Thursday, February 03, 2005

ASSESSMENT:India looks at Bangladesh in alarm

+ Also referred to as Bangladesh's Mullah Omar - the Taliban supremo whose government was decimated by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - Bangla Bhai is equally intolerant, fanatical and charismatic. His self-appointed goal is to establish a society based on the Islamic model practiced in Wahhabi fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, or as it was earlier in Taliban-run Afghanistan. Practicing the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam, he is prepared to kill moderate Muslims in cold blood. +

India looks at Bangladesh in alarm
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - The worsening security situation, combined with evidence of the growing clout of Islamic extremists in Bangladesh on the eve of a summit meeting of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, to be held on February 6 and 7, has left India one again ringing the alarm bells.

On a visit to India's insurgency-infected northeast bordering Bangladesh, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil said on Sunday that the question of cross-border terrorism and Indian rebel groups operating from Bangladesh's soil had been taken up at the ministerial and secretarial level and would now be taken up at the highest level. Prime Minster Manmohan Singh is expected to discuss the issue of illegal infiltration along the India-Bangladesh border with his Bangladesh counterpart, Khaleda Zia, during the SAARC meeting.

The present volatile situation in Bangladesh appears to have added urgency to the issue. Schools and shops were shut down and much traffic halted across Bangladesh this weekend during an opposition-called general strike to condemn the wave of violence sweeping the country. Five members of the opposition Awami League, including former finance minister Shah A M S Kibria, were killed and about 100 injured in a grenade attack Thursday on a political rally in Habigonj, 120 kilometers northeast of the capital Dhaka. This was reminiscent of a similar attack on August 21 last year in which former prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed barely survived, though 22 of her party members, including leading figure Ivy Rahman, were killed and hundreds injured.

Demonstrators taking part in the weekend strike fought with police in different parts of the country, smashing vehicle windows and blocking train services. Police baton-charged protesters in Dhaka and arrested over 40 people after clashes between demonstrators and security forces, city police chief Mizanur Rahman told the media. The clashes with police followed violence in Dhaka on Friday in which over 50 people were hurt when police fired tear gas and wielding batons dispersed demonstrators carrying Kibria's coffin to a martyr's monument. The dawn-to-dusk strike ended on Monday, but tension continues to engulf large parts of the country.

The Awami League's leader said on Friday the Muslim-majority nation was being "held hostage to violent extremism and radicalism" aimed at wrecking its secular foundations and demanded a full investigation into the blast. The government, an Islamist-allied coalition led by Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), dismissed the charges as "emotional outpourings". But Zia has agreed, under great European and other international pressure, to involve Washington's Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's Scotland Yard in nabbing the culprits.

In the continuing feud between the moderate majority and a minority of extremist elements in the world's second largest Muslim-majority nation, after Indonesia, the country has witnessed several major bomb blasts since the present BNP government came to power with the help of Islamic fundamentalist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeL) over three years ago.

About 200 people have died so far and over 1,000 injured in this period. The latest attack has a striking similarity to the grenade attack on opposition leader Sheikh Hasina in August, the perpetrators of which are yet to be apprehended.

The victims of bomb attacks have invariably been secular and progressive Awami League leaders and the weapon used is also the same - hand-grenades. The league is the party that led the country to independence from Pakistan under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina's father and former prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who was assassinated by pro-Pakistan fundamentalist elements along with all other members of his family a few years after independence in 1971. Hasina had survived the attack as she was abroad at that time.

India has particularly mourned the assassination of Kibria, who defected from Pakistan to support Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971. A leading intellectual and columnist, he was the country's finance minister during the secular Awami League regime from 1996-2001. A member of parliament from northeastern Habigonj, adjoining the Indian state of Tripura, he was an influential member of the party's top executive body. India also urged Bangladesh to identify those responsible for the attack and bring them to justice. Manmohan and Indian External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh have written to Kibria's wife expressing their condolences, a statement of India's Ministry of External Affairs said.

Expressing deep dismay, envoys from countries of the European Union, the United States, India and Japan urged the government to conduct a transparent and immediate probe into Thursday's attack on the Awami League rally in Habigonj. "We are deeply concerned that the apparent failure to properly investigate previous similar attacks have led to a climate of impunity which encourages a continuation of such incidents," said Anwar Chowdhury, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who had himself survived an assassination attempt earlier, though he is a British Muslim of Bangladeshi origin. (A bomb explosion at the holy shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalai in Sylhet in May had killed four people and injured the Bangladesh-born British diplomat and 80 others.) The ambassadors and high commissioners of United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway and the European Commission visited Kibria's Dhanmondi residence to offer sympathy to his family.

