Monday, February 07, 2005

BANGLADESH: Chronicles of a Death Foretold

+ Many believe that though both the major political parties were not sure of the nature and motives of the blasts, they blamed each other only to reap political dividend. "How come the AL-government did not crack down on these religious outfits if they really believed the zealots were behind the blasts?" asks Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, a national security expert.+

Chronicles of a Death Foretold
Ahmede Hussain

Awami League (AL) leader Shah AMS Kibria has become the latest victim of a spate of bomb blasts that has threatened to destroy the country's already fragile democratic polity. As the nation mourns yet another casualty of our long running culture of political killing and violence, chances are low that, Kibria's killers will be brought to justice.

The spectre of death looms large on our political horizon again. Only six months after the grisly attack that claimed 21 lives in the heart of the capital, terror struck in full force on January 27; this time it chose its prey further down north-east.

On that fateful day, Shah AMS Kibria, the 74-year-old economist-turned Awami Leaguer, went to attend a rally in Habiganj without any clue of what was in the offing. He and fellow party members did not smell a rat even when power went out several times in an otherwise serene wintery evening.

In a grim recreation of what happened in the AL-rally in Bangabandhu Avenue on August 21, a grenade was lobbed when Kibria walked down to his car. Another grenade soon followed; "The second grenade was thrown from the primary school ground as we ran for cover," says Shahiduddin Chowdhury, a witness to the carnage and former chairman of the local Pourashava.

Unconscious and profusely bleeding, Kibria was taken first to the nearby Sadar Hospital, and then driven away to Dhaka by an ambulance, as the AL-workers could not manage to get a helicopter. The former finance minister died on his way.

Under scathing criticism from local and international press, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four Party Alliance has sought the help of the FBI and Scotland Yard. But the precedence of the government's non-cooperation with these international agencies during the investigation into the August 21 massacre has left many sceptical about the BNP's intention behind the move. In fact, this time the US government wants the BNP's assurance that "full access to all evidence and witnesses will be given to the investigation".

"In both cases, the August 21 and January 27 attacks, the potential utility of the FBI assistance was greatly undermined when the crime scene was not properly protected from contamination," a US government spokesperson said. "For such assistance to be useful, we believe it would be important for the government to establish clear terms of reference and to make other provisions to ensure that FBI consultants are given full access to all relevant evidence and witnesses.

"If such terms of reference had been established prior to the involvement of foreign consultants of the August 21 attack, their contribution to the investigation might have been more meaningful," he continued.

Kibria's name adds to a long list of 200 people that were so far killed in 18 bomb blasts across the country in the last eight years. The first such blast took place on March 6, 1996 when a bomb ripped through an annual gathering of Udichi in the northern district of Jessore killing 10 cultural activists. Though the AL, then at the helm, blamed BNP-backed zealots for the attack, Sheikh Hasina's government, however, was never serious in running an independent investigation.

In fact, when seven Communist Party workers died in simultaneous-blasts in downtown Dhaka, the AL-led government was quick to find the culprits under the shelter of the BNP. The party, as an opposition, always denied its link to the blasts; and in the last year of the AL's term, fed some bizarre conspiracy theories, among them one accusing the government of planting bombs in public places to win the upcoming elections. This disturbing trend has repeated itself several times during the last six years.

Many believe that though both the major political parties were not sure of the nature and motives of the blasts, they blamed each other only to reap political dividend. "How come the AL-government did not crack down on these religious outfits if they really believed the zealots were behind the blasts?" asks Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, a national security expert.

Interestingly, bombs started to rip through public places more frequently as the time for 2001's general elections progressed. Actually, the year had witnessed six such incidents that had claimed 69 lives.

The BNP, armed with the support of two religious parties, eventually won the elections and since then it has been following the path of its predecessor, only the other way round. The party has been describing the blasts a ploy to damage the country's image abroad since the first such incident took place during its term on September 28, 2002 at a cinema hall in Satkhira.

Khaleda Zia's government walked further down the path of conceit and deceit when several powerful bombs went into four movie theatres in Mymensingh. Even before the primary investigation began the PM herself blamed those "who are making anti-Bangladesh campaign at home and abroad".

Sheikh Hasina was the prime target of the PM's tirade as only days ago the AL-supremo told a European audience in Brussels that the sympathisers of AL-Qaiada were ruling Bangladesh.

