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Terror struck

Print edition : Jan 03, 2003 T+T-

The recent explosions in cinema halls in Bangladesh constitute yet another pointer to the country's growing culture of violence and fundamentalist intolerance.

IT was yet another national tragedy for a country of 130 million. On December 7, a national holiday as it was the day after Id-ul-Fitr, a few thousand people who had been enjoying Bengali films in four cinema halls in Mymensingh, a sleepy, traditional district town nearly 150 km from Dhaka, became victims of a terror attack that is unparalleled in terms of the magnitude of devastation.

Several powerful bombs exploded simultaneously in the movie houses. Twenty people were killed and more than 200 were injured. Doctors said that the casualty figures were likely to rise. The scale of the devastation has stunned the people of Mymensingh, where even political rivalries seldom take a serious turn.

The town was gripped by unprecedented panic. Shops remained closed, vehicles stayed off the roads and Army personnel, who were engaged in Operation Clean Heart, the anti-crime crackdown, cordoned off the movie halls. The fire brigade, the police and the Army were called in for rescue operations.

There were heart-rending scenes all around. Hospital corridors became bloodstained and wailing relatives of the victims searched frantically for their near and dear ones. But despite the atmosphere of fear, people rushed to the Medical College Hospital and clinics in the town to donate blood.

Quoting eyewitnesses, newspapers said that the first bomb went off at the Ajanta cinema at around 6-10 p.m., and that was followed by the blasts at the Chayabani, Aloka and Purabi theatres.

The law-enforcing agencies are yet to come to a definite conclusion as to who was responsible for the act. It is believed that the operatives were "well-trained" in using powerful explosives. Soon after the incident in Mymensingh, a "live bomb" was found in a cinema hall in northern Gaibandha. At least temporarily, several cinema halls have stopped screening movies while others are functioning with extra-security arrangements.

Bangladesh began experiencing such incidents from the latter half of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's tenure in office. At that time, the targets of the terror attacks were ordinary people who attended musical soirees or took part in the Bangla New Year's Day celebrations or were part of political rallies organised by secular politicians. A powerful bomb blast at a church in Gopalganj, the home district of Sheikh Hasina, left several people dead. Extremists even marred the sanctity of the traditional Pahela Baishakh celebrations held in Dhaka in April 2001. Barely three years ago, in the western Jessore town, extremists bombed an open-air stage where a cultural function was being held, killing over a dozen people.

It is clear that those who are behind these acts are against traditional Bengali culture and do not approve of any interaction between the opposite sexes. Indeed, there is a strong possibility that fundamentalist groups that had voiced their opposition to cultural activities were behind the terrorist acts. Following an attack on a rally organised by the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) and a bomb attack on the Awami League (then the ruling party, led by Sheikh Hasina) office in Narayangonj, in which several people were killed and hundreds injured, the Sheikh Hasina regime had held the "religious extremist groups" responsible for these acts of terrorism. Many people were arrested, and the national media, quoting intelligence sources, reported how the "foreign-aided" religious extremists had even tried to assassinate Prime Minister Hasina (two huge bombs were recovered miraculously from her scheduled meeting place in Kotalipara).

While bomb blasts at cultural functions and secular political events were frequent during the latter part of Sheikh Hasina's rule, the incident at Mymensingh is the second of its kind during the 13-month rule of the four-party alliance led by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. On September 28, a similar bomb attack was launched in the western district town of Satkhira, one in the Roxy cinema and another at a circus show. Scores of people were killed.

Many people, who either believe in secular political ideals or are considered "pro-liberation", see some resemblance between the Satkhira bombing and the latest blasts in Mymensingh. But the government thinks otherwise. It sees the Mymensingh blasts as "planned terrorist acts" and points a finger at its main political opponent, the Awami League. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who visited Mymensingh, said: "It is a major act of terror... A well-orchestrated terrorist incident." She ordered a judicial probe and said that the culprits would be brought to book. She said that evidence pointing to a planned sabotage was being collected and remarked that those who were carrying out an "anti-Bangladesh campaign" at home and abroad and conspiring to tarnish the country's image seemed to have links with such terrorist incidents.

