Militancy on the rise

Print edition : September 10, 2004

Political intolerance and increasing human rights violations and the growing bomb culture of militant Islamists spread fear and panic in Bangladesh.

in Dhaka

In Sylhet on August 9, after a blast in which a local Awami League leader was killed and 30 people were injured.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

BOMB threats, and the panic situations they create, are on the increase in Bangladesh. The most recent targets were the building of the Dainik Janakantha, the anti-fundamentalist daily published from Dhaka, and a radio station in Sylhet, the northeastern city that witnessed a series of bomb blasts in the last few months.

In early August, panic gripped the country following rumours of threats to blow up schools, airports and the Dhaka University. Authorities sealed off three airports, including the Zia International Airport in Dhaka, and deployed special security forces to search the compound of Sylhet's Osmani International Airport after bomb threats by anonymous callers. No bombs were found but security was tightened at all airports.

On August 7, Mohammed Ibrahim, a regional leader of the Opposition Awami League, was killed in a car bomb blast in Sylhet, which is home to some of the most important Sufi shrines in the country. Two days earlier, a series of bomb explosions in two cinemas in Sylhet killed a teenaged boy and injured many. A bomb, believed to be a locally made device with a timer, was recovered in front of a third movie house. The British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwar Choudhury, was injured in a bomb attack in Sylhet on May 21 when on a visit to the city. Three persons, including Choudhury's bodyguard, were killed. While the report of the inquiry by the local agencies has not been published so far, a preliminary report by British intelligence teams suspected the hand of radical Islamic fundamentalists. Sylhet is also the city where the agitation against controversial writer Taslima Nasreen by a section of Islamic zealots picked up in the early 1990s and it ultimately forced her to leave the country.

The culture of bomb violence is not new in Bangladesh. Starting with the explosion at the Udichi cultural function in western Jessore in the late 1990s, bomb blasts have taken place quite often in towns and villages and during national celebrations like Bengali New Year's Day. The targets usually are gatherings of secular parties, cultural functions and critics of the orthodoxy and religious fundamentalism.

On February 27, Dr. Humayun Azad, one of the outspoken writers and poets in the country, survived a brutal attack with grievous injuries. However, he died in Germany on August 12 in circumstances that his family and friends claimed were "highly mysterious". He and his family members were facing constant death threats .

On December 7, 2002, on the occasion of Id-ul-Fitr, powerful explosions rocked four cinemas in Mymensingh, a district town, killing 19 persons and injuring more than 200. This was followed by a blast at a cinema hall in southwestern Satkhira, which killed three people and left over 150 injured. Bombs also ripped through the office of the then ruling party, the Awami League, in Narayangonj, killing a few dozen people, and a public meeting of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) in Dhaka.

A victim in hospital.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

On January 12, five persons were killed in a powerful explosion at the Hazrat Shahjalal shrine in Sylhet during the annual Urs. A few weeks before the latest series of blasts in August, a public meeting of the Awami League addressed by prominent Opposition leader Suranjeet Sen Gupta, MP, was bombed in Dirai, in the same district, killing one political activist and injuring many.

Opposition parties accused the Khaleda Zia government of not being serious in conducting probes into the blasts. They claimed that all the blasts were acts of violence by Islamic radicals, many of whom, they said, were the government's political allies. A total of 14 major explosions have taken place in Sylhet alone in the past seven years, spreading panic in the city, which is known for its secular Islamic saints.

In the August 7 car bomb attack, Sylhet Mayor Badaruddin Ahmed Kamran, also the president of the city Awami League, was believed to be the prime target. "The car bomb might have killed me, had I not left the hotel in a hurry to join another programme," the Mayor said. He had attended a workers' meeting of the party to finalise the programme for August 15, the day of the assassination of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, which is observed as `National Mourning Day'. An extremist group calling itself Tiger Killing Force, in a letter to the Mayor on June 26 threatened to kill him by July 25. The group also threatened to explode bombs at all the shrines in and around the city, claiming that they were anti-Islamic.

While all secular, `pro-liberation' parties are convinced that militant Islamists are involved in all the incidents, the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and its allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), which are branded `anti-liberation', ignore the charges as "mere propaganda".

