Institute for Conflict Management-#1148, 16 September 2003
Operation Spider Web was launched in the southwestern districts of Bangladesh after all regular defensive measures and combing operations by police miserably failed to bring the law and order situation under control. This was the second joint operation of the security forces after Operation Clean Heart. However, this time the area of operation was limited only to southwestern region covering Jhenidah, Kushtia, Chuadanga, Meherpur, Jessore, Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat and adjacent districts.
This Operation targeted the outlawed left-wing extremist parties active in the region. In all, eleven outlawed left-wing extremist groups are active in the area but in recent times, three main groups – Purbo Bangla Communist Party (PBCP), Biplobi Communist Party-Haq Group (BCP) and New Biplobi Communist Party have been involved in continuous armed conflict to establish their supremacy. An estimated 5000 cadres of these rebel groups hold complete sway over the region. Earlier the outlaws were using 303 rifles, double-barrel guns and in some cases sten guns. But now they are equipping themselves with more modern weapons including AK-47 and other types of assault rifles, available in Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts region.
The increased firepower of these groups has posed a serious threat to peace in southwestern Bangladesh. The rivalry between the two main groups PBCP and BCP became intense just before the launching of the operation which left at least 34 people dead including local people’s representatives and policemen. These killings were the immediate reason behind the operations against the outlaws and criminals. The Operation began on July 19 in the ten south-western districts of Khulna Division. In this drive 14,000 personnel from the police, paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles, the Ansar militia auxiliary force and the coast guard were involved. The government sealed the international border with India once operations commenced.
It also prepared a list of 160 hard-core criminals and ring leaders of the region on the basis of their present and past records. But the operation failed to produce intended result because of faulty strategy, lack of intelligence and police tip-off to criminals. Police had made a grave mistake by publicizing the drive prior to its launching. This acted as a forewarning for the top leaders and prompted them to go into hiding. Police failed to catch any of the major ring leaders or to recover significant amount of arms and ammunition. Killings continued while the operation was on. Joint security forces tried to seek the cooperation of the general public in getting information about the criminals but fearing reprisal, few came forward. Government officials tried to put a brave face and claimed that the operation was making significant progress.
They claimed to have arrested some 1,020 criminals, including 71 listed one, and recovered 19 arms in the first week of the operation. They also claimed that the drive had significantly improved law and order in the region and increased peoples confidence in the operation. Significantly, now the officials had prepared a list of 1,200 criminals whereas when this drive started this list contained names of only 160 criminals. Most importantly, even in this expanded list none of the top ringleaders figured. This drive succeeded in arresting only some petty criminals.
The operation also resulted into some violation of human rights. It disrupted civic life. A human rights organization, Odhikar alleged that many innocent citizens were being arrested and harassed. The sweeping operation created a sense of panic among people living in the region, with residents hiding indoors to avoid being questioned or arrested. As the operation failed to check the decline in law and order, government decided to formally withdraw it on August 14. The security and para-military forces were asked to go back to their previous camps.
The senior officials who were responsible for running this operation said that they were now devising new strategies to deal with the problem and thus virtually admitted that the operation in its present form had failed. Operation Spider Web failed to produce results expected. But, it highlighted some glaring deficiencies in the police force. Its intelligence gathering was extremely poor. The corruption prevalent among the police officers helped all the ringleaders to escape even before the operation was launched. Unless something is done to improve the efficiency and reputation of police force, thereby restoring the faith of people in law enforcement agencies such operations will not be successful.