Observers are not sure if this is a mere coincidence that the latest grenade attack on a League rally came just a few days after the publication of a major investigative report in the New York Times exposing the role of a notorious fundamentalist called Bangla Bhai on January 23 and the same day several of Bhai's thugs were lynched by ordinary folk, fed up with police inaction following the murder of a League leader earlier. The report by New York-based writer Eliza Griswold headlined "For a new Taliban: The Next Islamist Revolution?" was based on field work in the villages of Bangladesh where Bhai's 10,000- strong militia is known to terrorize moderate Muslims in the Taliban fashion. The report created the present furor as two Dhaka-based mass-circulation Bangla language dailies simultaneously carried its translation and some others published news stories based on the piece the same day.

The Bangladesh foreign ministry, however, refuted Griswold's report and said, "It was not based on facts. There is no scope for an Islamist revolution here."

"There is an attempt to link up the government with 'Bangla Bhai' which is not true," director general of external publicity Zahirul Haque told the media on January 25. Haque said the government has been handling the Bangla Bhai issue with an iron hand. In this context, quoting a diplomat of the US Embassy in Dhaka, he said Bangla Bhai has no organizational existence. As many as 66 followers of Bangla Bhai were arrested on Monday, which Hague said proves that the government was determined to crush any kind of activities harmful to the democratic culture and practices of the country.

Describing Bangladesh as a tolerant democratic country, Hague said the country has earned praises from abroad for its achievements in social sectors like health, education and the empowerment of women. He said the enrollment of girls in primary education in Bangladesh was the highest in South Asia. Hague said the report might have been published with "a political motive". During the last three years, he said, about 1,400 journalists had visited Bangladesh, of whom three or four had written reports which were biased and not true. Such reports, Hague said, were unfortunate, and the one-sided report of a remote village (Bagmara in Rajshahi) out of nearly 90,000 villages in the country does in no way depict the correct and objective picture of the country.

The New York Times report on the rise of Islamist militancy in certain parts of northern Bangladesh claimed that some 10,000 Islamists had regrouped, under the banner of Jagrata Muslim Janata (JMJB or Awakened Muslim Masses) in northern Bangladesh to "try an Islamist revolution in several provinces of Bangladesh that border on India". The author reportedly interviewed the leader of the Islamist group, locally known as Bangla Bhai, in his home town, who claimed that it was still active, and that, too, with the help of the local police, to engineer an Islamic revolution. He has said that he was now going to bring about the Talibanization of his part of Bangladesh. Men were to grow beards, women to wear burqas. This was all rather new to the area, which was religiously diverse.

The report said last spring in Chittagong police captured 10 truckloads of weapons - the largest arms seizure in Bangladesh's history. "The tip-off most likely came from Indian intelligence, which monitors the arms being sent to Islamist separatist groups in India's northeast," the New York Times report claimed.

An Indian intelligence source confirmed to Asia Times Online that despite his denials, Bhai is actually a former member of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, now part of the ruling coalition. He had earned the sobriquet Bangla Bhai (Bangladeshi Brother) in the training camps of Afghanistan, where he used to teach the Bangla language to foreign militants who were planning to work in Bangladesh. His original name is Siddiqul Islam, though at one point he claimed his real name was Azizur Rahman.

The misdeeds of the self-styled vigilante Bangla Bhai caught the attention of the local media when he launched an operation in Bagmara sub-district, an area known for armed political activism by some ultra-left groups, in April/May of last year. Bangla Bhai's militia had literally taken the law into their own hands in Bagmara and the neighboring rural backyard of the north western district of Rajshahi. They were administering the so-called vigilante justice to those whom they branded as terrorists belonging to nominal leftist underground groups, including the gruesome torture and killing of eight members of the banned Leftist group, Sarbahara (Have-Nots) Party.

Since then, the group has reportedly tortured to death 22 moderate Muslim members of the leftist groups and maimed dozens of others. These murders have been routinely covered by the local media. Several national dailies have alleged that Khaleda Zia's government was in cahoots with Bangla Bhai and his Islamist fundamentalist group.

Also referred to as Bangladesh's Mullah Omar - the Taliban supremo whose government was decimated by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - Bangla Bhai is equally intolerant, fanatical and charismatic. His self-appointed goal is to establish a society based on the Islamic model practiced in Wahhabi fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, or as it was earlier in Taliban-run Afghanistan. Practicing the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam, he is prepared to kill moderate Muslims in cold blood.