But what they cannot ignore are the killings by outlawed `left extremists' in the southwestern districts amid a worsening general law and order situation. Sheikh Hasina, the main Opposition leader and former Prime Minister, has charged the Khaleda Zia government with creating the Janajuddha, an organisation of left outlaws. She has alleged that the outfit was created to kill independent journalists and secular politicians. Humayun Kabir Balu, editor of the Dainik Janmabhumi and president of the Khulna Press Club, was killed in June by armed outlaws. He was the most recent of 13 journalists, including four editors, killed in the last 10 years in the southwestern districts, known as "death valley".

WHY this bomb culture? In October 2001, when the Islamists allied with the BNP won the polls, there was no dearth of cheers from the protagonists and supporters of the `war on terror'. But today, many of them have reason to fear that much of Bangladesh may be under the control of militants. The ruling alliance terms such claims by the Opposition as `anti-state propaganda', but the fact is that a significant segment of the populace fears that the bomb culture and violence may have done substantial damage to the social fabric.

In the northwest, "Bangla Bhai", a militant, lays down the law. He leads a group, the `Jagrota Muslim Janata Bangladesh' (JMJB), that wields guns openly and picks up people at will, reportedly with the full knowledge of the police (Frontline, July 2). Amid strong allegations of enforcement of harsh Islamic codes, the JMJB kicked off a drive in April apparently to `cleanse' the place of leftist outlaws. "Bangla Bhai", who has an arrest warrant against him, runs a parallel, puritanical, Taliban-like rule, say reports in local newspapers. But the government does not appear too concerned.

When Bangladesh was born in 1971, it was decided that the country would be run on the principle of separation of religion from the state. However, things did not turn out as planned. While political Islam made a re-entry, thanks to the military generals-turned-politicians who ruled Bangladesh for more than a decade, `the spirit of 1971' suffered. The Islamists, who were the `defeated forces' of the 1971 war, gained strength while the `pro-liberation' or the secular forces stood divided.

After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Gen. Ziaur Rahman deleted secularism from the country's Constitution. He legitimised the entry of `pro-Pakistan Islamists' into politics under the guise of promoting multi-party democracy. Another military ruler, Gen. H.M. Ershad, who took over after Ziaur Rahman's assassination in 1981, set the nation on the path of Islamism so as to safeguard his position as a despotic ruler.

Many secular thinkers believe that Islamic militancy in Bangladesh is a continuation of the defunct Cold War policy of the United States. The U.S. supported the fundamentalists because they served its immediate purpose. But the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. changed the situation.

Said an American-Bangladeshi analyst: "While in the case of Bangladesh, the U.S. foreign policy direction did not change drastically from the Cold War era... the Afghanistan theatre is quite a different scenario." The dominant partner in the Khaleda Zia government, Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, has evolved from the womb of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan, now a powerful component of the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

Bangladesh is fast becoming a country of political intolerance and increasing human rights violations. Secular and liberal intellectuals and the `pro-liberation' parties are seen as the primary enemies of the state and liberal intellectuals and academics receive death threats from the mullahs. Even the High Court judges who declared fatwa `unconstitutional' and punishable under the law faced an open death threat.

Recently, 10 eminent politicians, scholars and writers received letters from an Islamic outfit threatening to kill them for being `anti-Islamic'. Many secular thinkers claim that the forces behind the letters aim to merge Bangladesh back with Pakistan. Sheikh Hasina has alleged that the `ultimate objective' of the BNP-Jamaat alliance rule is to turn Bangladesh into `a vassal state of Pakistan'. While demanding an international probe into the recent series of bomb blasts, she expressed the fear that the Islamic militant groups `patronised by the government' are planning "an armed uprising". The country is also witnessing a national outcry over `distortions' of its independence history by the present government.

Going by the cycle of violence, some analysts foresee a new fight sooner or later, a clash within, between liberal `pro-liberationists' and the growing militant Islamists backed by the `anti-liberationists'. Some see it as a new national tragedy, while others say it may be inevitable.

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