The District of Malda in West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, has emerged as an area afflicted by a plethora of problems, most significantly including the smuggling and distribution of Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN), illegal cultivation of narcotics and illegal migration - which have a far-reaching impact on the security situation of region, in particular, and the country at large.
Part of the Jalpaiguri Division of West Bengal, and extending over 3,733 square kilometers, the Malda District is bordered by the North and South Dinajpur Districts (West Bengal) in the north, the Nadgaon and Chapainawabganj Districts of Bangladesh in the east, Murshidabad District (West Bengal) in the south, and Purnia (Bihar) and Sahibganj (Jharkhand) Districts in the west.
Over a period of time, Malda has emerged as a major transit route for FICN couriers. FICN produced and distributed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) bosses, is brought into India by couriers, principally through Malda via Bangladesh and Nepal. From here it is circulated across India. Indeed, an unnamed official of the National Investigative Agency (NIA), according to an October 6, 2012, report, disclosed that, "Malda in West Bengal is one of the most well-known transit points for bringing in counterfeit notes from Bangladesh and Nepal. Earlier this year , we arrested some Malda individuals for engaging in organised smuggling and circulation of counterfeit notes. We suspect that they were printed in Pakistan and were being brought to India via Bangladesh and Nepal. Two of the arrested, Morgen Hussain and Rakib Sheikh, were coordinating the operation". Morgen Hussain and Rakib Sheikh had been arrested on January 6, 2012.
In January 2011, four Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) militants arrested from the Janipura area of Jammu city - Showkat Kucchhay and Sahil Mubarak (belonging to Kulgam District of Jammu and Kashmir) and Zakir Hussain and Shahidul Hassan (residents of Malda District) - revealed that Mushtaq Ahmed Khan - the FICN 'mastermind' in West Bengal, with links to the HM and Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) - was headquartered at Malda District. Khan was receiving consignments of fake currency from Pakistan and smuggling these into Malda, where it was stored in fields at already decided locations. Khan hired some women to pick up the consignments and shift these to his headquarters in Malda, from where the FICN was distributed among HM militants and Over Ground Workers (OGWs) of terrorist formations in different parts of India.
The disclosures added, further, that two types of FICNs were being supplied from Malda. One set was of very high quality and was difficult to distinguish from genuine notes, and was printed in Pakistan's security presses. The second type of currency was of relatively poor quality and could easily be detected as fake; this was distributed by the militants among the families of slain and arrested militants, OGWs, and other extremist sympathizers.
According to an April 6, 2012, report, the NIA claimed that West Bengal was the main transit point for FICN consignments. In January 2012, following synchronized operations by different state agencies and the Border Security Force (BSF), NIA held 14 persons, including Morgen Hossain and Rakib Seikh from Jamshedtola in Malda District. These arrests led to the recovery of specific evidence to back claims that all the fake notes circulated in India were printed in Pakistan and smuggled through Bangladesh and Nepal. Meanwhile, as reported on October 1, 2012, the BSF took up the matter of FICN with its Bangladeshi counterpart, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), and proposed the setting up of a joint task force to check the smuggling of FICNs.
Three nodal centres for distribution of FICN have been identified - Jammu in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Malda in West Bengal and Nepal. The FICN menace in Malda District has also been documented in West Bengal's Criminal Investigation Department's (CID) Criminal Intelligence Gazette - 2003-November, 2012, which records that a total of 211 persons were arrested in 133 incidents, since 2003, along with FICN worth INR 12.7525 million in Malda District.
Further, the arrest of Malda-based Barkat Ali at the Guwahati (Assam) Railway Station on March 12, 2012, uncovered the involvement of militants from northeast India in the FICN racket. A March 18, 2012, report indicated that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had exposed the FICN racket that operated in India's Northeast, with the help of militants in Nagaland, through a well knit network across the Northeast.
Malda has also registered a steep rise in illicit poppy cultivation. According to the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) report for 2011-2012, the agency destroyed poppy crops cultivated in 714 acres of land in West Bengal, of which 711 acres were in Malda District, and just three acres in the Hooghly and Burdwan Districts. Poppy cultivation is mostly spread over the Kaliachak and Baishnabnagar Police Station areas in Malda. Significantly, all the FICN cartels across India are also tracked to these two areas. A senior Malda Police official noted, further, that "poppy cultivation has spread cross border and at the villages on zero lines, beyond the fencing where we have little vigil."
The CID's Criminal Intelligence Gazette also recorded 14 incidents of arrests in Malda since 2003 in connection with the narcotics trade, with 25 people arrested, and 179.65 kilograms of narcotics seized. A July 14, 2012, report quoted an unnamed senior NCB official saying, "The lethal gum from the poppy plants is processed to heroin, which heads for clandestine international markets, mostly through the Indo-Bangladesh border at Malda, Murshidabad and Bongaon in the State. Earlier, the consignment used to reach these border points, however, now they have started cultivating the plants at the border point and it is now easier to send the consignment to the international market."
