In the early hours of 2 April 2004, two shipping trawlers, the Kazadan and the Amanat, sidled up to the government-owned Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Company Limited’s dock on the Karnaphuli River in Chittagong, southern Bangladesh. The trawlers had trans-shipped and carried their cargo from a larger vessel, which was moored at sea near St Martin’s Island, Bangladesh’s southernmost point. The larger vessel was purportedly owned by a local Bangladesh Nationalist Party MP and businessman named Salauddin Quader Chowdhury.
Probably acting on a tip-off from Indian intelligence, police arrived at the jetty at around 4 am and were astonished by what they found. According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, the police stumbled on arms being loaded from the two boats onto ten trucks.
The haul was “worth an estimated US$4.5m–$7m” and “included around 2,000 automatic and semi-automatic weapons, among them 1,290 Type 56-1/Type 56-2 Kalashnikov-type assault rifles; 150 T-69 rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers; quantities of 40mm RPG ammunition; 25,000 hand-grenades; and 1.8m rounds of small-arms ammunition.”
It was only in January 2014, weeks after the Awami League swept back into power and almost ten years after the haul was discovered, that any of those involved in the case were sentenced. Among them were BNP former minister of state for home affairs Lutfozzaman Babar; former industries minister Motiur Rahman Nizami, who had been the head of Jamaat-e-Islami; a former director general of the National Security Intelligence (NSI) agency, Brigadier General Abdur Rahim; and a one-time head of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Major General Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury. In all, the court sentenced fourteen individuals to death after an investigation that produced details described by the Indian National Security Review of 2009 as “astounding”.
Their crime had been involvement in and planning one of the largest arms hauls in South Asia’s history. “There was no question” that the arms were destined for Indian separatist outfits, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM).
Assam and Nagaland are two of the seven states in Northeast India collectively known as the Seven Sisters, which are home to a large number of distinct ethnic groups. Many of these groups did not agree to join the new nation when India declared independence from Great Britain in 1947.
This region, moreover, is almost cut off from the rest of the giant country by Bangladesh. It is wedged between Myanmar to the east, China to the north and Bangladesh to the south. These “seven sisters” are topographically like the stalls of an amphitheatre ascending into the Himalayas around deltaic Bengal.
In September 2013, I spoke to barrister Fakhrul Islam, who was defending BNP politician and shipping magnate Salauddin Quader Chowdhury at the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Fakhrul told me that his client had been implicated in the dreadful killings of 1971 because of a “successful Indian plot” against him. This kind of rhetoric usually sets off a well-known alarm bell: “communal conspiracy theory incoming”.
Fakhrul’s line that day was that his client was accused and in detention because India was trying to control and subjugate Bangladesh, using its proxy, the Awami League party, as a tool to quash his client. Without such subjugation Bangladesh would be so successful, the barrister claimed, that other Indian states would want to secede from the union.
This struck me as fanciful, until I considered Salauddin’s alleged involvement in the arms haul to Indian separatists, and his part in the persistent proxy conflict that the region’s two hegemons wage. The conflict fosters a deep distrust of India that serves to fuel Bangladesh’s Islamic identity, and also directly impacts Islamist agitation in Bangladesh. Almost like clockwork, Bangladesh becomes an accommodating place for Northeast India’s separatist rebels every time the BNP comes to power.
In the mid-1990s, before the Awami League were elected in 1996, journalists could meet the ULFA leadership in safe houses provided by Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies. These were ideal locations for the separatists, close to their conflict-riddled homelands, with convenient transport connections and, most importantly, an administration that, as the 2004 arms hauls proved, was essentially hostile to the Indian state.
As Deb Mukharji, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, told me:
“When I went to Bangladesh as high commissioner in 1995, I could see that elements of the government were collaborating fully with the ISI [Inter- Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency] and helping these insurgent groups from India – it was very evident to me. I had information to that effect – hard information. This was certainly going on.”
