Bangladesh is no Iraq, Palestine or Sri Lanka. Yet, in the five months between August to December 2005, there were no less than five incidents of bomb attacks. As the perpetrators are sentenced for their crimes, political parties still blame each other for controlling the bombers. Yet, one, simple question needs to be answered from this whole torrid affair: who benefits?Historical Precedence
Why on earth should such a beautiful country like Bangladesh be infected by senseless violence as it has been over the past few months? It is a sweet water-kissed land, decorated with one of the world'’s richest fauna and most colourful flora and inhabited by a mild and amiable people. But it seems the seeds of political violence sown in the frenetic years of 1971 and after were so hardy that they keep coming up like a pernicious weed. Greying old people now fondly recall how during the East Pakistan days, they hardly heard of any serious violence. The worst that happened was when some land or other village dispute degenerated into a lathi fight, settled lathially in Bengali language. Lathi is a hardened bamboo stick about seven feet (2.5 meters) long which may be used to carry a medium load over the shoulders, to ward off a hostile animal, kill a snake, or even for fighting, if it came to that.
As a journalist at the time, I would, along with colleagues, phone around the district authorities every night looking for some such news, almost always without success. To help boost circulation, the editors demanded '‘action'’ reports. 'News'’ eventually came our way from the far western parts of the country where Bangladeshis did sometimes use guns to settle affairs. But the affray was mostly of a personal nature, rarely political. It started to become political as party politics began to forsake debate and was turned into a quarrel to be settled only by the use of force.
An Oxford academic, Professor Rushbrook Williams (1890-1978) who taught modern Indian history at Allahabad University and served later as an Asia specialist editor at the Times
newspaper visited West and East Pakistan in the spring and the monsoon season of 1971. He returned really concerned about the trend towards political violence on the part of the Awami League and its nominally student supporters. '‘As in West Pakistan,'’ he wrote, in East Pakistan too, '‘there were numerous political groups; but the Awami League seemed determined that none but themselves should hold public meetings or take out processions:
'‘Only a few weeks after our visit, they violently broke up a meeting in Dacca [now spelled, Dhaka] of the Jamaat-i-Islami party - this was on January 18, 1970 - killing one person and injuring more than 599. On January 21, they broke up a meeting of the Pakistan Democratic Party at Narayanganj by organised hooliganism. Next day the office of the Jamaat-i-Islami] in Dacca was raided, furniture was smashed and documents burned.
'‘The Pakistan Democratic Party was again the victim of attack on February 1, when a public meeting in Dacca was forcibly broken up and several people, including Maulvi Farid Ahmad (1923-72), leader of the Nizam-i-Islam party, received physical injuries. Nor did the press escape unscathed if it failed to support the Awami League whole heartedly; on February 28 the offices of two Chittagong papers which opposed certain aspects of the Awami League were raided and broken up. Although various aggrieved persons and parties registered formal protests at such tactics, nothing much was done to bring them to an end. (...) what the Awami League was doing to innocent political opponents was exactly like what Hitler'’s supporters had done to the aristocratic elements in Germany prior to the rise of Nazism.'’ (L F Rushbrook Williams: The East Pakistan Tragedy, London, Tom Stacey, 1972), pp 32-33.)
Rushbrook Williams'’ words comparing the Awami League with Hitler'’s storm-troopers sounded strong indeed but not that surprising given his declared support for the unity of Pakistan. What seemed surprisingly true, however, was the warning he had sounded some thirty-three years ago. '‘And there was the danger,'’ he thought, '‘that in a country like East Pakistan, mob violence is easier to start than to stop'’.
In its thirty-five years of existence as an independent country, Bangladesh has seen more than its fair share of political and internecine violence. The dawn of independence itself was marred by a frantic spree of revenge killing of unprecedented cruelty. From then on it became a free-for-all. The murder of the revolutionary left-wing leader Shiraj Sikder and many others took place under the aegis of the Awami League government headed by Shaikh Mujibur-Rahman himself. He was also the Father of the new nation and its first Prime Minister.
In less than four years, on 15 August 1975, Shaikh Mujibur-Rahman who had since promulgated a single party rule and become president of the republic succumbed to the very cycle of violence that had come to infect the new nation'’s body politic. In a young officer'’s putsch against the corruption and despotism of his one-man rule, he was gunned down along with almost his entire family, save two daughters Hasina and Rehana who were not at the house. A few months later four of his senior Awami League ministers were also cut down in a hail of bullets inside the Dhaka Central Jail.
