Sandeep Sahu

We had all hoped against hope that Abdul Rahman, who was arrested by Delhi Police in December, 2015 for his alleged links with Al Qaeda, was the last we would hear about terror’s connections in the Land of Jagannath. But that hope has been rudely shattered with the arrest of Kendrapara resident Habibur Rahman by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) at the IGI Airport in New Delhi on his arrival from Saudi Arabia yesterday.

The fact that nothing concrete has emerged so far about any plans that Rahaman or Lashkar-e-Taiba, the dreaded terrorist outfit he is allegedly linked with, may have hatched to carry out any terrorist attack in Odisha - or even that there is a sleeper state active in the state - is no consolation. There have been enough indications in the recent past that Odisha is very much in the terrorists’ radar – at least as a safe haven for sleeper cells or as a hideout, if not as a target for an actual terror attack. Even this last cannot be ruled out altogether in the light of information that two Indian Mujahideen terrorists had done a recce of Puri and Bhubaneswar in January, 2014. Subsequently, the arrest of Iswar Chandra Behera, a contractual photographer at the Interim Test Range (ITR) in Chandipur, on charges of spying for ISI in January, 2015; of Abdul Rahman from Paschimkachcha village near Cuttack towards the end of 2015 and five SIMI activists from Rourkela in February, 2016 must have dispelled any residual complacency Odisha Police may have had on the possibilities of Odisha’s place in the terrorists’ scheme of things.

If family members of Habibur Rahaman are to be believed, the terror suspect has not visited his village in Patkura area of Kendrapara district since 2006. But what intelligence sources say about him is scary. While Rahaman himself has not visited Odisha for over a decade, he did arrange for a hideout for Sheikh Abdul Naeem - his LeT handler who was arrested by NIA in November, 2017 - in Odisha at least twice between 2014 and 2017, they say. If this is true, it is quite possible that Rahaman might have facilitated hideouts for other LeT operatives – or even for Naeem on occasions other than the two the intelligence agencies know of.

With its multiple vulnerabilities and lax policing, it has been a surprise that there has been no terror strike in Odisha so far. Puri has always been known as a potential target for terror groups, especially during the annual Rath Yatra when lakhs of pilgrims throng the main road in the holy city. For any terror group looking for maximum casualties, the Rath Yatra provides a ‘mouth-watering’ prospect because of the massive crowd. The Jagannath Temple too has been known to be on the terrorists’ radar. Then there is the missile test range in Chandipur, a very sensitive defence installation which, as the arrest of Behera has shown, is already on the terrorists’ mind.

Hemmed in by West Bengal and Jharkhand in the north, Andhra Pradesh in the north and Chhattisgarh on the west, Odisha is highly vulnerable to the possibility of a terrorist sneaking into the state through the porous inter-state border from any of these states to plan or carry out a terror act or to hide after conducting one elsewhere. The fact that Odisha Police did not get wind of any of the cases mentioned above and got into the act only after intelligence was shared by police in other states or the central agencies does not inspire much confidence about its ability to sniff a terror module and act in time.

It is, however, the 480-km long coastline that presents the biggest challenge for the ill-prepared Odisha Police. With just 18 poorly equipped marine police stations and 15 power boats – half of which remain out of service at any given time – the state police just doesn’t have either the personnel or the infrastructure to man and monitor this long coast. While the state government has done well to sound an alert to the Collectors of eight coastal districts to watch out for any of the 40 lakh people who find their names missing from the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) in Assam who might sneak in through the sea route, it will have to come up with something more substantial than that to ensure that Odisha does not become the new terror hub.

It is time for Odisha Police got its act together.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)