Wednesday, March 09, 2005

BANGLADESH: Gun Tantra

It's Bangla Bhai the government is most keen to arrest. Blamed for attacks on activists of Left groups and unleashing terror in the north Bangladesh countryside, he is the JMJB's operational commander. He's managed to evade the police dragnet despite the government arresting 62 militants so far. Earlier, speculations were Bangla Bhai would surrender; now it's said he might have fled to India or Pakistan. But are these arrests Dhaka's attempt to appease international opinion or does it mark a decisive shift in its policy towards militants? The question assumed importance because two of the four-party ruling alliance—Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB) and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), an umbrella organisation of 11 small groups—are perceived to be religious, even fundamentalist, in their orientation.

Gun Tantra- At long last, Dhaka cracks down on its militants
HENA KHAN

For years, Bangladesh had been denying the existence of Islamic militants on its soil. Last week, Begum Khaleda Zia's government ironically provided proof of their presence: it arrested a clutch of militants, including Jamat-ul-Mujahideen (JM) leader Asadullah Galib, and reiterated its resolve to nab Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) leaders, Siddiqul Islam aka Bangla Bhai and Abdur Rahman; both the JM and the JMJB were also banned. The crackdown on militants ought to immensely please New Delhi, which had cited terrorism and fundamentalism in Bangladesh among the reasons for pulling out of the SAARC summit early February.

But it wasn't New Delhi that goaded Dhaka into arresting the militants. The pressure came from elsewhere: donor countries and banks hadn't even invited Bangladesh to their February 23-24 meeting in Washington, where they discussed deteriorating governance, worsening law and order problems and rising militancy. Desperately dependent on foreign financial assistance, and apprehensive of what the future might entail, Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia consequently decided to take action against the militant groups and their leaders.

The crackdown also comes against the backdrop of bomb attacks on branch offices of two internationally famous ngos—Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the Grameen Bank of Prof Muhammad Yunus, the mastermind behind micro-credit schemes. Fear of fresh attacks prompted the Federation of Non-Governmental Organisations to declare that in the absence of security for ngo workers, the country might find it difficult to achieve the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations.

Begum Zia's compulsions apart, an Indian diplomat welcomed the move, saying New Delhi had repeatedly informed Dhaka over the past two years about such groups. "No doubt it's Bangladesh's internal affair," he said. "But militancy has no borders and so is worrying for India as well." Islamic militancy has international implications for Bangladesh, the diplomat added.

Even many in Bangladesh felt vindicated. The prestigious Daily Star newspaper thought last week's arrest was equivalent of the Zia government "eating its own words". For, as the daily said, the government had been trashing reports of Bangla Bhai and Islamic militancy as a "figment" of the media's imagination. Famous sculptor Ferdousy Priyabhashi, also a prominent anti-fundamentalist activist, told Outlook, "We had warned the government many a times about Islamic militancy, but were dismissed as anti-government people."

Currently, Galib and his associates are being grilled by a joint interrogation cell of security agencies in Dhaka. Hitherto a non-entity, Galib shot into prominence following confessional statements of arrested militants naming him and Bangla Bhai as their leaders. An Arabic teacher in the Rajshahi University, Galib's denied his organisation is linked to militant activity. He's a close friend of Abdur Rahman, Bangla Bhai's mentor who secretly set up the JMJB in 1998. In a media interview last year, Rahman claimed the JMJB had 10,000 'trained' members.

It's Bangla Bhai the government is most keen to arrest. Blamed for attacks on activists of Left groups and unleashing terror in the north Bangladesh countryside, he is the JMJB's operational commander. He's managed to evade the police dragnet despite the government arresting 62 militants so far. Earlier, speculations were Bangla Bhai would surrender; now it's said he might have fled to India or Pakistan.

But are these arrests Dhaka's attempt to appease international opinion or does it mark a decisive shift in its policy towards militants? The question assumed importance because two of the four-party ruling alliance—Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB) and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), an umbrella organisation of 11 small groups—are perceived to be religious, even fundamentalist, in their orientation.

Surprisingly, the JIB, which is stridently anti-India, welcomed the crackdown on militants, saying Islam did not preach violence. But two top IOJ leaders publicly said the government should have consulted the alliance partners before taking action against the two proscribed groups, especially as the charges against them might have been "concocted". IOJ leaders feel the JIB could be behind the crackdown as it wants to marginalise other Islamic groups and grab a bigger share in governance.

The politics of religion is precisely why The Daily Star hoped in its editorial, "Let not this be a one-off step but the first of a genuine attempt to not only curb but in fact completely uproot extremism from our midst."