The note of foreboding could not have been more acute. It was on the very last day of the 20th century that the curtains came down on the white-knuckle journey of flight IC 814. But it only presages what India has to brace up for in the next: a vaster canvas of terror. Scripted and played out by actors emboldened by the way New Delhi fumbled, and ultimately succumbed, in the face of pressure.
Whatever the compulsions that led to the compromise at Kandahar, it was a bargain that can only boomerang. The release of three imprisoned Pakistani militants by the Indian government is being seen, with good reason, as a victory by those supporting the ISIs proxy war in Kashmir and its operations in other parts of the country. Already, Al-Omar-Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based militant group specialising in guerrilla attacks in Kashmir, has publicly welcomed the hijacking and described such operations as "a genuine option to humiliate India". The message is loud and clear: similar acts of terror are likely to be attempted in the future.
The alarming picture emerging now is that the ISIs operations are not restricted to Jammu & Kashmir. Its operatives have managed to move in and entrench themselves in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, the Northeast, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. From drug trafficking and gun-running to triggering blasts in public places, the ISI seems to be revelling in taking the Indian security agencies by surprise.
In the post-Kandahar scenario, intelligence officials predict the following trends:
With consciousness of the ISI gameplan heightened by Kandahar, it came as no surprise when home minister L.K. Advani announced an all-out offensive against terrorism. Said Advani: "The war against terrorism has always been a protracted one, always and everywhere in the world. No country that has got the better of this menace has had the luxury of following a smooth, linear path." He also added that "the experience the world over has also shown that a terrorist movement confronted by organised state power is always subject to the law of decreasing returns and increasing risks".
But if the pattern of the last few months is any sign, the ISI has been going from strength to strength. Since the end of Kargil, attacks on Indian installations-particularly in J&K-have risen. The Badamibagh cantonment, a high-security zone in Srinagar, was attacked with impunity. Army and paramilitary camps in the Valley have been targeted with ease.
Army sources in Srinagar suggest that after the imposition of military rule in Pakistan, militancy in Kashmir has undergone major changes. The militants coming from across the border are equipped with far more sophisticated arms and communications equipment and do not hesitate to go on suicide missions. Says a senior officer: "The present-day militants are like the Tamil Tigers and do not hesitate to do acts of daredevilry."
Of even more concern is the manner in which militant groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen have managed to establish a network in the Valley. A revival of other local militant groups is also feared. Elsewhere in the country, explosions, minor and major, are all too often attributed to the ISI. The hijacking of the Kathmandu-Delhi flight seems just a link-albeit a crucial one-in that chain.
Security analysts here say that the real expansion of ISI operations could be traced to Indias inherent political instability. The cut-off year, according to them: 1996. "Till that year, there was a stable one-party system in the country. During the years of Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi, security agencies knew their brief well. Come 1996 and there were a spate of unstable regimes, first Deve Gowda and later I.K. Gujral, with several elections thrown in. State governments began to listen less and less to central government diktats, particularly on key issues like illegal migration from Bangladesh into eastern India and the Northeast, which is cause for real concern in the immediate foreseeable future," says a top security official who has been in charge of anti-ISI operations in the Northeast.
The BJP-led government seems to be emphasising this point. According to the minister of state for water resources, Bijoya Chakravarty, the situation in the Northeast is alarming. "The ISI is funding and aiding insurgent groups in Assam and funding militant outfits. It is also pushing Bangladeshis into Assam to buy land in the state. Some of it has been happening for years." Assam governor Lt Gen S.K. Sinhas report, submitted to the Union government last year, points to the changing demographic equations in some of the border districts in Assam due to excessive illegal migration and the virtual free run to anti-Indian forces operating in the region.
Similar is the case in the border districts of West Bengal and abutting areas of Bihar, where illegal migration has reportedly altered the demography. Experts say while illegal migration itself may be another issue, chances of ISI agents posing as Bangladeshis-with the assistance of Bangladeshi intelligence services-and setting up permanent bases remain pretty high.
The ISI modus operandi outside of J&K runs to type. Small-time operators are pushed in and due to ethnic, linguistic and religious similarities, melt in the crowd. The system makes room for issuing false ration cards and identification papers. In some cases in north India, some operatives have assumed Hindu names. The other, more visible method: setting up madrasas where indoctrination is carried out. It must be mentioned here that all madrasas are not guilty of this activity.
Mumbai and the Maharashtra coast as well as Gujarat have also seen the mushrooming of ISI bases. Last year, 23 ISI agents were nabbed in Mumbai. Agents have been arrested in Gujarat too. The ISI seems to have given up the idea of a major operation on the lines of the 1993 Mumbai blasts but is focusing on small, sustained operations that might be dismissed as minor irritants.
