Rising terror in Bangladesh

Print edition : March 11, 2005

The growing clout of Islamic hardliners and the Khaleda Zia government's silence seem to have a direct link to the violence against Opposition and secular targets in Bangladesh.

in Dhaka

In Dhaka, during a three-day countrywide strike to protest against the bomb attack on an Awami League rally on January 27.-MOHAMMAD SHAHIDULLAH/REUTERS

BANGLADESH is quickly transforming into a hotbed of militancy if the recent spate of violence is any indication. The latest outburst was a grenade attack in northeastern Habiganj on January 27, which claimed the lives of five activists of the Awami League, the main Opposition Party in the country. The dead included Bangladesh's leading intellectual and former Finance Minister, Shah A.M.S. Kibria. Kibria, who also served as Foreign Secretary and as an Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), was a sitting Member of Parliament. Kibria had defected from the Pakistani side in 1971 while he was a diplomat based in Washington to join the nation's war of liberation.

This act of terrorism came in the wake of a write-up that was published on January 23, in the magazine section of The New York Times. Eliza Griswold, the reporter, had painted a grim picture of Bangladesh, writing about the country's rising Islamic militancy.

Attacks using home-made bombs and grenades began in 1999 when powerful bombs were thrown at a musical soiree in western Jessore. Ten people were killed and over 200 injured. The violence reached its peak on August 21, 2004, when dozens of grenades were tossed at a protest meeting in Dhaka organised by the Awami League. Sheikh Hasina, the Leader of the Opposition and a former Prime Minister, survived the attack miraculously, but 22 of her party members including a central leader and a freedom fighter, Ivy Rahman, lost their lives. The Khaleda Zia government formed a one-man judicial commission to probe the incident. The commission's report was not made public, but the Judge told mediapersons that the intelligence agency of "a neighbouring country" had carried out the attack in collaboration with local hoodlums "to create anarchy".

More attacks followed, but the government was unable to control the rising terrorism, which has so far targeted only secular forces. Despite angry reactions from the ruling alliance partners of Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the government has done little to check the violence. The police and the intelligence agencies have failed to catch any culprit or identify the forces behind the serial attacks.

Against this backdrop, a combine of 14 Opposition parties began a countrywide protest. The hartals that formed part of it turned violent in many places. Traffic was affected and business and educational institutions were largely shut down during the hartals. With the support of civil society and socio-cultural organisations, the Opposition seems determined to continue the protest until the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice and the Khaleda government steps down.

In a procession in Dhaka on February 4, mourners carry portraits of former Finance Minister Shah A.M.S. Kibria, who was killed in the bomb attack.-JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

Braving indiscriminate lathicharge, and fighting the activists of the ruling alliance who are now on the streets along with the police "to face the Opposition's disruptive activities", the protesters, mainly from the Awami League, smashed and burnt vehicles and blocked road and rail services. It was the strongest expression of anger and frustration since the alliance government assumed office in October 2001. The police shot dead one Opposition protester while one policeman was murdered allegedly by an Opposition mob. Scores of Opposition leaders and activists were arrested. The Opposition, which described the Khaleda Zia government as a "protecter of militant fundamentalists", called a 36-hour hartal on February 14-15. The BNP-led ruling alliance has vowed to suppress the Opposition campaign. Hence an escalation of tension across the country is a forgone conclusion.

The `pro-liberation' secular parties and civil society groups allege that Bangladesh is being held hostage by violent religious extremism and radicalism, which want to wreck its secular foundations. The ruling coalition has, however, dismissed the charge as "sheer propaganda" by an "unpatriotic Opposition".

Observers wonder if it is a mere coincidence that the latest grenade attack came just a few days after the publication of the report in the New York Times, which exposed activities of a notorious fundamentalist outfit called the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), led by Bangla Bhai (Frontline, June 19, 2004). The same day, several associates of the Islamist commander were lynched by villagers, fed up with the police inaction with regard to the murder of an Awami League leader in Rajshahi. The report, headlined "For a new Taliban: The next Islamist Revolution?", was based on fieldwork done in the northern villages where the militant leader's militia is known to terrorise people in the Taliban fashion. The report created a fresh furore when Dhaka-based dailies carried its translation.

However, a Foreign Ministry spokesman strongly refuted the report, saying: "It was not based on facts." The spokesman also termed the report "politically motivated". The report claimed that under the banner of the JMJB Islamists are trying for "an Islamist revolution in several provinces of Bangladesh that border India". Since his first media expose in April 2004, the intolerant and fanatical Bangla Bhai and his men reportedly tortured to death 22 people, branding them Left extremists, and maimed dozens of others. These murders have been routinely covered by the local media.

Meanwhile, the search for the source of the 10 truckloads of weapons seized at Chittagong port, the largest arms haul in the country's history, has made no headway. Many people suspect that part of the arms cache must have reached the terrorists. Criminals who carried out grenade attacks in Dhaka and Habiganj used the same `Arges' brand grenades, according to experts.