As Salauddin’s lawyer hinted, Pakistan actively wanted to help dismember India, in much the same way that India had assisted in dividing Pakistan in 1971: by supporting insurgencies and by stimulating proxy conflicts.
Salauddin was never tried for his involvement in the arms shipment. There was, according the American embassy, however, “widespread speculation that he was involved with the Chittagong arms haul shipment. After the latter incident, Kamal Siddiqui and then Foreign Secretary/now Ambassador to U.S. Shamsher Chowdhury predicted his exit from the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office].”
Out of all of Bangladesh’s ICT verdicts, what was produced in court on paper or given in testimony regarding the 1971 war probably mattered the least in the case of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury. Salauddin used his stellar connections to try to beat the charges till the end. These allegedly extended high into the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her incredibly wealthy private sector adviser Salman F Rahman, who offered to act as a witness in Salauddin’s trial.
Such is Rahman’s stature that when I met him in 2015, he freely admitted that he had been able to “borrow” and still owed $800 million from state-owned banks. However, in the end, perhaps outweighing these connections in importance were Salauddin’s long-standing connections with Pakistan. It was likely these connections, many of which he had inherited from his father, that sealed his fate.
In July 2015, Salauddin lost his appeal at Dhaka’s Supreme Court over his death sentence.
The authorities beefed up security as the cogs of the ICT turned towards an eventual end for the 66-year-old. It was in these months that, coincidentally or not, terror would ratchet up in Bangladesh and a bold new menace would emerge. Despite a further unorthodox appeal to allow more witnesses to testify in the case, Salauddin Quader Chowdhury was hanged at 12.55 am on 22 November 2015.
Few in Dhaka doubt Salauddin’s close ties to Pakistan, but his relationship with that country’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, is hard to measure because of the very nature of the organisation. Still, respected investigative journalist David Bergman has claimed that according to “multiple well-placed sources”, “at some point after 1975…he became a key agent” for the ISI.
As Bangladeshi intelligence officials told me, “Salauddin Quader Chowdhury had a very good relationship with the ISI [partly] because he had a shipping line.” Having worked his way into Khaleda Zia’s inner circle during her last years in power, when he served as her parliamentary affairs adviser, and was also an MP in Chittagong (a post he held in six separate parliaments from 1979 onwards), he strenuously fought to impede Indian investment in Bangladesh. This included blocking a potential $3 billion investment by the Indian industrial giant Tata.
And so it was rumoured in Dhaka that autumn that if Prime Minister Hasina did not hang Salauddin, India would hang her.
The details of the arms haul case would only become evident once the BNP government fell at the beginning of 2007. As well as implicating members of that government, those giving evidence suggested that the funding for the arms had come from Pakistan’s ISI.
According to Brigadier General Abdur Rahim, he had travelled for “several meetings with a Dubai-based gold company in connection with bringing in the arms that were seized in Chittagong.” In court the then Home Minister Lutfozzaman Babar claimed that “ULFA and the embassy of a South Asian country bribed ‘higher-ups’ in the former Khaleda Zia government to ensure safe passage of the consignment.”
Suggestions of involvement of a foreign intelligence agency in the arms haul, however, were hinted at by Jane’s Intelligence Review as early as August 2004, when it noted that, “According to JIR sources, the purchases were financed by a foreign intelligence service seeking to destabilise India’s northeast, and payment for the original shipment was made by the NSCN-IM to an agent in Hong Kong.”
ULFA, for their part, “made no secret of the fact that Pakistan supported ULFA and encouraged him [Barua] and his comrades to step up their activities in Assam,” according to veteran journalist and writer Bertil Lintner, who met ULFA leader Paresh Barua several times, both at a safe house in Dhaka and in Bangkok, Thailand.
Excerpted with permission from Many Rivers One Sea: Bangladesh and the Challenge of Islamist Militancy, Joseph Allchin, Allen Lane.