Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Bangladesh: 8/21 - Beyond Rhetorics

[For over a decade Delhi has been accusing Bangladesh for harbouring a number of these groups. Since the 21/8 incident the Indian media has opened the anti-Bangladeshi propaganda barrage particularly on the old issue of harbouring and aiding Northeastern secessionist elements, particularly in few areas dominated by Muslims. Many have openly suggested unilateral application of military force to drive out such elements if Dhaka fails to cooperate. Many prominent Indian columnists even dragged Bangladesh Army into controversy. These are serious allegations that foreign media has embarked upon. Unfortunately, most of our politicians are oblivious of the fact that it is not political future alone but national security which is at jeopardy.]

Beyond political rhetoric

BRIGADIER GENERAL M SAKHAWAT HUSSAIN (RETD)

IT is over one month past that the nation has gone through one of the most horrendous of terrorist acts on 21/8 in the heart of Dhaka, the capital city. The mystery shrouded grenade attack on opposition Awami League rally still remains to be unfolded though various agencies of Bangladesh are at work. Not only government organisations, including the specially commissioned one-man judiciary inquiry commission, but the Supreme Court Bar Association's self empowered investigation committee is labouring through the rubble to fathom apparently unfathomable, one of the most complicated crimes so far committed in Bangladesh. One does not know what this privately constituted body would come up with but it seems that the pace of the government investigations is slow. But that is natural. What happened on 21/8 does not seem to be a simple incident where gangs of extremists were involved. The pattern of attack and the trail left is for sure pre-planned, well executed and politically motivated with immediate and far-reaching consequences.

The attack has not only widened the political dissension within the country but it has raised far more complicated issues which have direct bearing on the national security. It has opened the gate for outside agencies to get involved in the internal investigation. Apart from Interpol, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), the prime US investigative agency, has been at work. There is no sign that FBI investigation is over. FBI's investigation method, finding and terms of reference may remain undisclosed for all times to come. There is nothing that one could object to if the government under pressure from the opposition had invited FBI, as government declared that the agency came on GOB's request. However, from commoners' perspective, FBI's presence indicated seriousness of the issue as well suspected international connection that could cause harm to US national interest. It is threat to US nationals and trace of the involvement of Islamist extremist, commonly termed as international terrorists, that mostly concerns the FBI.

It may not be for the first time that FBI has been to Bangladesh. It is reported in local news media that FBI had been in Bangladesh in July 2000 when IED (Improvised Explosive Device) was found near a helipad in Gopalganj, a plot claimed to have been hatched to kill the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. One Mufti Hannan alleged to be a leader of Harkat-ul- Jihad-al-Islami, defined as only Islamists terror group functional in Bangladesh, was indicated to be a key suspect. FBI came in pursuit of finding existence of such Islamists group operating in Bangladesh having connection with al-Qaida. This perhaps was within the parameter of the hunt for globally connected terrorists. However, the result of that inquiry is as in the dark as incidents like the attack on 'Udichi' and 'Pahela Baishak' cultural gathering. The ordinary citizen of the country never could know the findings, if there were any, submitted to the then government by FBI. The democratic government of then and as of now, never felt the importance of taking the citizen of the country in confidence at least with less sensitive information that could have alerted ordinary citizens. After all, it is the solemn duty of any government to work out and to provide security to the citizenry. We do not know if ever the masses would know the findings that foreign investigators may have concluded in the case of the 21/8 incident.

Whether or not a conclusive investigative result is obtained, we have allowed outsiders to come into our affairs. This was done perhaps against the backdrop of serious political bickering that generated within few hours of the incident. It was business as usual. Neither the parties in power nor the parties in opposition inside or outside of the parliament seem to have considered the honour and the national security issues over the political rhetoric. The increased acrimonious allegation and counter allegation had facilitated unusual visitors from countries now controlling world affairs with their 'militarised foreign policy.' We had to swallow sermons on the ethos of democracy and human rights when their conduct has been questioned by the general secretary of the United Nations. Do we see arrival of 'Trojan Horse'? Yes, we do; for we have willingly or unwillingly, opened 'Pandora's Box'.

The confrontational politics has overshadowed the concerns shown by the powerful countries including our neighbour, that is, India. Do they have cause for concern? Yes they do. Unfortunately, Bangladeshi confrontational politics raises concern about many issues that India is grappling with. Its Northeast region is infested with separatist movement that the centre is far from being able to quell either with military application or through political dialogue. As listed in South Asia Terrorism Portal of Institute for Conflict Management of India, 135 separatists and extremist organisations are confronting Indian central authority within the Northeastern region. Some of these areas of the region shares contiguous boundary with Bangladesh.

For over a decade Delhi has been accusing Bangladesh for harbouring a number of these groups. Since the 21/8 incident the Indian media has opened the anti-Bangladeshi propaganda barrage particularly on the old issue of harbouring and aiding Northeastern secessionist elements, particularly in few areas dominated by Muslims. Many have openly suggested unilateral application of military force to drive out such elements if Dhaka fails to cooperate. Many prominent Indian columnists even dragged Bangladesh Army into controversy. These are serious allegations that foreign media has embarked upon. Unfortunately, most of our politicians are oblivious of the fact that it is not political future alone but national security which is at jeopardy.

It is ironical that these insinuations against Bangladesh indicate the Indian public perception against a country which appears to be a weaker neighbour in all respects. One cannot get away by complaining against a powerful neighbour who is for right or wrong reasons carrying a hegemonic profile in South Asia. Before embarking on the blame game we need to look within. It is not external force alone that threatens the national security but threats within that possess most potent threat. It is internal political dissension on vital national issues, divisive politics and ideological divide that makes the country to implode. Such situation raises the concern within the region, paves the way for outside placid or not so placid intervention.

We are yet to fathom the strategic changes that are taking place since the beginning of the 21 century. We have to take note of the marked shift of Indian military and foreign policy vis-à-vis Delhi's preoccupation to become a recognised middle power. To that extent the advocators of policy changes suggests the adopting of specific defence and foreign policies to meet its 'historic role' to be a dominant power in the Indian ocean region notwithstanding the fact that Delhi has already presented its case to UN to be the permanent member of the security council. The point may be noted that out of four aspiring candidates India is the largest with huge 'diaspora' over the world and the only country with nuclear power and strongest military force. If rated as an Asian power, India in places would outweigh China in strategic equation. Therefore, 'think tanks', extension of Delhi's strategic policy makers suggest to be prepared for using force against those countries within the Indian sphere of immediate interest should other means fails. One among many such strategic analysts of India, Dr. Shubash Kapila in his book " India's National Security and Defence: Prescriptions" advocates Delhi to assert its military prowess to let the world know that it is the dominant power in the region and capable of matching with China. He justifies India's position to resolve the regional crises that may crop up within the region. It is within that realm that one has to focus on the strategic development particularly in our Southeast and to what extent our internal political near conflict situation may deter us from focusing on vital geo-strategic issues.

The writer is a free lance columnist and defence & strategic analyst

Independent, Dhaka 05/10/2004