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Bangladesh Blasts: Wake up call

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 24, 2005

    A series of 434 bomb blasts that rocked as many as 60 of 64 districts in Bangladesh on August 17 may have been 'mild' by way of the number killed – just two people – but the symbolism is very significant and perhaps inversely proportional to the damage caused.

    Leaflets recovered from some of the blast sites demanded that the country become more Islamic and the needle of suspicion points to the banned Islamic group, the Jamaat-ul- Mujahedin. And while investigations are continuing, the implications of this incident are of potentially grave import.

    All the blasts were synchronised to take place within 30 minutes of each other and the targets in most cases were symbols of the state – government buildings, local courts and revenue offices. The fact that such detailed co-ordination could be effected in a largely rural country with poor infrastructure and communication links may point to two inferences. One, that the mobile phone has empowered Bangladesh in an unintended manner and two, that there was a colossal failure of intelligence or – worse still – that there was some collusion from within the security apparatus of the state.

    Either exigency is cause for deep concern since it was expected that there would be some disturbances in this period given the fact that the 30th anniversary of the assassination of the late Mujibur Rehman – the founder of Bangladesh – was being observed on August 15. The moot question is whether the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) government headed by Begum Khaleda Zia is unwilling or unable to deal with the scourge of religious radicalism and related extremism, or are some elements within the government tacitly allowing such organised violence?

    The August 17 incident was preceded by a rash of attacks with religious right-wing overtones leavened by the deep chasm that permeates political discourse in Bangladesh with the two major parties-the BNP and the AL (Awami League)-being deeply divided over a host of issues.

    It may be recalled that on August 21 last year, an AL rally was subjected to grenade attacks that killed 21 people, including senior political leader Ivy Rahman, and it was fortuitous that more members of the party were not among the casualties.

    Liberal opinion in Bangladesh is anguished over these twin trends. The first is the inflexible mutual hostility that the two major parties have maintained, wherein every major issue is polarised along party lines; and the second is the growing nexus between religious right wing groups and the ruling party. The AL lost the 2001 election to the BNP which had aligned itself with the Jamaat and the Islamic Oikya Jote (Islamic Unity Council).

    The Islamic Oikya Joten (IOJ) established in 1990 comprises seven parties: Khelafat Majlis, Nezam-e-Islam, Faraizi Jamaat, Islami Morcha, Ulama Committee, a splinter group of National Awami Party (Bhasani), and Islami Shashantantra Andolo. Its main aim is reportedly to establish an Islamic polity based upon Islamic jurisprudence and the Khilafat. Over the years, the BNP partners have used the message of divisive and sectarian Islam to mobilise the rural populace in the villages of the country, thereby shrinking the vote bank of the more moderate AL. The Jamaat and the IOJ together obtained 20 seats out of 300 in the 2001 general elections and are now an assertive part of the BNP-led ruling coalition in Dhaka.

    According to local reports, the Jamaat's rallying slogan is 'amra hawbo Bangladesh, Bangla hobay Afghan' - meaning 'we will become Taliban, Bangladesh will become Afghanistan'.

    Many Islamic states have witnessed a gradual increase in the ascendancy of religious parties in their domestic polities and Bangladesh is no exception. Since the early 1990s, there has been a supra-national ideological motivation for right wing Islamic religiosity and the emergence of an international Islamic front espousing a rigid Wahabi strain of Islam and supported by funds from Saudi Arabia and other states has incrementally became part of the global canvas.

    The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s with the al-Qaida at the core is the more visible manifestation of this trend. In South Asia, this pattern received further impetus from the military establishment in Pakistan and, given the deep linkages between the Pakistani ISI and the right wing groups in Bangladesh – particularly the Jammat-e- Islami (which incidentally supported Pakistan in 1971 during the war for the liberation of Bangladesh), these parties became more effective and spawned militant splinter groups.

    The greater irony is that the government in Dhaka has been steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that such groups exist in Bangladesh and has preferred to do the ostrich act despite evidence to the contrary that has been presented by various intelligence agencies, including those from the US and UK among others. In a candid comment, Bangladesh's leading newspaper, the Daily Star, observed editorially (August 21) of the spate of terrorist attacks: "The one benefit to come out of the unspeakable tragedy was supposed to be that it rammed home the fact that there are dangerous extremists in our midst and that the government needed to take serious action to safeguard the nation."

    Left unchecked, this trend of growing radicalism in Bangladesh leading to motivated violence can result in a very destabilising situation wherein the electoral process can be hijacked to suit the interests of the right-wing religious extremists.

    This would be very undesirable for the region as a whole and enlightened moderation is urgently called for in the internal discourses of Bangladesh. The argumentative characteristic that noted economist Amartaya Sen has examined in some detail in the Indian context had its greatest exponents in Bengali tradition and now more than ever, the liberal spectrum in Bangladesh will have to determinedly debate over which fork in the post 9-11 road their country will take.

    August 17 should serve as both wake-up call and a much needed inoculation.