Terrorism and the Divisive Polity of Bangladesh

Taj Hashmi
Research Associate, York Centre for Asian Research, York University, Canada

Since the horrific and most unfortunate August 21 bombings in Dhaka in an Awami League rally killing several people and seriously injuring several party workers and more than a dozen policemen in charge of the personal security of Sheikh Hasina,amateur analysts and professional "experts" have come up with their versions of the story. Some have found out "concrete evidence" of the involvements of members of the ruling coalition under Khaleda Zia in these ghastly attacks. While Sheikh Hasina, the leading proponent of this theory, has even portrayed the Prime Minister as a "murderer", some Bangladeshi analysts have come up with the "Indian involvement theory" in a recent posting in the web.

The way a section of the press, politicians and intellectuals have been trying to prove the involvement of the ruling coalition, India, Pakistan, CIA, Maoist insurgents and others in the bombing is not going to help Bangladesh in the short- and long-run at all.

It is very disappointing that instead of uniting to weed out terror from Bangladesh, our politicians, journalists and intellectuals both within and outside the country have not yet shown the maturity, civility and decency to condemn terrorism with objectivity, integrity and honesty. They, instead, have been showing their narrow, tribal/peasant rusticity and bias in explaining the attacks with a view to gaining some political leverage. They have unfortunately failed to realise that the reactionary forces behind these heinous attacks will be more than happy to see whatever is left of liberal democratic, secular and patriotic forces in the country, constantly fighting among themselves instead of trying to find out the real culprits.

The perpetual polarization between the Awami League and BNP, and between the so-called patriots and traitors, will only bring more disasters finally turning the "dysfunctional" state into anarchy. It is high time that the civil society comes out of their Awami-BNP cocoons to mobilize mass support against terror, Khaleda-Hasina together, for the sake of the country. One may only guess if and when the terrorists will again hit the divided polity. And the next time leaders from the ruling party may fall prey to such attacks. So, both the BNP and its "Islamic" allies should also stop the blaming game with a view to fighting terror. Both the ruling coalition and the opposition have the responsibility to find out the real terrorists and their motives.

It is, however, very pertinent that we find out the real causes as to why terrorism is gaining ground in Bangladesh. We need not go that far to find out the real factors behind these acts. What history has taught us (and we always forget the lesson) that terrorism is a by-product of a section of the population of a given country turning desperate to change the status quo when that section finds all other peaceful means ineffective. Terrorists also hit with a view to establishing themselves as the alternative to the existing political parties and groups to deliver the promised goods and services for the benefit of the majority. The way Hitler and Mussolini succeeded in capturing power through terror, eventually with mass support, should be an eye-opener for both the ruling parties and their opposition.

Have they succeeded in delivering the promised goods and services to the average Bangladeshis in the last thirty-odd years? is the question. The never-ending process of the rich getting richer by defrauding banks, depriving workers their due and by plundering the meagre resources of the country as ministers, bureaucrats and NGO operators ("smooth operators"?) is the mother of all terror in Bangladesh. Unless we realise that bank defaulters, corrupt governments, bureaucrats and military, industrialists, traders, NGO operators have been resorting to terror by plundering and depriving the state and people of their due, the recent bombings are just the beginnings of the end of the status quo.

One should not be that surprised that sections of the frustrated, unemployed youth should be attracted to terror- "Islamic" or the neo-fascist ones- as it has been happening elsewhere in the Third World. Any attempt to portray terror as merely a political act of desperation or as a by-product of some weird ideology (as George Bush and his team have been doing since 9/11), without understanding the real economic issues behind it, will remain counter-productive, hence useless.

Now, let us evaluate what local and international "experts" and amateur analysts have so far analysed about the Dhaka bombing of August 21. Their collective analyses have so far identified six possible sources of terror in Bangladesh:

1) The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islamiya; 2) A section of the ambitious military officers in Bangladesh armed forces having extreme ideological commitment to "Islamic fundamentalism"; 3) The underground Maoist rebels; 4) The RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) of India; 5) The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) of Pakistan; 6) The ruling BNP-Islamist Coalition of Bangladesh.

None of the analysts have given any thought over the economic and class dimensions of the problem. Another aspect of terror is its positive correlation with the anger and frustration of the perpetrators, who are motivated to terrorizing to register their anger and hatred towards their perceived enemies. The analysts so far have failed to identify these socio-economic and psychological dimensions of terror. To them, the problem is simply a political/ideological one. And this sort of analysis is the biggest problem towards understanding terror, both global and regional.

However, the organized and professional nature of the grenade attacks on the Awami League rally, most definitely to eliminate Sheikh Hasina physically, by no stretch of the imagination were acts of mindless group of terrorists adopting terror just for the sake of it as fanatics or anarchists would do. The August 21 bombing and the scores of previous attacks which killed and maimed innocent people in different parts of the country during the last eight years or so were organized acts of terror to discredit both the Awami League and BNP. Politically ambitious group of people must have been exploiting the socio-economic situation, using underdogs in the name of an ideology. The precision and professionalism of the killers, especially of the August 21st,are very ominous, indicative of a grand scheme of eventual takeover of the country by the group.

