Friday, March 20, 2009

The great game in South Asia

The Great Game
It's the 21st century subcontinent version of the Great Game, which is essentially a strategic battle between two powers in a particular region. In South Asia, though, Islamist terror groups and sections of the establishment have combined together for their agenda.

The Theatre: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan
The Agenda: Islamists and their supporters want to destabilise democratically elected governments friendly to India. They want to Islamicise society, grab power, and arrest India's rise as an emerging power.

The Modus Operandi:
Bangladesh
The BDR mutiny is said to be backed by anti-India forces, the Jamaat and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The ISI’s support to the Jamaat-BNP is also suspected.Why the mutiny: Ostensibly over the demand for a pay hike, but aimed at stalling the trial of those accused of war crimes in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. The trial would make both the BNP-Jamaat group as well as Pakistan hugely unpopular. Will strengthen the Hasina government, which has a pro-India tilt.

Pakistan
Attack on Lankan team said to involve Lashkar, accused of masterminding 26\11. Perhaps backed by Islamists in ISI and army.
The gameplan: Take Lankan players hostage, swap them for Lashkar leader Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, now in custody.
The motive: Mumbai probe fast establishing links between Lashkar and Islamists in Pak establishment. Attack is a warning to Zardari not to implicate army officers in Mumbai horror. Also aimed to tell the world that Islamabad too is a victim of terror, and shouldn't be pushed to meet India's demands on Mumbai.

India
Strategy for Bangladesh: Conveyed to anti-India elements it wouldn't sit idle should crisis escalate. Warned Dhaka and army against swift retaliation to prevent a ’75-like scenario, when many of Mujibur Rahman’s kin was killed.
Strategy for Pakistan: Dismisses all talks of RAW being behind the attack. Will keep pressure on Pakistan to dismantle the terror infrastructure. Try to strengthen democratic forces.

In the relatively innocent 19th century, Great Britain and Russia engaged in a prolonged proxy war to establish their dominance over Central Asia and Afghanistan. Historians describe that competition between the imperial powers as the Great Game. Welcome now to the 21st century version of that game unfolding in South Asia. At times you can easily identify the actors: they’re no doubt Islamist radicals, hiding in the mountains or melting into the anonymity of urban sprawls.But backing them often are shadowy people in the establishment, hatching sinister plots to foment violence and instability in the region. Their long-term motive: destabilise elected governments in South Asia and create an ambience inimical to the politico-economic development of the region in general and India in particular. In other words, ensure India does not emerge as a power others in South Asia can’t compete with.

In the short term, though, the aim of the players in the Great Game is to scuttle the investigations into the Mumbai terror attack that are unravelling too fast for both the jehadi group who perpetrated it and their supporters in the Pakistani establishment. Indeed, from the available evidence, it’s certain that the forces behind the Mumbai terror attack are precisely those who encouraged the personnel of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) to mutiny as well as launched the audacious attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.Mumbai, Dhaka and Lahore are strands ultimately woven together into a macabre plot of death and destruction.

Proof of this came during a closed-door meeting of a motley group of about 50 Congress leaders hailing from different states earlier this week. Addressing them in the capital’s Mavalankar Hall, foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee disclosed a conspiracy was afoot to destabilise the elected governments in Bangladesh and Pakistan. He let out a hitherto unknown fact to the audience: "I had to go out of my way to issue a stern warning to those trying to destabilise the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh that if they continued with their attempts, then India would not sit idle." In other words, New Delhi had conveyed it was willing to take counter-measures in the Great Game, including the possibility of direct intervention.

During the BDR crisis, Pranab wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hasina (portions of which were released to the media) expressing his dismay at the turn of events in Bangladesh. "As a close and friendly neighbour of Bangladesh, India wished to see a democratic, stable and prosperous Bangladesh," he wrote, and that "India stood ready to extend whatever support and assistance that Bangladesh may require at this juncture".

At the same meeting, Pranab also talked about the attack on the Lankan cricket team, describing it as an attempt by those "elements" in Pakistan who want to marginalise the democratic forces and scuttle investigations into the Mumbai attacks.

