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Is Political Rivalry Fuelling Terror Attacks in Bangladesh?

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 08, 2016

    Bangladesh, like many other countries in South Asia, has been in the grip of terror for quite some time. But the recent terror attack in an upmarket Dhaka café was something the country had not seen in the past. This terror attack brought Dhaka immediately in league with Paris, Brussels and Ankara, where similar attacks had taken place in the recent past. Once again, the dreaded terror group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), laid claim to these attacks. However, the government in Bangladesh still maintains that ISIS has no organisational presence in the country. This leads to an important question: whether these attacks are the result of deep-seated political rivalry within the country or is the government of Bangladesh simply trying to blame the opposition in order to divert attention from its own failings?

    In recent times, Bangladesh has been witnessing targeted killings since the coming into being of the Gano Jagaran Manch. This movement had started in the wake of the judgment of the International Crimes Tribunal-2 pertaining to the award of a life term to Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah Kader Molla for war crimes committed in 1971. A large number of people in Bangladesh wanted him to be hanged for these war crimes. Molla was finally hanged when his case went to the Supreme Court.

    The Gano Jagaran Manch had led to the revival of the spirit of the liberation war in the country. Naturally, in a society marked by deep political divisions, the movement was not liked by the opposition. Soon, the leaders of the Gano Jagaran Manch were branded as anti-Islam and atheists. In a Muslim majority country, this was sufficient to defame any movement. What was worse, subsequently the Islamist elements in Bangladesh started killing the leaders of the Gano Jagaran Manch, some of whom were allegedly writing blasphemous blogs.

    But targeted killings did not stop with the leaders of the Gano Jagaran Manch. Soon, Islamist groups released a list of 84 people who they wanted to kill. Many of those who figured in the list were liberals. Subsequently, Islamists did kill a number of professors, people belonging to the minority community, foreigners, Shias, and activists of the LGBT community.

    It was initially claimed that only those people of the minority community have been killed who have indulged in blasphemous acts or have insulted Islam. However, soon that garb was thrown away and the Islamists started the indiscriminate killing of minorities to instil a sense of fear in them. For instance, the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission in Dhaka were threatened. They were told to go to India and not preach Hinduism in Bangladesh, which according to the Islamists, is an Islamic state. Subsequently, a number of Hindu priests were killed simply for practicing their religion.

    Islamists also indulged in targeted killing of foreigners, hoping that it would get them international attention. They thought that this might motivate the international community to put pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government to go for early elections. The BNP has been unhappy with the elections held in January 2014. Since then, it has been continuously protesting against the present government. In fact, in January 2015, it managed to initiate a big protest movement against the government. The government was able to control that protest movement with great effort and at considerable political cost. But the BNP failed in its ultimate objective of unseating the Hasina government.

    Since then the BNP has been under pressure. A number of its top leaders are being prosecuted for corruption charges and for inciting violence. BNP Senior Vice-chairman Tarique Rahman, the political heir of Khaleda Zia, has been living in London. He is already facing several charges. Jamaat has been under pressure because of the war crime trials. The war crime trials have led to execution of almost all its top leaders including the erstwhile Jamaat chief Motiur Rahman Nizami.

    In the recent past, the BNP has used the street power of the Jamaat to make its protests successful. As Jamaat is a cadre-based party and its cadres are quite violent, they come in handy during such protests. The Jamaat too looks at the BNP as its natural ally and both parties have been generally together since 1990. In fact, Jamaat was part of the four party BNP-led alliance that was in power from 2001 to 2006. BNP leader Khaleda Zia had refused to meet Pranab Mukherjee when he was in Dhaka on his first foreign visit as India’s president, because that day Jamaat had called a strike.

    However, because of the war crime trials a strange situation has emerged. The war crime trials have made it difficult for the BNP to take a stand in favour of the Jamaat. Though in the past the BNP has followed pro-Pakistan policies and allowed the ISI to use Bangladesh territory against India, presently the party is a little careful. It does not want to openly identify with the Jamaat and get branded as an anti-liberation force.

    The supporters of Jamaat in Bangladesh have been arguing that if the party is banned, then its cadres would go underground and resort to violence. Interestingly, the Jamaat is not registered as a political party with the Election Commission because the party says that it does not believe in parliament’s power to legislate. It is also opposed to women candidates and women leadership. It wants Sharia based rule in Bangladesh.

    Most of the terror groups in Bangladesh are closely allied to the Jamaat. The only difference between Jamaat and these terror groups is that Jamaat wants implementation of Sharia gradually whereas the terror groups want immediate implementation.

    At present, when the Bangladesh economy is doing well and the BNP-Jamaat opposition is in disarray, there is little ground for forces opposed to Sheikh Hasina to demand an election. In this situation, it is not surprising that the BNP-Jamaat opposition may have taken the help of radical elements to create a law and order situation. Their attempt to go for targeted killings did not bring the desired result though it did cause some international concern. Possibly, that is why their cohorts have gone for the sensational attack in the Dhaka café, which can either cause international opinion to put pressure on the Hasina government to go for early election or incite the Army to take over political power.

    Domestic political rivalry may or may not be the only reason behind the recent upsurge in terror attacks in Bangladesh, but it does not absolve the government of the day of its failure to control the situation. The continuation of this situation would lead to progressive voices falling silent. That would be a major setback for democracy in Bangladesh. The government must act with decisiveness against the extremist forces and create a secure domestic environment.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.