The government's intentions became clear when on December 8 the police re-arrested Sheikh Hasina's Political Secretary and former Deputy Minister Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Awami Leader leader Mukul Bose, Muntasir Mamoon, a Dhaka University Professor and a popular columnist, and Shahriar Kabir, the journalist-columnist who had been arrested by the government on sedition charges but was released on bail. The police also raided the houses of Abed Khan, another popular columnist, and Dr. Kazi Farooq Ahmed, president of the Association of Development Agencies of Bangladesh (ADAB), but have not yet arrested them.

A day later, Awami League leader and former Minister Tofael Ahmed was arrested in connection with a murder case that was filed several years ago. Other leaders of the party from Mymensingh, including Al Haj Matiur Rahman, a well-known politician and freedom fighter, and his son Mohitur Rahman, were also arrested. Leaders of other Opposition parties were also interrogated by the Army. Amidst the growing number of arrests, the Opposition has alleged that the arrests are a "ploy to eliminate the spirit of the country's independence from Pakistan, secular democracy and liberal thinking".

The government's actions following the Mymensingh blasts were challenged by Sheikh Hasina, who released a strongly worded statement in which she said that she suspected the involvement of a "terrorist fundamentalist group" within the ruling alliance in the bomb blasts. "It appears that an identified fanatic terrorist group within the ruling alliance is behind the heinous crime," she said. Describing the bomb blasts as "carnage", Sheikh Hasina demanded the immediate arrest and trial of the offenders. She referred to a report by the news agency Reuters that quoted Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury as saying that the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden might have been involved in the blasts. Chowdhury's remarks, which he later denied, have put the Khaleda government in a very uncomfortable situation because it has been denying, rather strongly and consistently, that there were no Al Qaeda men or Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) activities in Bangladesh. The news agency, which stood by its report, quoted the Home Minister as saying that the "police suspect Al Qaeda or any other terror groups are behind the bomb blasts". Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ameer Matiur Rahman Nizami described Reuters as an "enemy of Islam".

Secular opinion in the country feels that the acts of terror are symptomatic of a deep polarisation within the country that has been in the making over the past few decades. According to this section, successive military and pseudo-democratic regimes were responsible for the situation that the country faces now. It believes that the pumping in of petro-dollars was a planned move to help religious fanatics. But since a section of the religious extremists are now partners in the government, the term "fundamentalist," which was a rather common allegation, has become defamatory. "Anybody trying to use this will invite the wrath of the government," an independent journalist said, adding that "you cannot use this even against those who fought against Bengali freedom fighters in 1971 in the name of religion."

So far, investigators have filed charge-sheets in only one case, relating to the bomb blast at a function in Jessore on March 6, 1999. The charge-sheet implicates Information Minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader from Jessore Tariqul Islam and a number of leaders of a regional smuggling syndicate. The present government has termed the charge-sheet "politically motivated". It had set up a judicial commission to probe the bomb explosions that took place during Sheikh Hasina's tenure. The commission's report has been termed as politically motivated.

SIGNIFICANTLY, the Mymensingh explosions have happened at a time when the relations between India and Bangladesh are under strain. Top Indian leaders have alleged a growing presence of the Al Qaeda network in Bangladesh and increasing Pakistani assistance for insurgents from northeastern India operating from Bangladesh. Denying such allegations has become a regular feature at the press briefings of the Bangladesh Foreign Office. While New Delhi has said that it has "proof" to defend its allegations, Dhaka maintains that they are "unfounded, if not motivated".

In what was a rare event in many years, the Mymensingh blast was followed by the arrest of two armymen and two civilians for "spying" for India.

Four journalists, two from the British Channel 4 TV, Zaiba Malik and Leopold Bruno, have been arrested for filming scenes relating to "religious extremism" and have been charged with trying to portray Bangladesh as a "Taliban state". Pricilla Raj, a free-lance journalist, and Saleem Samad, a senior journalist, were arrested for assisting the two foreign journalists.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has expressed its "concern" for the safety of some 15 politicians belonging to Opposition parties and two journalists who have been held incommunicado since December 8. In a statement, Amnesty said: "They were all arrested without a warrant, and are at risk of torture. They may be prisoners of conscience, detained for propagating views critical of government policies".