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A threat from militant Islam

Print edition : Jul 02, 2004 T+T-

Bangladesh appears to be overtaken by religious extremism as the coalition that rules the country adopts a policy of appeasement of Islamists.

in Dhaka

HE goes by different names - Siddiqul Islam, Azizur Rahman... . But `Bangla Bhai', the name that his students and colleagues at a college where he taught Bengali "fondly" gave him, stuck. Bangladesh's best-known and most radical Islamist, the highly visible "operation commander" of the new Islamic outfit Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh (JMJB), or Awakened Muslim Masses, quit teaching to preach militant Islam. He even took up arms training in Kandahar in Afghanistan, where, it is believed, Bangladeshi recruits came to be called Bangla Bhais. The well-built man in his late 30s is known for his courage and organisational abilities.

Bangla Bhai, a sketch.

Hailing from Kurnipara village under Gabtoli thana of northern Bogra district, Bangla Bhai has been living in Bagmara in Rajshahi district, adjoining West Bengal, for several years. His headquarters is located there. When the print media started reporting his activities in the northern region in May, some of his antecedents came to light.

As a student, Bangla Bhai was an activist of the Islami Chhatra Shibir, the militant student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a major partner of the Khaleda Zia-led coalition government. He first served as an irregular teacher at a private college.

Bangla Bhai said he had quit teaching to devote his life to the cause of Islam. In interviews with local correspondents, he denied having any connection with Al Qaeda or the Taliban or having received any military training abroad. But he commands a dreaded force which is carrying out extra-judicial executions of alleged Left extremists and also trying to establish an "Islamic administration". The private army, which is seen to be emerging as the Bangladeshi Taliban, is active in Bagmara, Atrai, Raninagar and Naldanga of Rajshahi, Naogaon and Bogra districts. Instances of extremism by the JMJB are many. On April 25, its cadre launched an attack on a traditional Bengali fair at Rajshahi killing a minor and injuring 40 persons. Its fatwa against women and acts of repression and extortion have drawn wide attention.

Bangla Bhai was first arrested by the police in 2002 when he led a killing squad in southern Bagerhat. But he claimed that no cases were filed against him. "I am a khadim (servant) of Allah and have come to Bagmara to fight against the terrorists of Sarbahara (the outlawed Left extremists who are equally notorious for rampant killing, extortion and brutal repression) and to root out injustice, crime, drug abuse and all other vices from society," he says. Sympathisers of the JMJB claim that several thousand Sarbahara men either surrendered or were caught. Those who were caught were tried and executed by the "Islamic court".

According to a Dhaka daily, 10 Left extremist groups, including the Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP), or Sarbahara, are active in southwestern Bangladesh, seven outlawed outfits are active in 19 districts and three others operate locally. A distinctive feature of these ideological extremists is that some of their members are ordinary criminals interested only in extortion and killing.

Newspaper reports suggest that JMJB men have levied tax on villagers, ordered them to wear tupi (cap) and forced women to wear burqa or hijab. Those who defy are subjected to physical abuse or their property is damaged. They have already terrorised the masses in western and southwestern Bangladesh. They identify anti-social elements as per their own definition and mete out vigilante justice. In most cases, they kill their victims in gruesome ways and often mutilate their bodies. In the last week of May, one of the three alleged Left extremists caught by JMJB operatives was beaten to death and hanged upside down from a roadside tree in Bogra. The fate of the other two is unknown. In another act of cruelty, they sliced into pieces the body of an alleged Left outlaw. The pieces were exhumed from a grave near the outfit's main camp in Naogaon.

By all indications, a section of the government and the local police are aware of Bangla Bhai's activities. In a recent interview, Bangla Bhai admitted that he had contacts with a Deputy Minister and the Superintendent of Police of Rajshahi. "I personally met them. We have contacts with them. They are happy with our work," he said. It is alleged that the police condone the barbaric acts of Bangla Bhai and his cadre because they are hunting down the Left outlaws, whom the police have been unable to catch. JMJB activists, who normally operate under the cover of darkness, often target Hindu minorities and secular political activists, labelling them sympathisers of Left outlaws. "They have taken advantage of the villagers' aversion to Left extremists and their ultimate goal is to spread the ultra Wahhabi doctrine among the rural folk," said a leading secular writer and educationist in Rajshahi University. An elderly intellectual in Dhaka said: "Unfortunately, what we are seeing now is the normal follow-up of the fear expressed by the international press, which this government has preferred to project as a smear campaign orchestrated by the political Opposition."

If the official policy is to pit one outlaw against the other, it may be said that the sponsors of the new outlaws are, in fact, allowing a fire to fight another fire. Under mounting pressure from the media, the Opposition parties and donor agencies, the Khaleda Zia government finally issued an order to arrest Bangla Bhai, but it took over two weeks to travel a distance of 150 kilometres.

The police claimed they had begun a massive hunt for Bangla Bhai and his followers. Naogaon S.P. Fazlur Rahman said that the police patrol had been intensified. After the arrest order was issued, Masud Mia, Rajshahi S.P., claimed that the activities of the outlawed Islamists had stopped. But local sources confirm that Bangla Bhai and his cadre have only gone into hiding. Some informed sources even said that the local police were maintaining regular contact with the militants, a charge that has been denied. "We [the police] will give taka 50,000 in reward to anyone who provides information on their (Bangla Bhai and his political rival and PBCP regional commander Abdus Salam alias Tapu) whereabouts," said Noor Mohammad, Deputy Inspector-General of the Rajshahi police range. He told journalists recently: "We've asked the police stations to support them (JMJB) whenever they go to catch outlaws (Sarbaharas)." The self-proclaimed militants have killed at least nine suspected Left outlaws since they started their "cleansing operation" on April 1. There is an allegation that the new outfit is supported by the Jamaat-e-Islami.

