Thursday, February 03, 2005

ASSESSMENT: Political terrorism in Bangladesh

+ In Bangladesh politics, the phrase 'conspiracy' is used in gay abandon to dilute specific responsibilities of constitutional governance. Can such utterances be accepted even as a lame justification for inaction or failure to bring the heinous offenders to justice' +


Political terrorism in Bangladesh
AMM Shawkat Ali

Political terrorism in Bangladesh has become and continues to be a matter of grave concern both within and outside the country. It started all with the tragic assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and all members of his family except the two daughters. It was thereafter followed by the killing of four senior ministers of his cabinet who were in jail. All these happened in 1975 and were engineered by a section of junior officers of the army. After a series of coup and counter coup, some semblance of stability was visible under the military leadership of late Ziaur Rahman. Consistent with the tradition of military leaders or chief martial law administrators, Zia too turned into a politician only to be killed in 1981, again by a handful of military officers.

There was a period of interregnum. Martial law again was imposed in 1982 under Ershad, then chief of army staff. He too followed in the footsteps of the earlier military leader and turned politician. After nine years, he had to step down by what is called ?people?s power?.

Political terrorism was thus initially set in motion by some misguided officers of the army on more occasions than one. It is idle to speculate what would have been the state of democracy and society if such killings did not take place or if after the first martial law, the military had gone back to the barracks. After Ershad?s fall followed by elections in a multi-party framework of parliamentary rule, it was thought that democracy has come to stay. The major political parties such as the BNP and AL were committed to institutionalise democracy, which has so far remained a pious wish.

Politics of confrontation

Ever since the initiation of the democratic process in 1991, people have witnessed, and continue to witness, politics of confrontation as the most dominating element in governance. The media, both national and international, have drawn attention to the unwholesome effect of such element. The aid-giving agencies too have expressed deep concern for the same but with little or no success.

New dimensions of political terrorism

Since the second half of the nineties, new dimensions of terrorism crept in to make matters worse than before. Two major dimensions include rise in militancy in the name of Islam and attempts to assassinate key political leaders in the opposition. Analysts tend to attribute the first of these dimensions to the believers in Islamic jihad. Much has been written and published by the media both in Bangladesh and abroad on this issue. The government, however, continues to deny such accusations. Closely linked to this issue is the phenomenon of large-scale arms smuggling. The media in Bangladesh have never failed to provide factual information and time series data on the smuggling of arms to and through Bangladesh. It is now a well established fact that Bangladesh, because of her geographic location, is a convenient place for such gun-running.

Arms for insurgents in India

For quite sometime, our big neighbour has been stressing the point that the arms and ammunition smuggled into Bangladesh are meant to be smuggled out to the insurgents in the north eastern region of India. Accusations have also been made about the existence of training camps in Bangladesh. All such accusations have been rejected outright by the government.

Independent military analysts of Bangladesh have attempted to provide credible information on the issue. Some of them have cautioned that ?where there is a pipeline, there is a leakage?. Public concern about smuggling of military arms and ammunition reached its peak after a series of such incidents were unearthed in Bogra and Kuril (Dhaka), culminating in the greatest ever arms haul in the government owned Chittagong urea fertilizer factory.

The impact of leakage

The cautionary message of leakage given by some military analysts appears to have been substantiated by the series of bomb blasts and grenade attacks in a good number of places. The daily New Age has recently published time series data of such blasts and grenade attacks. The period covered is March 6, 1999 to January 27, 2005. The data show that in at least 18 such bloody occurrences, 148 people were killed. All such powerful explosions took place in public places. It has been noted by New Age that none but one of the cases have had a charge sheet submitted to the competent court of law.

Varied dimensions of the attacks

The data presented by the daily indicate varied dimensions of the carnage that followed after each blast. Six out of 18 such incidents were against the major opposition party, one against the communist party of Bangladesh, three against public cultural functions, three in cinema halls, three in mosques/shrines of Muslim saints and one in church. Yet another was in a mosque of a minority sect of Islam called the Ahmadiya.

In the six attacks on the major political party, 61 persons were killed and many more injured. In the attack on the communist party, 7 were killed. In the cinema halls, 22 were killed. The total in cultural functions stood at 22. The political dimensions of terrorism are clear enough and visible in cases of attack on political meetings. The attacks on places of public worship and cinema halls, including public cultural functions, are interpreted by analysts as attacks motivated and engineered by misguided fundamentalists who believe in establishing Islamic ?hukumat? or rule.

Public and international perception

Public and international perception in this regard, instrumented through the media, appear to have taken much deeper roots than the government is able to realise. Apart from the half-hearted attempts by the government agencies to deal with serious cases of political terrorism, the assertions of some of its leaders border on levity and not seriousness. Immediately after the biggest ever arms haul in Chittagong, one of its leaders is reported to have said, ?The sophisticated weapons seized here ??- were brought for use in the country. I think it is part of a well-planned conspiracy?.

In Bangladesh politics, the phrase 'conspiracy' is used in gay abandon to dilute specific responsibilities of constitutional governance. Can such utterances be accepted even as a lame justification for inaction or failure to bring the heinous offenders to justice'

Eliza's next Islamist revolution

The dimensions of religious and cultural intolerance have been encapsulated in Eliza Griswold?s article in the New York Times of January 23, 2005. The evidential corroboration of religious and cultural intolerance is found in the time series data already discussed. That such dimensions of terrorism have a political connotation need not be elaborated. Yet the government protested and also sent a rejoinder dubbing the views as one-sided. It was said by a spokesman of our foreign ministry that isolated references to Bangla Bhai, that too in one corner of the country, i.e., the northwest, are not enough to generalise about Bangladesh politics. The article is not about Bangla Bhai only. It covers a whole range of other issues. Long before Eliza Griswold, such issues were raised by Bangladeshi journalists. The cases of the attack on the poet Shamsur Rahman and the existence of armed militant organisations like HUJI are examples.

In the case of Bangla Bhai, the Bangladeshi media have been fighting a losing battle with the government to apprehend him. Orders were first issued by the state minister for Home Affairs and then by none other than the Prime Minster herself. Nothing happened. Orders for arrest have also been repeated by the same state minster. The continued failure to execute the orders is what appears to be highly disturbing to citizens who wish to live in peace.

The carnage of August 21 and January 27

Immediately after the carnage of August 21, in which the leader of the opposition narrowly escaped, demands were made for an international investigation. This was initially rejected or otherwise by passed by the government. Eventually, Interpol stepped in at government request without which as an inter-governmental organisation it cannot get involved. One FBI agent also came. No one knows the result. After the tragic incident of January 27, in which the former finance minister SAMS Kibria was killed, the members of his bereaved family expressed a total lack of confidence in any government managed investigation.

The EU countries, the United States, Japan and other countries demanded quick, thorough and transparent investigation to bring the offenders to justice. EU diplomats have also pointed out that the failure of the government to deal effectively with previous and similar incidents has created a climate of impunity. This is what the perception of the international community is. This is basically identical with the public perception as articulated by the media.

The government has responded well by requesting the assistance of Interpol, FBI and Scotland Yard. However, at least the United States has demanded full access to evidence and witnesses. It has also been categorically stated that if such access in the form of terms of reference (TOR) were established earlier on, investigation would have been meaningful. This only confirms the public as well as political perception of those affected that the government lacks seriousness and sincerity. It is too early to say what will be the course of investigation. We can only suspend our disbelief for the moment and hope that no government in Bangladesh is accused of complicity in crimes that paves the way for a menacingly sustainable process of political terrorism.