|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
On April 17, 2018 a pressure cooker bomb went off outside an Indian Consulate office in Nepal's Biratnagar, damaging the wall of the premises. Biratnagar is the industrial capital of Nepal and 6 km north of the border of Bihar. Nepalese suspect cadres of Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) that is banned by US Treasury and gets support from Pakistan's ISI. This was followed by another incident on April 29, 2018, when suspected Jihadi elements targeted office of Arun-III, a 900 MW hydropower project in Sankhuwasabha being developed by India's Sutlej Jala Vidhyut Nigam. The attack on the power station came a time when Nepal was preparing to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was to lay the foundation stone for the project jointly with Nepalese PM KP Sharma Oli in second week May 2018. No one claimed responsibility for the blast. Radicals from India have been escaping into Nepal. Conversely, ISI-sponsored terrorists have been frequenting into India via Nepal though the open borders for terrorist acts.
In January 2018, our intelligence agencies had provided Nepal details of five suspected terror-facilitators operating from Biratnagar and Kathmandu that were also involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking and counterfeit Indian currency. The curious case of retired Pakistani Lt Col Mohammad Habib who went missing in Nepal during April 2017 is highly suspicious. Retired in 2014, he was offered a job by the UN at Lumbini at a salary package of $3500-8500 per month. He reportedly flew into Kathmandu where he was received by one Javed Ansari who provided Habib with a Nepalese mobile sim-card. Habib then reportedly flew to Lumbini, messaged home he had reached his destination and then vanished. There are too many questions here that remain unanswered: was Habib ISI agent; who is Javed Ansari who received him in Kathmandu and provided local sim-card to him – is Javed also part of the ISI network; did Javed accompany Habib to Lumbini; did Habib apply for the UN job in Lumbini merely to get free air ticket and excuse to get into the Terai Region of Nepal; on arrival by air from Kathmandu to Lumbini, who received him at the airport – did the UN not arrange his reception, if so, who received him, and finally; did Habib dump the lucrative UN job to coordinate ISI operations in the Terai Region of Nepal? More the mystery remains unresolved including of Javed Ansari (which may be cover name), more the reason to believe, Habib was on covert mission. It is well known that ISI cells active in Kathmandu facilitate visas for terrorists to move in and out of the country before planning sabotage operation. Organizations in Nepal like Tehfuzul Madrasa are safe houses that Pakistan's ISI and LeT has been using for sleeper cells for targeting India; lie low, regroup, arrange material and funds before planning an infiltration into Indian territory. Pakistani Prime Minister SK Abbasi's visit to Nepal in early March 2018 needs to be seen in context of not only a well-oiled network in Nepal giving protection to ISI-backed terrorists, but becoming a "Control Centre" as per the Intelligence Bureau. The disappearance of Pakistani Lt Col Mohammad Habib could well imply his positioning as the overall in-charge of ISI operations in Terai Region, which fits into his forsaking the lucrative UN job in Lumbini.
Group these developments with China's creation and support to the Maoists movement in Nepal, ISI-supported CPN, Communist China's hard and soft power ingress into Nepal and Oli government's willingness to let Nepal be subsumed by China, and you have a potent hybrid threat forming. The red carpet rolled out to Prime Minister Modi at Wuhan is temporary relief till the China-US economic war subsides. China doesn't link trade and commerce with territorial claims – Chinese relations with Taiwan and Japan being examples. The proactive sub-conventional asymmetry of Chinese intelligence and Pakistan's ISI vis-à-vis India is substantial in favour of the former two. Chinese media in recent past threatened China could destabilize our northeast if India pressured Pakistan on Kashmir. Most importantly, it is the capabilities that need to be kept in focus, not the intentions which can change overnight. Nepal's MoU with China for drilling oil in Terai and other projects will bring Chinese intelligence to the area, which is already ISI infested. About 97 per cent of the Muslim community of Nepal (numbering 12,77,492 – 4.4 per cent of total Nepalese population) live in the Terai region, while the other 3 per cent are located mainly in the city of Kathmandu and the western hills. It is not the Muslim population per se that matters but how many the ISI (in conjunction Chinese intelligence) could radicalize and use against India. These are clear and present dangers, which should not be ignored.