Security analysts chart the rise and expansion of ISI activities in different phases. The most crucial phase came during the late 80s-1989, to be precise-when the ISI expanded the scope of its terror in J&K. Many intelligence reports beginning 1987-88 warned of the coming terror but the central government failed to act. The real fillip to the separatist movement in the Valley came with the abduction of the then Union home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeeds daughter Rubaiya Sayeed in 1990. She was freed after the demands of her kidnappers were met and five hardcore militants were released from prison. And the militant groups were emboldened.
Between 1990 and 1994, the ISI-sponsored terrorists consolidated their position in the Valley but by the mid-90s, particularly in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent Mumbai blasts-where the ISI colluded with the underworld mafia-their strength had grown. Their highpoint: the Hazratbal standoff and burning of the Chrar-e-Sharif shrine.
Intelligence agencies here say the ISI, being a "government within a government" in Pakistan, is above the law and traditionally, any government there has to depend upon the agency for its survival. The ISI was set up in 1948 and is not accountable to anybody. Its main sources of finance: funds earmarked by the military, zakat funding (originally, charity) from West Asia and narcotics trade, which boomed after the ISI played its hand in Afghanistan in the early 80s during the last phase of the Soviet withdrawal from that country.
Of all of the ISIs worldwide operations, India occupies a very special place. A section of its powerful Joint Intelligence Bureau, responsible for political intelligence, is dedicated to operations in India. Another section, Joint Intelligence North, is in charge exclusively of J&K, including propaganda and covert operations. Its Joint Signal Intelligence Bureau gives communications support to militants operating in J&K while Joint Intelligence Technical looks after electronic intelligence.
Now experts say another element has been added: printing counterfeit Indian currency. Theres enough evidence to substantiate this. Last week, a junior staffer at the Pakistani embassy in Kathmandu, Asim Saboor, was caught red-handed by the Nepali cid. During the raid, they discovered fake Indian bank notes totalling Rs 50,000 in 500-rupee denominations. Saboor is suspected of stashing more money inside his house but apparently had time enough to burn them before the police caught up with him. Some of it has naturally trickled down to neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Last December, in joint operations conducted by UPs special branch and some central agencies, a booming counterfeit currency industry was uncovered in the small towns of the state: Bulandshahr, Khurja, Meerut, Hardwar, Mussoorie and Sahibabad, to name a few.
During the last decade or so, the ISI has been using countries neighbouring India to set up operational bases. While the hijacking has helped focus on what the ISI has done in Nepal, security experts say that some local organisations there with ISI links, like the Nepal Muslim Association, All Nepal Anjuman Islam Sangh, Nepal Muslim Ittehad Sangh and the All Nepal Muslim Sudha Samiti, have been expanding their membership. Similarly, they claim that in Bangladesh, the Jamait-e-Islami and its front organisations like the Islamic Chhatra Shibir have been provided assistance by the Pakistani intelligence organisation for their anti-India operations. In addition to this, there is the much-talked-about assistance which the ISI gives to various insurgent groups in the Northeast.
Just how serious is the ISI threat? The government and the intelligence agencies have pressed the alarm buttons. But there are experts of the view that while India needs to be on the guard as a nation, we cannot be obsessed by the ISI as some politicians want us to.
Says terrorism expert Maj Gen Afsir Karim: "Frankly, the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Outside of J&K and Punjab, theyre not all that big. At best, they may make some trouble where it exists already. They may want to create communal disturbances if the situation is ripe. But thats it. So instead of blaming the ISI for everything that goes wrong, it is time we carried out a sober evaluation of their actual worth and clean up our own stables. "
Agrees Gen K.S. Khajuria, former director-general, military intelligence: "It has become a fad of politicians to raise the spectre of the ISI. It creates problems all around. Politicians like to push the Pakistan button for their vote-gathering and the whole system, particularly the army, gets involved."
But the evidence with the home ministry seems to suggest otherwise. And the bomb blast in Srinagar which killed 19 people last fortnight and the explosion at Old Delhi railway station, which left twenty-two injured, only add to the fear complex. While the ISI hand is sometimes cited by police and intelligence officials to explain away many acts of crime, it is beyond doubt that the ISI has spread its tentacles.
Clearly, the role of the ISI, in the light of the latest hijacking episode, is going to come in for more scrutiny, not just by the security agencies but the public as well. For Indian politicians and the vast bureaucracy that serves it, it is sure to pose a challenge as tough as any in the new millennium.
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