The legacy of murder and mayhem, however, refuses to go away. Yet, even by today'’s Bangladeshi standards, the current spate of violence seemed out of the ordinary. It all begun in earnest during last summer. In five months between August to December 2005, there were no less than five incidents of bomb attacks. Two of them looked like suicide bombings, though there remains a question whether the dead man was simply a hired carrier who did not know what was in the baggage he had been paid to carry or he was really a '‘martyr'’ to his cause. Bangladesh was no Iraq, Palestine or Sri Lanka, so what was the cause? Yet whatever the cause, the scale of violence was no doubt sinister. Old hoodlums, New Causes
On 17 August 2005, a series of bomb explosions in several locations of the country inaugurated the season of mayhem. On 3 October, bombs were thrown from a distance into three law courts in different cities; it was followed by another incident on 14 October when bombs were thrown at a car, killing two judges.
The first '‘suicide bombing'’ took place on 29 November when persons said to be strapped with explosives walked into Ghazipur Bar Council building as well into the compound of Chittagong law courts. Some clue as to identity of the '‘suicide bomber'’ and perhaps also to whosoever may have organised it, was provided by another '‘suicide bombing'’ in Netrakona, a small town north of Dhaka on 8 December. In his op-ed published in the daily Naya Diganta
on 14 December, a leading columnist and the chairman of the county'’s Press and Information Bureau (2005), Sadeq Khan, pointed out that the '‘suicide-bomber'’ who died in the Netrakona incident was a Hindu, a local motor cycle mechanic, named Jadav Biswas. One doubts, if Jadav Biswas even believed in the idea of martyrdom, let alone he wanted to be one. Exchanging Blame
The real question, therefore, seems to be: not as who may have done it, but who may be behind it? Currently there are two parallel theories put forward by rival political camps. The pro-Indian camp and their political vehicle, the Awami League, along with its 14-party alliance, accuses the ruling four-party alliance, more specifically its main Islamic component Jamaat-i-Islami, as being responsible for these heinous incidents. But why should a political party which is a partner in the coalition government try to undermine its own position? The answer to the question comes from across the border.
Political circles in New Delhi took the view that violence may be taking place in Bangladesh, its ultimate target was India. They claim that the Jamaat-i-Islami Bangladesh was acting as a proxy for the Pakistan'’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). Every now and then Indian politicians and political journalists speculate as to how the ISI is active in Bangladesh and trying to destabilise India in its eastern frontier. To destabilise Bangladesh in order to destabilise India in its eastern frontier! Here is an example
In December, the speaker of West Bengal state assembly, Hashim Abdul Halim visited Bangladesh. While exchanging views with journalists
in Chittagong, he confidently told them that he believed the Pakistan secret agency ISI was master-minding terrorism in the region. The actual operations were then left to their local allies such as the Jamaat-i-Islami Bangladesh. He said violence will cease if the Jamaat was thrown out of the government. Abdul Halim is a member of CPI-M
(the Communist Party of India, Marxist), which held power in West Bengal. Abdul Halim'’s recipe to end the violence in Bangladesh are duly shared by India'’s allies within Bangladesh.
Those who pointed their fingers at the Jamaat said some of the people arrested had links with the party in the past. But the Jamaat leaders dismiss this as nonsense
. They say the party could not be held responsible for anyone who was perhaps trying to infiltrate into the party a long time ago and had gone away only to be appear now in a new garb. In any case, neither the broad public opinion within the country nor the diplomatic and intelligence communities were prepared to buy such outlandish theory that the Jamaat was trying to shoot at its own foot in order to hurt India.
The Awami League was on the other hand, the Jamaat sources point out, has historically operated in concert with elements believed to have been behind many acts of political thuggery and violence in the country.
However perhaps, in accord with the spirit of our postmodern times, the hired goons of yester-years, seem to have been given a new job title, '‘Mujahid'’. The outfit claimed to be largely behind the current spate of bomb attacks in Bangladesh was said to be a shadowy thing trading under the name of Jamiatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). These Mujahideen were an odd collection drawn from the so-called '‘Salafist'’ '‘Wahabist'’ extremist elements from the Ahl-e-Hadith fringe. More importantly these Mujahideen also happened to be aided by the underground Purba Banglar Communist Party (Communist Party of East Bengal) and other assorted individuals of no particular political affiliation. Some of the top JMB players were even close relatives of certain Awami League leaders (see report in Bangladesh Observer
Yet whoever these '‘Mujahideen'’ are, the ferocity of their sudden emergence, with a good financial resource base and access to large cache of arms and ammunition has taken everyone by surprise. But it is apparent that those who were sent out on field missions and were killed or apprehended were recruited from the pool of the young, unemployed and poor. They were, as Mao said, '‘the have-nots [who have] have nothing to loose'’ (except their own lives). Hopes and dreams are not for such people.
Political parties were nevertheless vying with each other to protest and to apportion blame. A series of mass public rallies were held in capital'’s Paltan Maidan: the first was organised by the Awami League along with its 14-party alliance on 22 November 2005; it was followed another rally on 21 December by the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party and then by the Jamaat on 28 December, each out-performing the previous one in the size of the crowd.