The New York Times report quotes Zachary Abuza, author of Militant Islam in Southeast Asia and a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston as saying: "Bangladesh is becoming increasingly important to groups like al-Qaeda because it's been off everyone's radar screen. Al-Qaeda is going to have to figure out where they can regroup, where they have the physical capability to assemble and train, and Bangladesh is one of these key places."

In her own study, Griswold found that the political breach between the two major parties, largely based on a personality clash between the present and former prime ministers, Zia and Hasina, is being filled primarily by JeL, which agitated against independence from Pakistan in 1971 and remains close to the fundamentalist establishment there. The group was banned after independence for its role in the war but has slowly worked its way back to political legitimacy. The party itself has not changed much - it was always socially conservative and unafraid of violence. The political context, however, says Griswold, has changed enough to give it greater power. Since 2001JeI has been a crucial part of a governing coalition dominated by the BNP. The two parties have ties dating back to the late 1970s, but only since 2001 has a politically aggressive form of Islam found a strong place at the top of Bangladeshi politics.

Griswold continues: "[JeL] has found a corresponding position at the bottom of Bangladeshi politics as well, in the social scrum that produces figures like Bangla Bhai. (Opposition politicians have linked Bangla Bhai to Jamaat-e-Islami, a tie that Jamaat and Bangla Bhai have both denied.) The border provinces have, since independence, harbored a proliferation of armed groups that either Bangladesh, India, Myanmar or Pakistan, or some region or faction in one of those countries, has been willing to support for its own political reasons. By the early 1990s Islamist groups began appearing, mainly at the periphery of the jihad centered on Afghanistan. The most important of these has been the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which has been associated with Fazlul Rahman, who signed Osama bin Laden's famous declaration in 1998 endorsing international, coordinated jihad - the document that introduced al-Qaeda to the larger world. But Bangla Bhai's group and others have since emerged and are making their bids for power."

In an investigation carried earlier by journalist Hena Khan for Indian weekly newsmagazine Outlook, Bangla Bhai was described as a man in his mid-40s, black-bearded and turbaned. He hails from the northwestern Bogra district. "My actual name is Siddiqul Islam, and I do not have any other names which appear in the media. It's my journalist friends who created the confusion," he once said in response to queries as to why he was called Bangla Bhai.

In 1998, Bangla Bhai quit JeL in protest against its decision to accept a woman to lead Bangladesh. "We don't believe in the present political trend," he had then fumed. "We want to build a society based on the Islamic model laid out in the Holy Koran and the Hadith [sayings of Prophet Mohammad]." He then joined the JMJB, which could have been operating under a different nomenclature till then.

Bangla Bhai worked underground for six years and rose to become a member of the JMJB's highest policy-making body, the Majlis-e-Shura, as also its operations chief.

In her report, too, Hena Khan confirms that JMJB's principal goal is to turn Bangladesh into a Taliban-like state. But its spiritual leader Maulana Abdur Rahman claims the JMJB is involved in social welfare activities. Maulana Rahman, like Bangla Bhai, was also a member of JeL and, incidentally, collaborated with the Pakistani army during Bangladesh's 1971 India-backed liberation war. The JMJB is believed to have 10,000 militants operating in at least 17 Bangladeshi districts. The organization is well structured: its top tier is called Ehsar which comprises full-time members working on orders of the leadership; its second tier is Gayeri Ehsar, which consists of 100,000 part-time activists; at the bottom are those who work for the organization indirectly. Its principal sources of funding are disguised businesses, including cold storage and shrimp cultivation companies.

Under pressure to tackle this menace, which was giving Bangladesh's moderate Islam a bad name, the BNP-led government did issue orders for Bhai's arrest, but the police claim that he cannot be apprehended as he has gone underground. Police say he is on the run, but some analysts suspect "a shadowy hand of political influence" is helping him avoid arrest. "Police often refrain from discharging professional duties due to their loyalty or bias toward political parties," Abdul Hakim Sarker, professor at the Institute of Social Welfare and Research in Dhaka was quoted as saying.

Before going into hiding, Bhai admitted to several reporters he had worked in Afghanistan with bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Some reports have said Bangla Bhai was one of 40 Bangladeshis who used to serve bin Laden in Afghanistan and he now uses al-Qaeda videos to train his followers. The Dhaka-based largest-circulated English-language newspaper The Daily Star claimed in May last year to have obtained video discs, including one chillingly titled, "The Solution, The Preparation". These videos shown to JMJB recruits contained visuals of training imparted at the erstwhile al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan. The newspaper quoted JMJB sources as saying that 20 of their comrades who had worked with bin Laden were now assisting Bangla Bhai.