The oversimplified analyses, based on wild conjectures, subjectivity, prejudice and malice towards political adversaries, are problematic and unhelpful towards our understanding of the problem. The over-politicization of the attacks-both by the ruling and opposition parties- will not bring rich dividends but disaster for Bangladesh.

The one-point programme of the Awami League, to remove the BNP and Khaleda Zia from power, in the wake of the bombing is further divisive and would only benefit the terrorists. A divisive and sharply polarized polity would be the ideal breeding ground for more terror.

Now, to turn to the various theorists as to who were involved in the attacks, the most acceptable theory is that some shadowy Islamist group might have been involved in the attacks. However, one cannot be that precise about which group of "Islamic" terrorists are behind such attacks. It is difficult to accept some Indian analysts' version of the story that some Jamaat-i-Islami leaders in Bangladesh having links with Al-Qaeda and/or some Rohingya or Assamese-Meghalaya Muslim separatist groups, said to have strong commitment to "Brihot" or greater Bangladesh, have been terrorizing Bangladesh. This group of terrorists, according to the theory, were trained and armed by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Chittagong Hill Tracts. The group, known as Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islamiya, having 15,000 trained guerrillas, have links with Jamaat-i-Islami of Bangladesh, so goes the story.

Meanwhile, another Islamic group, Hikmatul Jihad (hitherto unheard of) claimed its involvement in the recent attacks on Sheikh Hasina through an email to the editor of a Bengali daily in Dhaka. The police are said to have traced the sender of the email and have already arrested and interrogated the suspect, an unemployed Hindu youth from Dhaka. If finally something substantial emerges out of these interrogations of Partha, who had his university education in India, that would give an altogether new dimension to the story. Those who believe in Indian hands in terrorist acts in Bangladesh would go farther in their renunciation of the country.

There is no denying of the fact that India has hardly been benevolent and generous towards its immediate neighbors in the last fifty odd years. It is also true that India is possibly the only country in the world besides Israel having bad to very bad relationship with all its immediate neighbors, including Bangladesh. This, however, does not justify someone's finger pointing at India for the recent bombings in Dhaka unless one has concrete evidence to prove so.

Some Indian analysts as well as their Bangladeshi counterparts are responsible for this sort of oversimplifications. Jaideep Saikia in his recent research paper on Islamic resurgence in eastern India has unnecessarily provoked some Bangladeshi analysts. Saikia has not only questioned the loyalty of Indian Muslims living in Assam, Meghalaya and adjoining states but has also inadvertently provoked some Bangladeshi scholars. Saikia has cited Mujibur Rahman Khan's book, "Eastern Pakistan: Its Population, Delimitation and Economics", published by the East Pakistan Renaissance Society from Calcutta in 1944 where the author wanted the incorporation of Assam into Eastern Pakistan. Saikia has mistakenly taken Mujibur Rahman Khan (a journalist and Muslim League leader in the 1940s) to be Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and this has created some confusion and controversy among several Bangladeshi scholars. Nothing could be more amateurish than tracing Islamic revival and terror in eastern India and Bangladesh to the politics of the 1940s.

From the professional nature of the grenade attacks in broad daylight it appears that these terrorists are trained military personnel. This has tempted some analysts to assume that a section of the Bangladesh armed forces under the influence of Al-Qaeda or Jamaat-i-Islami (amateur analysts often confuse the two) wanted to kill Sheikh Hasina with a view to creating chaos and a political vacuum, eventually to install an Islamic military government in the country. This is a bit far fetched as neither the US nor the average Bangladeshis would welcome a military governemnt let alone a pro-Taliban regime in Bangladesh.

The weak and divided remnants of the Maoist groups of the 1970s are the least likely perpetrators of the August 21st carnage. No body has yet traced any such professionally trained Maoist guerrilla group in the region. Even the Nepalese Maoists have recently been forced to fight a defensive war and are retreating.

Only extremely immoderate and politically biased people would point finger at the ruling coalition for the attacks on Sheikh Hasina. While the BNP-led coalition has two more years to rule (ruling parties have all the due and undue privileges, and opportunities in countries like Bangladesh), why on earth it would jeopardise its own immediate future by physically eliminating the leader of the opposition is beyond reason. The death of Hasina would have signalled the death of Awami League as a party as there are no acceptable successors to the matriarch (similar is the situation in BNP), but Hasina's violent death would have also brought a mass upsurge, big enough to topple the BNP governemnt.

As India card is not worth playing here to link RAW or some other agencies with the terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, only die-hard fanatics and amateurs would suspect Pakistan to be the culprit in this regard. As India has absolutely nothing to gain by destroying the Awami League (widely known as "pro-Indian"), Pakistan hardly bothers about Bangladesh and its internal problems as Pakistan has so many of its own.

In sum, as there is no easy answer to the question as to who bombed the Awami League rally to kill Sheikh Hasina, there is no easy solution to the problem of terrorism in Bangladesh and elsewhere. There are global as well as regional/local problems, grave enough to germinate terrorist cells and groups. Only the rule of law and equi-distribution of wealth and opportunities under a relatively corruption free system can ensure stability and peace. Terrorism is not a disease but a symptom while corruption and misrule are manifestations of the virus, which breeds terrorism.

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