Bangladesh: the war within

Updated on: Jan 17, 2018

Although Hasina’s grip on the ropes is strong, she appears strangely shaky dealing with the recent spate of targeted murders

Bloodshed is not new to Bangladesh. It was born in 1971 at the cost of 30 lakh lives lost, and has, since then, seen many bloody upheavals. In comparison, the recent string of killings is discrete and few in number.  Yet, this may might end up as a major concern for Bangladesh and the region if the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government doesn’t get its act together.

Since 2013, nearly two dozen people have been killed, mostly hacked to death — liberals, atheists and those blogging their criticism of radical Islam. Beginning last year, the guns were trained on unsuspecting victims — an Italian and a Japanese aid worker, a Buddhist monk, a 65-year-old Sufi and a god-fearing professor who loved Sufi music. Over the last couple of months, the target has shifted to Hindus — the single largest, yet dwindling 8 per cent minority. The victims are all commoners: a tailor, the priest of a nondescript village temple, a school teacher, and there’s fear in the community.

Terrorist attack

Evidently it is a backlash of Hasina’s gritty stance against the rapists and murderers of the 1971 war that was much appreciated by the majority of Bangladeshis. The trial initiated in her first term (2009-2014) saw nearly half-a-dozen criminals, including the top guns of the radical Jamaat-e-Islami (which sided with Pakistan in the Liberation War) and former ministers of the BNP-Jamaat regime sent off to the gallows.

The aim is crystal clear: to destroy the growth-oriented, secular-democratic image of Bangladesh that Hasina is trying to build and force the global powers, especially India, to withdraw support to her so as to bring political control back to the radicals. The attacks have been stepped up at a time when Bangladesh is taking quick steps to take advantage of the Indian growth story. And Indian corporates, for the first time in history, are taking Bangladesh seriously as an investment destination.

Security experts say it’s a new strategy adopted by the global terror network. Stray youths are radicalised and outsourced by local agents, who are far removed from the bigger plot. The responsibility is shared by different outfits such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, to divert attention.

But instead of retaliating with administrative measures, the government has chosen to heap blame on the BNP-Jamaat coalition. However, the charge rings hollow as not a single murder has been solved. The police failed to extract clues from three assailants caught redhanded (by onlookers) in two separate incidents. One of them was later killed in an encounter (read fake encounter).

Meanwhile, the BNP is in complete disarray. The war crimes trial and corruption cases saw them running for shelter. Jamaat is surely a dangerous force. Though not popular, they grew in strength thanks to support from the former army ruler and founder of BNP, Ziaur Rahman. But, it is under tremendous pressure currently.

Free reign

On the contrary, there’s no pressure on other radical forces such as the Hefazat-e-Islam and Hizb ut-Tahrir who are united in the cause of the caliphate.

The pan-Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in 2009, but, Golam Mortoza, editor of Shaptahik says the government treated its activists with kid gloves. Its leader, Syed Golam Maola, who was put under house arrest, is drawing a salary as a Dhaka University professor. The organisation is active underground.

Hefazat leads students of unaffiliated Qawmi Madrasas, mostly funded by Islamists. They launched stormy protests in Dhaka in 2012-13 in support of Jamaat and, demanded stern action against a list of bloggers, many of whom were later killed. Hasina faced them head on in her first term. But Mortoza claims that last year, Bangladesh Railway offered Hefazat 40 acres of land in Chittagong.

Still, this does not mean Hasina is soft on radical Islam. After her father and the first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1975, she is the best bet to build a strong Bangladesh. And there is no threat to her leadership either.

Yet, she is looking unsure.

The clue may lie in the uncontested 2014 election that was boycotted by BNP. It might have ensured she remained in power but it affected the morale.  Moreover, absolute power invited unbridled corruption and rusted the party machinery. The next few months will decide how Hasina shapes the future of Bangladesh.

Published on July 01, 2016
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