaat denies involvement
On September 12, 2004, Ambassador Thomas met with Jamaat-e-Islami Assistant General Secretary Abdul Razzak and Adviser Shah Abdul Hannan. Both stressed that the Jamaat, partner in the ruling coalition, did not participate in the August 21 attack and argued that the BDG was doing everything possible to solve the crime.
They said that while the Jamaat did not believe that India was responsible for the attacks, they are concerned that Indian leaders and journalists are making saber rattling statements about pre-emptive strikes against Bangladesh in an attempt to intimidate the government.
Hannan alleged that India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is conducting a smear campaign aimed at linking the Jamaat to the attack in the public’s mind. India’s goal aim is to destabilise the BDG and bring Sheikh Hasina to power, they asserted.
Ambassador responded that the USG welcomed assurances that the Jamaat was not involved in this attack and said the best way to silence critics is to solve the crime.