THE chief of the JMJB, Maulana Abdur Rahman, a graduate from a university in Saudi Arabia, served for five years in the Saudi embassy in Dhaka until 1990. He admits to taking help from elected public representatives, understandably of the ruling four-party alliance, and claims to have spoken to local parliamentarians who "extended their support". There is a strong allegation that some leading figures of Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the region are supporting the new outfit. The Maulana admits that activists of his group idolise extremist Islamic leaders and scholars, follow the militant ideals of the Taliban, and spearhead a movement based on jehad. Asked if the JMJB idolises the Taliban, the Maulana said: "Our role models include many leaders and scholars of Islam. We take only as much (ideology) from the Taliban as we need." He says his group does not aspire for political power, but "if Bangladeshis give us the responsibility of running the nation, we will accept it".

The JMJB has three tiers of workers and has so far trained 10,000 full-time activists. Since 1998 these activists have reportedly orchestrated in different regions over 100 operations, including murders and other forms of violent attack. The Maulana admits that his party's head office is in Dhaka but refuses to give its address. Reports suggest that JMJB men fought with the police on August 14, 2003, in northern Joypurhat under the banner of the Jama'atul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB). The police arrested 23 of them from a camp but they were later released mysteriously. After it was outlawed, the group assumed the name JMJB. Also, reports suggest that the JMJB is the youth front of the outlawed Harqat-ul-Jihad.

There is no open political support for Bangla Bhai. But a faction of the Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ), a component of the BNP-led alliance, has voiced its support. "He has started a social movement in the northern districts," Prof. Abdul Kader of the IOJ told a news conference. He claims that some newspapers were running "distorted reports" on Bangla Bhai and the JMJB.

Pro-liberation secular parties, which were all along critical of the government's `anti-liberation' policies, have blamed the Khaleda Zia government for supporting the "Bangladeshi Taliban". Except former President and Jatiya Party leader H.M. Ershad, all top Opposition leaders met with Awami League president Sheikh Hasina to find a way out of the crisis.

United States Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca expressed `concern' over the activities of Bangla Bhai and other forms of religious extremism, during her recent visit to Dhaka. Indian High Commissioner Veena Sikri said India was "closely monitoring" the new Islamic militancy.

RELIGIOUS extremism is not new to Bangladesh. While the extremists were cautious and careful before, they are now better placed, thanks to "state patronage".

A survey by Manav Unnayan Gaveshana Kendra, a non-governmental organisation, found that the fundamentalist organisations, which have become strong economically through various commercial investments, earn a total of taka 500 crores annually. Their activities began to be noticed in the late 1990s when a series of bomb blasts rocked secular, cultural and political events, killing nearly a hundred people. The latest major incident on April 21 was the bomb attack on the newly appointed British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury at the Hazrat Shahjalal shrine in northeastern Sylhet. The incident left three persons dead and nearly a hundred injured. The Bangladeshi-born envoy survived miraculously. Scotland Yard's investigations have reportedly indicated the involvement of religious extremists in the blast.

While truckloads of illegal arms and ammunition on their way to Bogra were recovered last year, on June 1, the police busted a secret arms training centre for students of madrassas and arrested two suspected militants in the remote hilly village of Hathazari in Chittagong. They discovered training equipment at the centre, which intelligence sources said was run by Mir Anis, cousin of a Minister and a teacher at a local women's madrassa. Intelligence sources said madrassa students trained in arms before they fanned out across the country to carry out subversive activities. On April 2, a huge cache of arms and ammunition was seized from the Chittagong port. No breakthrough has been made in the probe into the arms smuggling. India has already expressed its fear that the deadly cargo was heading for its troubled northeastern region.

Ministers and key leaders of the BNP are tight-lipped about Bangla Bhai, but not Industries Minister Matiur Rahman Nizami, the Ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who spoke twice on the issue. While denying that his party had any "knowledge" about the new outfit, Nizami, at a meeting with the Overseas Correspondents Association, Bangladesh, expressed his apprehensions that the "exaggerated" media reports could lead up to an Afghanistan- or Iraq-type external intervention in Bangladesh. His ire was not unexpected because the media had seen a link between his fundamentalist party and Bangla Bhai and other such outfits.

Some quarters believe that the "policy of appeasement" adopted by the Khaleda Zia regime is the reason for the quick emergence of political Islamists. "Wherever the religious extremists are out to carry on their campaigns, ranging from a virulent attempt to receive government approval for declaring Ahmadiyas non-Muslims to the cleansing operation against the outlaws, the administration gives unmistakable indication where its sympathy lies," said an editorial of Bangladesh Observer. When the aggressive rallies of the religious extremist groups attack or lay siege to Ahmadiya mosques, the police give the impression that they have long forgotten to use force.

In Rajshahi, the police even escorted the JMJB's huge bus-truck procession on May 21 coinciding with a hartal by all Opposition parties. The police also did nothing when a religious extremist outfit called the Khatme Nabuat assembled in Chittagong for a showdown with the Ahmadiya sect recently. The signs are alarming. When an administration appeases religious extremists, they turn ruthless monsters. Going by the developments, there is growing apprehension among liberal thinkers. Is Bangladesh going to be overtaken by religious extremism? Does the Khaleda Zia government really want this to happen? Or, will the secular forces that have been fighting political Islam finally allow it to happen?