Prime Minister Khaleda Zia also wrote to all major political parties and alliances inviting them to meet her '‘any where, any time'’ in order to discuss and work out an agreed strategy to combat this menace that threatened the very foundation of the country. While some parties accepted her invitation, the main opposition party, Awami League, refused even to receive the Prime Minister'’s personal emissary (her principal political secretary) who was carrying the letter. The Prime Minister herself cancelled her three day state visit to the United Arab Emirates scheduled to begin on 3 December 2005.
However, away from the political divide, perhaps the country'’s mood was best reflected by a round table of some leading opinion makers brought together by the Bangladesh Centre for Human Rights at a Dhaka hotel on 27 December.
It'’s the politics stupid, according to the former army chief, Lieut. General (Retd.) Mahbubur Rahman. '‘Politics in the country is hostage to corruption and self-aggrandisement'’, he said.
The editor of the English language daily Bangladesh Observer
Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury added, '‘terrorism was introduced [in Bangladesh politics in order] to win elections and defeat political opponents'’.
Prominent Hindu academic, Professor Kalipad Sen agreed. In his view, '‘the birth of terrorism was a direct consequence of gangsterism in politics'’.
Alamgir Mohiuddin is editor of daily newspaper, Naya Diganta
. He took the view that the present outbreak of violence was '‘a prelude to pre-election political campaign of violence and an attempt to stifle our budding democracy'’. Elections are due to be held in six months time.
Major General (Retd.) Moinul Hussain Chowdhury, had been an advisor to the president in a former caretaker government. He saw '‘socio-economic disparity as being the main cause of this development'’, viz. this insensible violence against individuals and public institutions.
The chairman of the Press and Information Bureau, Sadeq Khan, dismissed the view that moderate Islamic leaders and '‘ulama should also share the blame. We all see, he pointed out, that '‘the peace-loving Islamic groups were far more vocal [than most others] speaking politically as well as morally against terrorist atrocities'’.
Independently in his Friday khutba, the country'’s most respectable and senior scholar and imam of the National Mosque, Baitul Mukarram, Maulana Ubaidul Hoq denounced these acts of violence as utterly anti-Islamic. But he strongly castigated those who were trying to implicate and pass on the blame on to legitimate Islamic parties or groups, '‘while the JMB itself admitted that it was responsible'’.
Back at the Round Table, a former vice chancellor of the Dhaka University, Professor Emajuddin, was suggesting that while '‘the problem had an international dimension as well but it has not been addressed the way it should have been'’. He, therefore, demanded extreme vigilance and keeping '‘our eyes open in all directions'’, for while the JMB is said to be the perpetrators of the crime, most of them were illiterate, poor and ignorant. In other words, they could not be taken as independent operators.Foreign Beneficiaries
It is obvious most people seemed to be aware as to where these '‘Bangladeshi mujahideen'’ were coming from. None dare point their fingers at New Delhi or Washington yet neither the Indians nor Americans hide their exasperation at Dhaka'’s desire to be able to take its own decisions. The emergence of Bangladesh was meant to be a clean break from the Muslim nationalism of the South Asian sub-continent and the adoption of a secular polity, yet it did not. If anything today Islam is more vibrant than in the residual (West) Pakistan. Whatever maybe said about its Islamic background, Jamaat-i-Islami has nevertheless subjected itself to the democratic process and is a respectable member of the coalition government. Yet note the hysteria that has followed the party'’s ascension: Bangladesh was heading towards '‘fundamentalism'’; the country is run by '‘extremists'’; '‘Al-Qaeda'’ has re-emerged; Bangladesh is a failed state and is yet to give way to '‘Taliban-type'’ government. When it comes South Asian politics, this noise is being amplified and has no comparison. The last time a South Asian religiously-based political party rose to prominence in the form of the Hindu BJP, we were not treated to the delights of its storm troopers, the RSS. Nor were we quaking at the prospect of a secular India being usurped by Hinduvta. But when Islam comes to our political space, double standards flowers majestically.
If the Bangladeshi Muslims are Islamic it is not because of Jamaat-i-Islami or any other Islamic party or institution. It'’s the other way round. If Jamaat-i-Islami and other Islamic parties appear to be thriving in Bangladesh, it is because of the historical ethos of the society itself was Islamic.
However, the so-called JMB violence seemed to be a play of internal as well as external factors. The bitter power struggle in the national arena has opened an invaluable space for interested foreign players to pursue their economic, political and cultural goals. The foot-soldiers for these foreign powers are hired from a large pool of economically poor and socially deprived people in the country. The answer to the problem can, however, be found only nationally: by uniting the country around a clean and clear, just and ethical vision and translate that vision into the daily lives of the ordinary people.