Pranab’s is not the only voice expressing worries over the concerted efforts directed against India. "There’s no doubt that elements of the Pakistani army and the ISI were behind the Dhaka and Lahore incidents," former foreign minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha told Outlook. So, why are the forces working in unison against India in South Asia? First, Bangladesh. The So, why are the forces working in unison against India in South Asia? First, Bangladesh.

The BDR rebellion here was ostensibly sparked off by the demand for a pay hike (see Soldiers Of Ill Fortune). New Delhi, however, feels the ruthless killing of army officers, who train and command BDR troops, indicated intricate planning. The story goes back about two years ago when the army installed a caretaker government to cleanse the system. The cleansing hurt the interests of many in Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami. It was at this time that Islamist terrorists were hanged and the anti-India force marginalised.

Then in a remarkably free and fair election towards December-end, Hasina’s Awami League, which leans towards India in its policy, swept to power, making the BNP-Jamaat extremely nervous. Add to this Hasina’s steely determination to try for war crimes those who committed atrocities during the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Some Jamaat leaders too are expected to face trial. Says former diplomat Naresh Chandra, "The bottled-up resentment in the BDR against the army could have been a valid reason for the mutiny. But mischievous elements close to Khaleda Zia could also have played their part in fanning the violence."

The plan, Delhi feels, was to ensure a violent reaction from the Bangladesh army, thus plunging the country into chaos. A senior diplomat told Outlook that New Delhi advised Hasina and the Bangladesh army to tread cautiously and avoid creating a 1975-like situation, when most members of the country’s founder Mujibur Rahman’s family were gunned down. That was perhaps the reason why Hasina announced general amnesty to secure the surrender of BDR mutineers.

The March 3 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore was the second element in the Great Game. There’s a Lankan footnote here. Colombo said it agreed to tour Pakistan in order to return the favour Islamabad showed before the 1996 World Cup, when Australia and the West Indies forfeited their matches there citing security concerns (see Whoever Said War Minus The Shooting?).

Then a combined India-Pak team had played an exhibition match there. New Delhi cites two other additional reasons for Colombo’s decision—it wanted to express gratitude for the arms supplied to the Lankan army for its fight against the LTTE; two, to snigger at India’s fear of touring Pakistan, in a misplaced sense of bravado.

A section in the Indian establishment thinks the Lashkar-e-Toiba exploited the opportunity the Lankans provided. Under pressure because of Mumbai, the Lashkar through the Lahore attack was warning the Zardari government to turn off the heat on its members and simultaneously stoking doubts about its ability to tackle terrorism. High Lankan casualties would also have weakened the international pressure on Islamabad to act on Mumbai. But this school of thought is ambivalent about whether or not the army and the ISI played a role in the attack.

A prime ministerial aide told Outlook, "It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether the Lahore incident had the backing of the army establishment in Pakistan or whether there are ‘elements’ in the army and the ISI that are posing a direct threat to both Zardari and the Pakistani generals."

This school believes the old equation in Pakistan could be changing—perhaps the army can’t turn the "tap of terrorism" on and off at will. This means the Islamist elements in the ISI and the army have joined hands to undermine the nation’s image of a moderate Muslim state and challenge the emerging democratic political order there.

But others disagree, pointing out that the method of the attack and the fact that all terrorists escaped proves the complicity of the army-ISI. Former diplomat K.C. Singh and others see a direct link between the Mumbai investigations and the Lahore attack. Since the Mumbai investigation has revealed a link between the Mumbai terrorists and their backers in the army, the generals wanted to send the message through the Lahore attack that the Zardari government shouldn’t cross the red line—that the army-terrorist nexus can’t be revealed.

Says Singh, "It’s a crucial point in Indo-Pak relations. A lot will depend on how the investigation into the Mumbai terror attack goes from here." Claiming it’s an ideal opportunity for Zardari and his bete noire, Nawaz Sharif, to join ranks and marginalise the army, Singh said, "Both these democratic leaders should ensure that the Mumbai investigation is taken to its logical conclusion."

The coming together of Sharif and Zardari can provide a fillip to the democratic forces in Pakistan—and the region. Unfortunately, India doesn’t have much leverage in Pakistan to bolster Zardari and Sharif.

Therefore, for the moment, India’s next step in this Great Game would be to submit answers to Pakistan’s questions on Mumbai and press for action. Courtesy Outlook

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