Friday, September 4, 2009

If Bengal implodes, India is endangered

Shankar Roychowdhury "What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow". Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s aphorism of an era long bygone rings bitterly ironical in the context of today’s West Bengal. Never much in the news except in the bottom paragraphs of inside pages, and not rating high in size or economic prosperity relative to its peers, but nevertheless, acre for acre, the state is perhaps one of the most vital chunks of geostrategic real estate in the country, deserving of far more focus than is generally accorded to its affairs. Consider the following. West Bengal stretches from the sub-Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south, by itself unique, but more significantly, with international borders that run contiguous with the entire western periphery of Bangladesh on one flank and with eastern Nepal on the other, where both jihadis and Maoists have active strongholds and seek to export their terrorist ideologies further into India. The hyper-sensitive land isthmus of the Siliguri Corridor connecting the rest of the country with its entire northeastern region also falls within the state, in close proximity to sensitive international borders. West Bengal is also the northern cornerstone of India’s eastern seaboard, with its southern districts fronting the Bay of Bengal, again adjoining Bangladesh, raising issues of coastal security in the aftermath of 26/11. The Kolkata complex of estuarine ports (extending down the Hooghly to Haldia and further down) are the closest maritime outlets of any kind to the Tibet region of China, via the traditional trading routes of Nathu-La and Jelep-La, which were recently opened for cross-border trade. Kolkata, the state capital, is one of the original metropolises of India, and the only such city within marching distance of any international border. West Bengal thus qualifies eminently as a first line of defence and its strategic significance demands national attention. The ground realities, however, do not match up with this overall perspective. Externally, international borders in the eastern region have traditionally remained porous, never being accorded the requisite priority in resources or even overwatch by successive governments at the Centre. Internally, West Bengal has been in the grip of a malignant political virus over decades, driving the state towards self-implosion, totally oblivious to wider consequences, and steadily pushing it towards a fractured and dysfunctional anarchy. The ongoing administrative paralysis is expected to last at least till the Assembly elections of 2011, and possibly persist thereafter as well, because the winners will certainly not be allowed to enjoy the fruits of power undisturbed by their political opponents. Political violence has been endemic, creating a semi-permanent environment of social fermentation regulated not by the administration, but by political warlords and lumpen enforcers. All indicators are that irrespective of whichever political party wins in the next election, governance in the state will remain the principal loser. Superimposed on this hyper-chaos, three fairly severe internal conflicts are playing out concurrently: Gorkhaland in the sub-Himalayan northern region of the state, the Maoist "red corridor" in the forested Adivasi districts in the southwest adjoining Jharkhand, and cadre civil wars between the government and the Opposition in the run-up to 2011. The fallout has been generic lawlessness, which the state’s widely-respected governor described as tandav as he tried to draw the attention of all political parties to their follies. They, of course, were not amused (or ashamed). The West Bengal Police, the state’s primary bulwark in times of disorder and distress, and its metropolitan counterpart, the Kolkata Police, both carry a great and glorious heritage of excellence, in keeping with the state and metropolis they serve, but have been struggling to keep their footing on a slippery downslope. Both forces have been politicised and damaged almost beyond repair, with sections converted into active party cadres, under instructions not to intervene in any situation unless cleared by the local political apparatus. Politicisation has created internal rifts within the force, leading to further loss of efficiency. Denied the initiative to respond with professional impartiality and competence, the police force is naturally overwhelmed by a rising intensity of political and criminal violence and have lost the confidence of the state’s citizens — this at a time when West Bengal and Kolkata are emerging as the preferred conduits and hideouts for a wide variety of jihadis, spies, infiltrators, drugs and arms smugglers and other assorted criminals from within and outside the state, as well from neighbouring countries. Also to be factored in is the permanent habitat of illegal migrants from Bangladesh in the border districts of the state, roughly estimated to be in the region of six million, though the figure is merely an educated guess because no agency is really aware of the actuals. Illegal migration has been promoted over several decades by the vested interests of all political parties in West Bengal, who have provided shelter, support, and documentation to the intruders to build up votebanks. In the process, the demographic balance in a belt several kilometres deep along the West Bengal-Bangladesh border has been irretrievably altered by pseudo-legalised aliens, where the BSF itself is seen as an alien antibody only geographically located in India, but demographically in Bangladesh in respect of the surrounding population. This does not appear to have been of any particular concern to political parties in West Bengal in the decades since Independence, who ostentatiously raised slogans of secularism whenever pressed for action in this context. The internal and external situation in West Bengal is a cause for concern with serious implications for overall national security. Meanwhile, body counts are mounting in the state, and even if Union home minister P. Chidambaram’s comment about the "killing fields of West Bengal" was inspired by a desire for political one-upmanship, it is nevertheless factually correct, even though applicable to many other states as well. The storm signals over West Bengal have been hoisted for some time, and unless political sanity dawns, India may well have a failed state on its eastern frontier. Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury (Retd) is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former Member of Parliament Source : Asian Age

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