Whether or not Bhai has political support in the present dispensation, there is no doubt, according to local media analysts, that he and his followers were originally welcomed and quietly supported by the police, as they thought his militia would be useful in fighting left-wing rebel groups such as the Purba Banglar Communist Party and the Sarbahara Party that have been active in the region for decades. But soon the police realized Bahai's militia was out of control and even more dangerous than the left-wingers. "We really don't know what to do with him. He seems powerful, having drawn some political blessings as well. Many people see him as a savior," a police officer in the country's north was quoted as saying to the local media.

Fighting left wing rebels has come as a handy excuse for Bangla Bhai, one that brought him initial police support and has now turned him into a Frankenstein's monster. Police say leftist rebels have killed hundreds since the 1980s and they were unable to eradicate them. Hence the initial support for Bangla Bhai. Bangladeshi analysts believe frustration with the leftist rebels and the inability of the police to deal with them has no doubt contributed to the meteoric rise of Bangla Bhai. "Failure to maintain law and order, poverty and unequal distribution of power are the main reasons behind his rise," said Robbaet Ferdous, assistant professor of mass communications and journalism at Dhaka University. Bangla Bhai was also satisfying some people's demand for what they see as quick justice, a former top policeman said. "Victims want immediate revenge. They dislike seeking help of the law that moves very slowly and also does not hold a promise for appropriate action," said former Inspector-General of Police,
Mesbah Uddin.

According to some reports, Bhai boasts of 20,000 armed cadres and many more followers ready to risk their lives at his call. His followers roam the countryside, armed with guns and swords, storming people's homes and markets to collect money and food and striking fear into the hearts of villagers. "Some people think Bangla Bhai is a Robin Hood. But I think he is a terrorist," US ambassador to Bangladesh Harry K Thomas told reporters. His men have established a reign of terror, torturing men and women in village after village, according to the police. "He is a living nightmare to anyone who had seen him or his men in action. They are ruthless and merciless," said a Bangladeshi journalist who has been tracking him for some time.

With the lynching of his men in counter mob violence, it is clear that the local people are feeling compelled to take the law into their own hands. His group's cruelty is becoming legendary in the north Bangladesh countryside. Police and villagers in western Naogan district recently dug up a body - cut into pieces and buried at a place Bangla Bhai once used as a training camp. His men recently strung up two people from trees and left their bodies hanging. Others were left dead on a road. "It seems we're living in mediaeval times," said an official in Rajshahi, 275 kilometers northwest of the capital Dhaka. Thousands of his militant cadres staged an unprecedented rally in Rajshahi recently and vowed "to clean Bangladesh of all underground leftist extremists".

As the NYT report pointed out, the border provinces have, since independence, harbored many armed groups. By the early 1990s, Islamist groups from the nation began appearing, mainly at the periphery of the jihad in Afghanistan. The most important of these has been HUJI, though Bhai's group and others have since emerged and are making their bid for power. Six years ago, HUJI targeted Bangladesh's leading poet Shamsur Rahman. This resulted in the arrest of 44 members. Two men, a Pakistani and a South African, claimed they had been sent to Bangladesh by bin Laden with over US$300,000, which they distributed to 421 madrassas (religious seminaries). But, according to the report, Gowher Rizvi, director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard, said bin Laden's reported donation was "a pittance" compared to the millions that Saudi charities had contributed to many of Bangladesh's estimated 64,000 madrassas.

This slide into anarchy in a region close to its borders, and the Islamist link to al-Qaeda, is exceedingly worrying for Indian authorities. New Delhi wouldn't want a new Islamist flank to open in the northeast, which is already riven by militant secessionism. Bangladesh shares a 4,095-kilometer border with India. Hundreds of illegal migrants, smugglers and insurgents routinely cross the hard-to-police India-Bangladesh border. Among the five Indian states with which Bangladesh shares borders are the insurgency-prone states of Tripura and Assam in India's northeast.

New Delhi has already decided, according to India News, that a 736 kilometer barbed wire fence be erected along the border with Bangladesh in Tripura by 2007 to check infiltration, smuggling and movement of insurgents into the state. Tripura shares an 840 kilometer border with Bangladesh. The news report quoted Indian officials as saying that the militants of different outfits of the northeastern region are using Bangladesh's soil and fencing the border would be effective in checking it. India's past experience, particularly on the India-Pakistan border in the western state of Punjab and now on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, shows that fencing does yield results.

Sultan Shahin is a New Delhi-based writer.