Sunday, February 27, 2005

BANGLADESH: What price power?

It would be a mistake to think that Awami league will pass up an opportunity to forge alliance with religious fundamentalist parties if they think that will take them to power. Ideologically the party is not totally secular, their public stance notwithstanding, as evidenced by their leaders frequent visit to holy places. While in power, Awami League did not do anything to clip the wings of Jamat or any other fundamentalist parties. By some account, the number of madrashas established and recognised by them were greater than during the previous regimes. If Awami League is trying to taint BNP as a pro-fundamentalist party for its guilt by association, it is because of political opportunism.

What price power?
Hasnat Abdul Hye

At the time of its appearance in New York's Time, Ms Grisworld's news story about the next 'Islamist revolution is Bangladesh' was considered by many as laughable, even malicious or misguided. There seemed to be a whiff of sensationalism and the infantile frisson of having made a news scoop. Who does not know that any news about Taliban-like figures walking the earth is a topical one to be followed in hot pursuit by media that are 'embedded' and are not so. Many in Bangladesh pooh poohed that Ms. Griswold was barking at a wrong tree and her 'sources' were creative ones. Those who gave her benefit of doubt considered it to be a case of studied exaggeration.

The story revolved around the ubiquitous and yet elusive figure of Bangla bhai, the leader of 'Jagrata Muslim Janata Bahini' (JMJB) who had been in news for ever six months in northern part of the country. His followers are known to be religious fanatics and work as vigilantes in the upazilas in Rajshahi, particularly Bighmara. Ostensibly, their targets are the left wing extremists operating in the area but people who feel foul with them also had to pay their lives in gruesome some manner, according to news paper repots. According to the newspapers some local residents rejoiced at the 'good riddance' of anti-social elements, but the majority became panicky and insecure. Bangla Bhai and his minions were lording it over in their jurisdiction and allegedly even had police support or connivance of what they were doing. They went in a procession to Rajshahi district headquarters where reportedly they were received by high civil and police officials and were given a patient hearing. They left, as they went, triumphantly.

Authorities in Dhaka at first feigned ignorance about the putative presence of fringe group in a remote corner of the country. But when media played up the news something had to be done to demonstrate who was in command. According to news paper report no less a person then the Prime Minister ordered for the arrest of the self-styled law enforces which was subsequently corroborated by the Finance minister. But strangely, Bangla Bhai remained at large along with his henchmen and continued to surface at their free will leaving, a trail of murders and torture which were publicly demonstrated in good measure. Finally, last month the Prime minister again gave instruction to arrest him on sight, an expression that puzzled some because it is usually associated with some thing more extreme. Be that as it may, Bangla Bhai is reportedly on the run and is in all probability trying to make good his escape from this country, which implies that he has 'connections' and safe havens elsewhere.

Meanwhile, police have arrested three Mujahedeens in a block raid in Joypurhat among whom is the second in command (Training) of Jamatul mujahedin. Police have recovered as booklet from one of the suspects which lays down details of their activities and gives important information about Iraq war and America. The some day police in Savar and Dhamrai thana arrested nine young men and recovered materials for making bombs, diary, there pairs of boots, mask, fake hair. From the diary police got names and address of leaders and members of a central Islamic organization. The detainees confessed themselves to be followers of Bangla Bhai. The most important figure among those arrested is Golam Mastafa of Joypurhat upazila who was at first arrested on 13 February 2003 in connection with a bomb blast in a students hosted in Dinajpur. The same year he fled away from a training camp of militants belonging to Jamatul mujahideen in a village in Joypurhat after injuring police on duty. A few days later he was arrested in connection with that incident. Golam Mostafa is known to be involved in JMJB's activities in Natore, Rajshahi, Naugoan. Accroding to news report published on the same day (23-02-05). Police arrested two more militants in Pachbibi upazila. A total of 5 detainees have been sent on remand to police for 10 days for interrogation. They will also be sent to the Joint Interrogation cell in Dhaka, according to newspaper report. On 17th February police arrested four members of a Islamic militant organization from areas in Thakurgaon district. After initial interrogation they confessed to be disciples of Dr. M. Asadulla, Head of the department of Arbic, Rajshahi University. On 18th February nine live bombs, and one hand grenade were recovered in Madhupur, Tangail and, Panchagarh in Kurigram. Earlier, on 15th February bombs were thrown in the debating society meeting in Dhaka University's TSC where tight security by police and RAB was already in place. It has been alleged that an Islamic fundamentalist organization were involved in the TSC bomb blast because it was giving threats against celebrating the Day. Bombs have also been recently recovered from near Jahangir Nagor University. The weopons of choice of militants have always have been homemade bombs or sophisticated grenades imported from abroad. According to news reports, lethal arms and explosive are popping up like popcorns almost all over the country and no place seems to be free from the reach of the attackers.