Excise Department Superintendent, Arunabha Pal added, "During the financial year of 2010-2011, 237.07 hectares of land was used for poppy seed cultivation in the District [Malda]. The Department had registered 21 cases regarding this matter and poppy seeds worth INR 3.292 crore [32.92 million] were destroyed". Kaliachak-II and III blocks, Manikchak, Ratua, Bamangola, Chanchal, Harischandrapur, Old Malda and parts of English Bazaar Police Station areas were used for poppy seed cultivation. Pal further disclosed that the interior areas along rivers Ganga and Fulohar were principally used for cultivation. The porous border along Malda and Murshidabad is used to smuggle concentrated resin to Bangladesh. The fine heroin is smuggled back into India through this passage.
The presence of these two scourges - FICN and drugs - has created spaces for the growth of terrorist activities and networks in the District as well. The Purnia (Bihar)-Malda link has gradually been consolidated as a transit point for terrorists, between India and Bangladesh. The Pakistan-based HuJI terrorist, Shahid Bilal, who is alleged to have masterminded several bomb blasts across the Indian hinterland, was reportedly raising funds by running weapons between the Malda and Bangladesh. Several other arrests have underlined Malda's significance as a terror-destination. The most prominent among these include:
October 13, 2012: NIA, with the help of BSF and local Police, arrested Badal Sheikh from Manoharpur in Malda District for his alleged links with the J&K-based HM.
August 5, 2011: Malda Police arrested Mohammad Salim Khan, an alleged HM militant. From a letter sent by NIA to Malda Police, it was learned that an FIR was pending against Salim in Jammu.
June 11, 2010: Malda and Murshidabad Police arrested four persons along with 450 kilograms of explosives from a warehouse in Malda´s Kaliachak area.
November 24, 2009: Jahangir Momin alias of Saidul Sheikh, involved in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) racket and having alleged links with ISI, was arrested from Ratua in Malda.
January 12, 2009: A Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorist, identified as Safique Iliyas alias Deepak, was arrested by the CID from Malda District. Safique, a resident of Rajshahi in Bangladesh, was instructed to spy on the movement of Army personnel in Siliguri in Darjeeling District.
July 31, 2009: Ekramul Hoque, a Bangladeshi arms dealer, having links with Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), was arrested by BSF at Sasani in Kaliachak area of Malda District.
August 7, 2008: The BSF arrested three Bangladeshi nationals, with alleged links to HuJI-B, while they were trying to cross over into India, at the Doulatpur border in the Baisnabnagar area of Malda District. Three mobile phones, USD 16,000, INR 16,000 and maps of different parts of India, were seized from them.
December 22, 2007: Mohammad Tariq Qasmi and Khalid Mujahid, two HuJI militants in Uttar Pradesh (UP), were arrested in Malda. Brij Lal, the then Additional Director-General of Police, UP, stated that money was delivered to Qasmi through local contacts and the bombs were made and supplied by Mukhtar alias Raju, who has made several trips to Bangladesh through the Malda district in West Bengal.
March 20, 2005: Police arrested LeT militant, Nassir Sheikh, from Salehpur village in Malda and disclosed that they were on the lookout for others, who had reportedly re-grouped in this District after fleeing north India.
The CID's Criminal Intelligence Gazette noted, further, that a total of 38 incidents of arrest had taken place in Malda District under Arms Act since 2003, with 64 persons arrested.
Malda also provides a corridor from where illegal migrants can easily access other parts of the country. The unskilled labour force across India has seen a dramatically increasing representation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. A December 11, 2012, report indicated that the BSF was cracking down on labour agents who place Bangladeshi migrants to various industries in West Bengal and in India's Northeast. The BSF identified 32 of 866 border outpost areas on the eastern border as 'sensitive' in this context. Most of these areas fell in Petrapole (North 24 Paragana District) and Malda District of West Bengal, and Dhubri District of Assam. The problem of virtually unchecked human trafficking is compounded by the fact that Malda District provides ready access to Nepal through North Bengal. State Intelligence reports note, "They [illegal migrants] disperse to various parts, including Rajasthan, Punjab and Assam... But most of these trespassers prefer to go to Malda town first." High volumes of illegal migration also create a significant potential that can be exploited by terrorist groups. A senior intelligence official thus observed: "Before venturing out to the rest of the country it is easy for the suspected terrorists to find a hideout in Malda. Also, it is easy to enter rural Malda via Kolkata after carrying out terrorist activities elsewhere in the country".
Malda has become the locus of a complex of criminal activities with intricate linkages to the ISI-backed network of terrorism in the region.
Unfortunately, these setbacks have impacted the District in multifarious ways causing terror trouble. If untamed for long, the District can fall into perpetual instability, providing more scope to the terror groups and rogue elements to thrive.
(The writer Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)