Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Assassination Plots

The Indian government is said to be acting on reports that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has contracted with a former leader of Mumbai's criminal underworld to assassinate two leaders of the opposition BJP party. Security is being tightened for right-wing politicians L.K. Advani, the leader of the parliamentary opposition in Delhi, and Narendra Modi, the recently elected Chief Minister of Gujarat state. The hit man -- or more accurately, the contract holder -- is said to be Dawood Ibrahim, who is wanted in connection with the 1993 bombings in Mumbai that killed 250 people and wounded 700; he fled India after those attacks and has been living in Karachi for over a decade.

Both BJP leaders are controversial and polarizing figures, lightning rods for disaffected lower-middle class Hindus strongly and intolerantly wedded to their religious identity. Advani was the primary architect of the BJP's rise to national power in 1999, winning a mass following with his campaign to demolish a 16th century mosque said to be built over a temple marking the birthplace of Rama, the divine hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Modi is widely seen as responsible for the massively violent reprisals against the Muslim community in Gujarat in July 2002 after 55 Hindus were burned alive in a railway carriage as they returned from a visit to the ruins of that mosque.

Why the ISI should want Advani and Modi dead at a time when relations between India and Pakistan are the warmest they have ever been, is an intriguing question. Islamabad has nothing to gain from raising tensions along a border that is now largely quiet, and it would be far-fetched to imagine that anyone in Pakistan, in its state of deepening crisis, would take time to pursue a long distance vendetta in India.

It is much more likely that the ISI -- or some part of it -- is acting on behalf of one of its strategic partners, the intelligence agencies of Britain, China, Saudi Arabia and the United States. This has happened in the past, most openly in Afghanistan and India, and more circumspectly in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Of the four, Britain and China have a consistent history of trying to destabilize India, but only the former has had a handle on communal (religious) conflict; Beijing has mainly been involved in running guns to separatist tribal elements along India's north-eastern border and funding its communist proxies.

British intervention has been much broader, rooted as it is in its colonial experience of using religion to "divide and rule." In the final decade of British rule in India Hindus and Muslims, who never before fought each other because of religion, were manipulated into a state of civil war. As American journalist William Shirer noted in his memoir on Gandhi, that was not a difficult achievement; he quoted the British Chief of Police in Bombay telling how a religious riot could be engineered simply by throwing a cow's head over a temple wall or a dead pig into a mosque. In pre-independence India the Muslim League under Mohammad Ali Jinnah was Britain's main proxy in mobilizing religious hatred. It organized the "great Calcutta killing" of August 1946 which took some 7,000 lives in three days and set in motion the wave of violence that culminated a year later in the killing of about a million people as Britain split India to create Pakistan.

Proof of covert British intervention in India after it became independent has been available only occasionally, but there is an abundance of circumstantial evidence. Items:
  • A former British intelligence operative, Peter Bleach, was caught in 1994 after parachuting crates of AK-47s, rocket launchers and ammunition for use by the Ananda Marg, a violent Hindu cult in West Bengal. During Bleach's trial in Calcutta the defense produced the transcript of a phone conversation in which the defendant informed an unnamed official of Britain's MI-6 of his assignment and was told to proceed. Found guilty of conspiring to make war against the State, Bleach was sentenced to life in prison in 2000, but was released in 2004 after persistent representations by the British government, which included a private chat between Tony Blair and Deputy Prime Minister Advani.
  • Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984 as she was heading for a BBC television interview to be conducted by Peter Ustinov. (Princess Anne was in Delhi at the time, scheduled to dine with the Prime Minister that evening.) The interview was delayed a half hour at the last minute, just the time needed for one of the two assassins (both on the Prime Minister's security detail), to begin his shift at the spot where the killing occurred. Initially, one of Mrs. Gandhi's aides was suspected of having made the change, but the judge who conducted the official investigation of the murder exonerated him completely. The judge noted the involvement of a foreign intelligence agency but did not go into detail. (A part of the report remains secret, so it is impossible to say what information he had.) Incidentally, Ustinov had a family connection with British intelligence: according to Peter Wright in his book "Spycatcher," Ustinov's father, Klop Ustinov, worked for MI-5. It is also worth recalling that the British government had rejected an official Indian protest about the BBC giving air time to a Sikh who called for Mrs. Gandhi's murder; London could not interfere with freedom of the Press, it said. For the record: the BBC Foreign Service is paid for by the government, and some of its prominent "journalists" are known to be spooks. (See the fascinating blog at http://shaphan.typepad.com/blog/bbc/index.html.)
  • The Mark Bullough mentioned repeatedly in Shaphan's blog went from the Scots Guards to the post of Managing Director of Jardine Fleming in Bombay. He arrived in the city just as the Indian government was opening up the economy to foreign investment, and during his time there the following things happened: (1) a $1.5 billion stock market swindle in which four major foreign banks were implicated ; (2) the most serious Hindu-Muslim riots in India since independence; and (3) the March 1993 bomb attacks that demolished the stock market. It was also in the same period that the right-wing BJP party suddenly came alive with new funding (supposedly from wealthy Hindus abroad), and Advani's Hindu-supremacist campaign to demolish the mosque at Ayodha achieved its end. Bullough went on to co-found Aegis Defense Services with Tim Spicer, another Scots Guards alumnus, and both went to Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion; they were given a $293 million contract to create what was for a while the largest private army in the world. Jardine Fleming, by the way, traces its roots to the glory days of the opium trade. Jardine Matheson led the effort to circumvent China's ban on the trade in the period before Britain fought two "opium wars" to force Beijing to accept the drug.
Why the British might want Advani and Modi out of the way is the subject of another post.

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