The most sensational news was revealed when a close associate of Bangla Bhai informed the police and other intelligence agency that JMJB was preparing for Jehad and they had as their targets shrines, cultural functions and organizations, Jatra, Cinema and NGOs. Soon after this confession BRAC office in Porsha upozila in Naogaon district was attacked with bombs injuring four and three powerful grenades were recovered from BRAC office in Rangpur. About the same time a branch office of Grameen Bank in Uallapara in Serajgonj was attacked with powerful bombs. The recovered grenades bore the initial JMJB-3 and eye witnesses said that young men were seen throwing bomb and grenades before fleeing in motor cycles. Police arrested three militants on suspicion of their involvement in the attack on BRAC office of Joypurhat. They reportedly all belong to a fundamentalist organization and were in possession of a monthly leaflet called 'Al Mugabi'. According to police, all the detainees are members of Jamatul Mujahideen. They have also reportedly admitted that they are members of Ahle Hadith and support Jamatul Islam. According to them only Jamat-type Islam can be the salvation of the country. While these interrogations and information gathering were going on, the militants were active elsewhere, according to their previous plan. In Kulaura, Sylhet, madrasha students were arrested by police while they were throwing grenade in Shahdinjir majar during holy Ashura. Other attackers escaped with their motorcycles.

From the above resume of some of the activities of terrorist nature, it is evident that a number of fundamentalist religious organizations are active in verious parts of Bangladesh through a well connected network. They have reportedly connections with madrashahs whose teachers and students are active members in these kinds of activities and who carry out attacks on pre-determined targets. As mentioned earlier, they use homemade bombs and foreign grenades. According to reports training camps are organized for them regularly at various places. While planning and guidance are done by teachers of some of the madrashas and by their higher ups, attacks at field level are carried out by their students or trained cadres in a planned and coordinated manner. At least in one case, a university professor in Rajshahi university was found to be involved with these fundamentalist groups and he had reportedly visited other countries. Even in Jahangir Nager University, a teacher of physics cajoled and coaxed female students to wear burqua. According to latest reports, twelve militants have been arrested at Dhamrai near Jahangir Nagor University on 21st February with bomb making formulas, masks, wigs and documents. The university authourities also found a timer and an audio tape containing speeches protesting criticism against Bin Laden, Mufti Amini and Shoukhul Aziz.

As in a jigsaw puzzle the pieces are now falling in places giving a more or less clear idea about the state of affairs in this front. When the first bomb blast exploded in Udichi function in Jessore people were completely clueless. Many thought that it could be a result of factional rivalry. Similar conclusions were drawn when a Pahela Baisakh function was attacked in Ramna. Even the bomb attacks on Awami League meetings were construed to be the result of internecine strife. The bomb and grenade blasts in the shrine in Sylhet gave the first inkling about the religious nature of the crime. Then came attacks on mosques of Ahamadya community, one on a Christian Church, on several cinemas and a jatra (folk drama) in a remote village in Bogra. Gradually, but unmistakably a pattern emerged from these deadly attacks and also an understanding was possible of the modus operandi used. The gruesome and barbaric grenade attack on 21st August last year and in early February this year that took the lives of Ivy Rahman and 20 others and that of SAMS Kibria and four others respectably, left no doubt about the identity of the organizations and the people who could be behind these mayhems and about the motives of the perpetrators of the attacks.