In fact the PM's paranoia has been manifested time and again in the face of local and foreign claims that the country is becoming a breeding ground for religious extremists. Her government banned issues of some international newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and Far Eastern Economic Review, for making unsavoury comments about the BNP's reliance on religious parties to cling to power.

In one of the most publicised denials, the government arrested two British journalists from Channel Four who came to the country to make a documentary on the rise of militant Islam in Bangladesh. Zaiba Naz Malik and Bruno Sorrentino were later released; but their two Bangladeshi fixers, Selim Samad and Pricilla Raj, did not get away so easily. Sedition charges were brought against them; and it was, in fact, a High Court, order that ensured their release.

Such is the extent to which the BNP, which relies heavily on Jamaat and Islamic Oikkya Jote (IOJ) for popular support, has been rejecting the presence of religious extremism here.

Bangladesh's contribution to militant Islam dates back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During the early eighties, many Bangladeshi Madrasa-students went to Pakistan to fight for the mujahideens. When the Afghan-war ended with the fall of Najibullah's government in Kabul, many came back home and with them have brought religious bigotry to a country that always prides itself on its Sufi past.

One of them is Afghan war veteran Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of the Jamiatul Islamia, who was arrested on September 19, 2003, along with 17 accomplices. Rauf confessed to fighting for the Talibans. "About 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan to fight the Jihad and of them 33 died," Rauf told the police. The militant leader later got bail and his party's activities, perhaps, are still going on.

One of the big extremist groups working in the country, Harkat al Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HJIB), came under spotlight when the group was charged with planting two bombs at a meeting that was to be attended by the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The mission of HJIB is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh. According to the US State Department the group has an apparent cadre-strength of more than several thousand members and it operates and trains in at least six camps inside Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has officially banned the group.

Subsequent governments have never tried to reign in on these extremist groups. In fact Khaleda Zia and her cabinet have remained conspicuously inactive when different self-styled vigilante groups have been butchering innocent people in the name of Islam. Bangla Bhai, the so-called commander of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), has issued several edicts-- à la Talibans-- calling men to keep beard and forcing women to wear burka.

Some newspaper reports even suggest that the so-called JMJB is working in connivance with some bigwigs of the ruling Four-party Alliance. Though the PM has ordered the arrest of Bangla Bhai, according to a Daily Star report, "Two police officers tipped off Bangla Bhai who holed up in an outlying village in Raninagar where he set up a vigilante camp to launch anti-outlaw drives". Another grim reminder of the BNP's reliance on religion to tighten its grip on power. That may explain why we have an ostrich of a government that systematically turns a blind eye to the activities of zealots in the country.

Some observers, however, want to differentiate between the last two blasts and the others. The terrorists, who were otherwise using bombs to kill people, have been using grenades since a huge cache of arms were retrieved in Chittagong. Though the government vigorously denied it, many believe a large number of grenades went missing and have subsequently fallen into the hands of extremists.

"How is it possible that all of a sudden the terrorists have started using the same Arges grenade that were retrieved by the police a year ago?" Brig Anam asks.

The last two blasts, Anam thinks, were unique for a different reason altogether. "Most of the blasts that took place before August 21, 2004 were not targeted at any party's leadership," says Brig Anam. He believes it is likely that the last two major blasts, where grenades were used, were carried out by a different group.

"I think these two attacks are different because the attackers chose only grenades unlike the previous attacks," the security analyst continues.

Even the targets and motives of the killers were different. "In Jessore, Ramna Batamul or in all the attacks where bombs were used, the target was the general public and the aim was to deter people from holding programmes that the bigots think were anti-Islamic. Just look at the places where they planted bombs-- Bangla New Year celebration, cinema halls, cultural programmes… "

But, Anam believes that in the August 21 carnage and January 27 blast the target was only the AL's leadership. One conspiracy theory is that the attackers may have links to the self-confessed killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

"But you never know," Anam says. "The whole situation is chaotic. The BNP denies the presence of extremists in the country as this questions its alliance with parties like Jamaat or IOJ. On the other hand, the AL is using the blasts as a pretext to undermine the government," the retired army-man says.

Unless and until both the BNP and AL go beyond their petty political interests, the ordinary citizens have to live with bomb blasts and targeted killing of opposition political leaders. This indifference, coupled with the BNP's sheer arrogance and the AL's lack of political vision, are leading the country to an impending disaster.