In December last year, a hand-written letter making a death threat to the Indian cricket team, from a group calling itself the Harkat-ul Jihad, believed to be a front organisation of the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), was received by the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. While New Delhi took the threat seriously - India sent its team to Bangladesh after studying the security arrangements - Bangladesh dismissed the threat as a hoax. In September last year, the World Bank's country director in Bangladesh, Christine Wallich, received a letter threatening her with death. She left Dhaka but returned later on receiving an assurance of full security.

Many secular intellectuals believe that the Khaleda government's reluctance to act against rising extremism has its roots in domestic politics. The BNP's partners in the ruling alliance are two Islamic fundamentalist parties - the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote. The dominant one, the Jamaat, had collaborated with the Pakistani "occupation army" to oppose the 1971 liberation war. Analysts feel that the BNP will always try to keep its alliance with the fundamentalists. They say that the inclusion of two Jamaat members in the Cabinet and that of other fundamentalist parties in the alliance have encouraged radical Islamist groups to think that they enjoy protection from the government and can act with impunity.

Kibria's wife Asma Kibria, a painter, has launched a national and international campaign seeking justice. In an emotional appeal, she said: "The people of Bangladesh are in the midst of a desperate struggle with the forces of greed, hatred and intolerance. They need help in their quest to build a just, genuinely free and democratic society, and in the days ahead they must brave great violence and oppression to achieve their goals. Please help us all in our time of need.... "

Appealing to the country's freedom fighters, she said: "As the widow of a fallen comrade, I say to you, `It is time to make a stand'. It is time to confront the forces of evil. It is time for you to lead us back towards the bright vision of the Republic that millions died for in 1971."

The frequent attacks on Opposition rallies and cultural functions have left the common people confused: who could be the actual killers and what could be their ulterior motives? While many sections of the society point their fingers at Islamic militants, mystery surrounds the attackers' identities as they remain untraced. Reports in local dailies say that intelligence operatives, who on several occasions voiced the suspicion that Islamist militants had links with some of the explosions, were allegedly not allowed to go ahead with their investigations owing to "pressure from government higher-ups".

No headway was made in the probes into the huge arms caches seized in Chittagong, Bogra and Dhaka. In the last two months six incidents of bomb blasts took place at village fairs and cultural functions, and even at a venue of the traditional rural drama called jatra, in Bogra, Natore, Jamalpur, Sherpur and Pabna. A temporary ban has been enforced on jatra. It looks as if some people are trying to change even the cultural course of rural Bangladesh.

Intelligence men probing the blasts suspect that Islamist militants might have been behind them. Some men caught with bomb-making materials reportedly admitted to having links with fanatic Islamic militant groups.

Ten MPs of the Awami League have been killed over the past 34 years. More than 12 journalists including editors have also lost their lives in incidents of shooting or bomb explosion.

The postponement of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka scheduled for February 6 and 7, has also given a new twist to the existing political situation. The BNP government has rejected outright the Indian reservations regarding the "security situation" in Dhaka as "unacceptable". "We're shocked and dismayed at the unwarranted and unexpected decision of the Government of India," Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury told journalists. "Such postponement goes counter to the letter and spirit of the SAARC charter which precludes member-states from raising bilateral and contentious issues."

Meanwhile, at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the ruling four-party alliance held the Awami League responsible for the postponement of the SAARC summit. Some top leaders of the alliance even alleged that New Delhi was "supporting the Awami League's political agenda" by deciding not to attend the Dhaka summit.

The assassination of Kibria, the country's most successful Finance Minister (from 1996-2001), has evinced sharp international reactions. Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh have conveyed their deep condolences. Expressing deep dismay, envoys from the United States, Japan and countries of the European Union, have urged the Bangladesh government to conduct a transparent and immediate probe into the attack. "We are deeply concerned that the apparent failure to investigate properly previous similar attacks have led to a climate of impunity which encourages a continuation of such incidents," said Anwar Chowdhury, the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who had himself survived an assassination attempt at the shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal in Sylhet in May last year.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca has said that Washington is considering Dhaka's request for Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assistance to probe the grenade attack but has asked for clear terms of reference to ensure full access to all evidence and witnesses by FBI consultants. A U.S. spokesman said: "In both cases, the August 21 and the January 27 attacks, the potential utility of the FBI assistance was greatly undermined when the crime scene was not properly protected from contamination."

The terrorist activities and the frequent fatwas from mullahs in the past several years have somewhat terrorised Bangladesh's secular intelligentsia. Many reputed scholars, writers, teachers, journalists, columnists, diplomats and politicians have been murdered or injured in attacks. Anyone who writes or speaks against fanaticism, political Islam or the jehadis, or argues against social injustice and religious intolerance is systematically targeted. Recently, Dr. Kamal Hossain, an internationally reputed lawyer and a former Foreign Minister, was declared a murtad (infidel) for coming out in support of the minority Ahmedia community. While the fanatics attacked Ahmedia mosques, the BNP government banned the sect's religious literature. (The Ahmedia movement believes there can be prophets after Muhammad, which mainstream Islam regards as blasphemous.) The hardliners have also launched a campaign against women's participation in outdoor games, including swimming and football.