The organizations involved are many but they seem to share the same vision that of establishing the pristine type of Islam where shrine worship, cultural activities of secular nature and an indifference to the tenets of Islam is daily life are unpardonable. These organizations seen to be fairly co-ordinated in their planning and execution of activities and have steady sources of fund and lethal arms to kill, maim or destroy the targets. The Apex organisations, have evidently fundamentalist leanings and espouse that ideology to indoctinate the gullible and fanatic elements, who are mostly young, probably madrasa students and believe that they have no future other than in a fundamentalist system. These organizatons may have links with Islamic political parties like Jamat and IOJ, whose ultimate goal may be to establish an Islamic theocratic state. They are at the moment nationlist in the sense that their mission is not directed against other countries.

The fundamental religious organizations had always visions for an Islamic state, beginning from Pakistan. From that point of you there was no distingsion between religious Islam and political Islam. But politically they were weak and less organized and that is why during Ayub Khan's martial law they were crushed mercilessly, even by employing tanks in attacks in mosques in Lahore. Inspite of the majority of population being religious minded they did not respond to the call to arms by the firebrand zealots, then as well as at present. At the time of liberation war the religious elements, particularly Jamat cast their lot with Pakistan considering Bangladesh to be their nemesis. After Bangladesh they went into hibernation, plotting and conspiring for the future in league with their erstwhile collaborators. When late president Ziaur Rahman gave them recognination as a political party religious Islam morphed into political Islam. Former president Ershad gave them further booster by declaring Islam as a state religion. These developments were made for political expediency, no doubt. But Jamat and other religious parties felt emboldened to go for electoral politics independenly.

Their electoral success at first was measly and they could capture only four seats in the Jatiya Sangsad in 1991 (Jamat-3, IOJ-1). Their performance in rural areas was particularly abysmally low which came even as a surprise to them. This was obviously the result of the social advancement done by NGOs. But in the general election in 2001 their electoral fortune turned favorable because of the electoral alliance they made with a major political party, BNP. In a spirit of bravado and a good deal of hubris, the chief of IOJ has recently declared in a public meeting that in future no government in Bangladesh can be form without the participation of Islamic parties. Though lacking in sophistication and restrain an even exuding arrogance, he may be telling the truth. If politics of electoral alliance prevails in future, the religious political parties will remain wield considerable political cloud and may very often be the kingmaker. Thereby they will increase their seats in the parliament becoming a force to be reckoned with. Even as a minor party in the alliance, the Islamic parties can exact concession and opportunities from the majority party in lieu of their support and thus continue to strengthen their political base. At the least, they can ask for protection and immunity from legal actions that would otherwise be normal.

It would be a mistake to think that Awami league will pass up an opportunity to forge alliance with religious fundamentalist parties if they think that will take them to power. Ideologically the party is not totally secular, their public stance notwithstanding, as evidenced by their leaders frequent visit to holy places. While in power, Awami League did not do anything to clip the wings of Jamat or any other fundamentalist parties. By some account, the number of madrashas established and recognised by them were greater than during the previous regimes. If Awami League is trying to taint BNP as a pro-fundamentalist party for its guilt by association, it is because of political opportunism.

The overwhelming majority of Bangladeshi muslims are very religious minded but they are not fundamentalist in the ideological sense, not to speak of being militants. When they fought for and supported the independence of Bangladesh, they knew that it would be a state where all religion will have equal rights and opportunities and there would be no rule by religious fiat. Both BNP and Awami League leaders at least majority of them who participated in the war of liberation gave the people that assurance and promise. Of course, in a democracy, once a religious organization is given recognition as a political party it has the right to contest in election. But for BNP or Awami League to curry favor with them or agree to become alliance partners is a sharp departure from their stated ideological manifesto and convictions. Both the party, in their own way, can be said to have betrayed the people in this respect, wittingly or unwittingly. BNP is doing it now after they made the alliance in the 2001 general election. Awami League did it by default when they were in power by not taking appropriate actions. The sequence in time makes no difference. It is the strategy and the mind-set that matters.

Matters have come to such a pass now that the world bank, European Union and America are meeting confidentially in Washington to analyse the Bangladesh situation and perhaps to decide what to do with a country where a deceptive robe is being woven through arcane warp and weft by a group of shrewd political weavers. That the emperor is naked can perhaps, no longer be concealed under the rubric 'moderate'. Unless political expediency and all consuming hunger for power are forsaken by both the major parties, the jury will soon meet and give their verdict. It may not be to the liking of the government and fair for the majority of Bangladeshis.