The 2004 Chittagong arms haul was huge by any standard – but surely not something that happened suddenly.
From the early 1990s, the Bangladesh coast had emerged as the favourite route for bringing in military hardware for separatist rebels in India’s northeast.
And over a period of time, these rebel groups started to fry the fish in its own oil — they started selling a substantial quantity of weapons smuggled in to Maoist rebels in Nepal and India. They sold much to the Maoists and the profits paid for their acquisition.
The first time Indian intelligence cracked this trail was in early 1995.
Aided by effective signals intelligence and sources in the Southeast Asian arms trade, they received precise information about a huge consignment of weapons landing at Wyakaung beach south of Cox’s Bazar, at a point where Bangladesh meets Myanmar on land and sea.
With help of a section of Bangladesh intelligence, the weapons were taken to the hills of Chittagong Hill Tracts in trucks, then offloaded and handed over to a mixed group of Naga, Assamese and Manipuri rebels, who had all paid for the weapons.
A huge rebel column then started snaking towards northeast India through southern parts of India’s Mizoram state in April 1995.
But the Indian army had precise intelligence and its 57th Mountain Division initiated “Operation Golden Bird”.
The rebel column was ambushed in several parts of Chimtuipui district, 38 rebels were killed and 118 arrested by the army. Those arrested included some of the top guns of northeast Indian insurgency.
More than 150 assault rifles, some pistols and light machine guns were seized from the dead or captured rebels along with assorted ammunition.
On May 21, 1995, the Eastern Command of Indian army told a media briefing at Fort William that ‘Golden Bird’ had been an ‘unqualified success’.
But the chief of staff of Eastern Command at that time, Lt General O P Kaushik, said the arrested rebels had ‘spilled the beans’ and alluded to involvement of Bangladesh intelligence in helping the rebels use the country’s coast for arms smuggling.
Gen Kaushik also said Bangladesh’s Islamist radicals ‘were getting a piece of the cake’ suggesting that rogue elements in the country’s intelligence were helping the northeastern rebels get their weapons and part with some of it for the Islamist radicals who they were helping.
In 1996, as the Awami League returned to power and ULFA General Secretary Anup Chetia was arrested in Dhaka, the rebels got a jolt.
The ULFA started to explore alternative routes for smuggling of Chinese weapons.
ULFA’s former military wing deputy chief Luit Deuri told Indian army officials after surrender that in the late 1990s, the ULFA started to illegally import Chinese weapons through an Yunnan- based firm ‘Blackhouse’.
The ‘Blackhouse’ started using the Bhutan route, quietly bringing in the weapons across the Himalayan border into the ULFA’s bases in southern Bhutan.
But as the Indians found out, they put huge pressure on Bhutan, forcing the kingdom to finally launch “Operation All Clear” in December 2003. The ULFA, NDFB AND KLOA bases were demolished and the rebels had to flee if they survived the assault.
By then, the Awami League was out of power and the situation was ripe for the return of the rebels to Bangladesh.
Not only did the northeast Indian rebels started bringing in large quantities of weapons and ammunition through the Cox’s Bazar coast, they started using Bangladesh territory to carry these deadly cargo to Maoist rebels in India and Nepal.
On June 27, 2003, Bangladeshi police recovered 62,112 rounds of Chinese rifle bullets and 120 kgs of explosives from an abandoned truck at Jogarpara village of Kahalu Police Station in Bogra.
Subsequent raids in the neighbouring areas yielded more ammunition and explosives which were later found to be deadly RDX. The total amount recovered was around 100,000 bullets and nearly 200 kgs of explosives.
Media reports indicated that the ammunition seized was being smuggled by the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), one of the two leading rebel groups in the northeastern Indian state of Tripura.
But why would anything like this handled by northeast Indian rebels head for Bogra — the only explanation is either it was heading for West Bengal where Maoists — Indian or Nepali — would pick it.
But Bangladesh police did not properly investigate the Bogra ammunition haul.
Reliable sources say the investigation was hushed up.
That was a few months before the Chittagong arms haul hit Bangladesh like an unexpected gale.
The impact was further compounded because the Khaleda government was already getting huge adverse publicity and considerable flak globally for growing Islamist radical activities. Attacks on journalists, judges, even the UK high commissioner, politicians were growing by the day.
Bertil Linter’s “Cocoon of Terror” in ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’, Alex Perry’s “Deadly Cargo’ in Time magazine and Eliza Griswold’s exposé of radical connections with top government functionaries in The New York Times had all rattled the world.
The feeling was that post-9/11, Bangladesh was emerging as a key link in the Islamist terror chain, connecting the dots in West Asia with those in the south-east of the continent.
One would imagine that both the sheltered insurgents and those who patronised them had got too emboldened — or else why would they give up remote Wyakuang beach as the drop point and choose a Chittagong jetty in a crowded port city to bring in such a huge quantity of weapons.
Such confidence is possible only when one enjoys the patronage of the most powerful in the land.
The verdict of the 2004 Chittagong arms haul that has now led to death sentence for fourteen people precisely proves this close connection between the rebels and the high and mighty in Bangladesh.
With Matiur Rahman Nizami, Lutfozzaman Babar, several NSI officials including two of their former chiefs and ULFA’s Paresh Barua indicted, it serves to remind all that they are in the same boat.
One question will remain unanswered.
Who was the anonymous caller who spurred the Chittagong police into action!
The Awami League had threatened to bring down the BNP-Jamaat government through street protests by April 30, 2004.
So did the police react so sharply because they saw these weapons landing to arm protestors trying to bring down the government!
Or was it because the Chittagong police had been rattled by the Time magazine report ‘Deadly Cargo’ which detailed Taliban fighters with huge quantity of weapons landing in Chittagong under full protection of Bangladesh intelligence.
But one can never establish the cause behind the police enthusiasm that undid the NSI-ULFA nexus on the April Fool’s night on 2004.
Syed Bashir is a bdnews24.com columnist.