July 10, 2016

Terror in Dhaka

Nilotpal Basu

BLOODLETTING has become an almost every day reality for us in the recent times.  Violence and mayhem have blotted the landscape.  Extremist violence, has been running asunder. In most of these, the Islamic State (IS) has been claiming ‘credit’ for the gruesome killings and destruction.  In the last few days, this painful sequence started with the huge violence in the Istanbul Airport.  Then came Gulshan in Dhaka; finally the biggest in a Baghdad market which resulted in the largest number of casualties since many years. 

However, the gory violence in the Holey Artisan Bakery in the heart of the diplomatic enclave in uptown Dhaka has the most powerful reverberations in India.  Is it merely because of the emotional quotient?  Or, is it because in our North East and West Bengal, we have large number of citizens who speak the same language and have crossed over the borders following the partition in 1947? 

Despite Istanbul or Baghdad being much higher in terms of magnitude of devastation, given recent history they were not unsurprising. But Dhaka?   There was no sense of anticipation.  A poster put up by the students of a Kolkata university protesting the massacre read ‘Bangladesh belongs to Lalan’ (the Sufi saint-singer whose message of universal brotherhood is part of Bangladesh’s heritage and a folklore) and not to ‘extremists’.  These are indeed brave words of robust optimism. The challenge today is so daunting that mere pronouncements of confidence may prove to be misplaced!



What happened that deadly night in Gulshan was the ostrich-like refusal to see the sequence of alarms which had been ringing out loud and clear. Several episodes have been vitiating the atmosphere in the towns and countryside of Bangladesh. Incidents in rural areas were not being reported in the media, but even in towns, including Dhaka itself, danger has been knocking at the doors. Targeted assassinations using crude weapons like choppers have been taking place over the last couple of years intermittently.  Protests have been there; however, the assassinations continued.  Several extremist groups like Jamat-ul-Mujahiddin (JMB) and Ansarullah Bangla team have been the perpetrators.  The list of victims included atheist bloggers, writers, students, teachers, people belonging to the religious minority communities, Sufi saints, Hindu and Christian priests, secular political and social activists – virtually cross sections who are opposed to a narrow, sectarian, violence spewing variant of Islamist fundamentalism, have figured among those  who have fallen. 

This was punctuated by the audacious claim of the two international terrorist groups - Al Qaeda and IS – that their footprints are spreading in South Asia.  There was no dearth of competitive efforts to expand their sphere of influence.  But this evoked effective response, not to speak of consistency.  There were routine declarations that enquiries are underway and violence would be eliminated. But, alas!  The queue of the dead continued unabated.



For quite some time, there is an Awami League government in Bangladesh.  It will be unfair to question this Sheikh Hasina led government’s secular credentials with their legacy of the liberation struggle.  The partition of 1947 was the result of machinations of British colonialism. And, it contained the seeds of future division.  The geographic distance of 2000 miles separated the two parts of Pakistan; and light years of cultural and linguistic distinctiveness.  The sole reason for this was the obnoxious theory of religious identity based nationalism advanced by the British colonial historians and theorists.  It is such grotesque distortion of the past that produced Islamic and Hindu nationalism.  The result was a religious identity driven nationhood and birth of Pakistan. India was saved at that juncture. The Hindu nationalists were too proximate to British raj that their collaboration virtually put them at complete odds with our national freedom struggle.  Together with this, the rich multi-dimensional Indian diversity prevailed making India a secular republic. 

The disastrous outcome was inevitable. Conflicts in Pakistan started with the language question; but went on to produce the demand of self rule and ultimately that of independence. Bangladesh was born paying a heavy price. Three million people laid down their lives; 2,50,000 women of different ages lost their dignity to the Pakistani army and their local collaborators. That religious identity based nationhood is not sustainable was underlined in the splitting of the two parts of a nation within two and a half decades of its formation.  Bangladesh became a linguistic based secular state. 

But could it really resolve the questions of democracy, secularism or keeping the State and social life insulated from religious influence?  It is true that February 21, the language and martyrdom day continues to be the main national festival of Bangladesh.  It is also true that in public life, Bangladesh is comparatively more secular than many other Muslim majority countries. Given their legacy, the ruling Awami League is not encouraging religious fundamentalism. That is manifested in the trial of traitors against the liberation struggle in collusion with the Pakistani army. Despite all external pressures, the government has pulled off that historic trial under the international judicial tribunal and handed out life sentences to the vilest of those perpetrators who were also leading lights of the Jamaat-e-Islami.  And, it was not the government alone but social and political movements have authored the Shahbagh movement which reverberated with young protestors demanding death to traitors and merchants of religious orthodoxy.  But thereafter the government did not undertake the necessary tasks. On the contrary, they have been on the denial mood.  Each and every targeted assassination has followed with government’s refusal to recognise the cancerous growth of trends within the social life; the growth of the fundamentalist menace.  Home Minister Asadduzaman Khan and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have repeatedly observed that these are isolated incidents and that these crimes were being committed by either the Jamaat-e-Islami or its student wing – Islamic Chhatra Shibir. They have no links with Al Qaeda or Islamic State. Even if it was true, there was no protracted attempt to comprehensively carry out an independent transparent enquiry to substantiate their claims.  The result was the government’s credibility and the claims became suspect in public perception. 

On the other hand, there is clear evidence that the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-Jamaat alliance was hobnobbing with and abetting these terror groups. 



The principle responsibility of politicising Islam doubtlessly lies with the BNP and its ally, the Jamaat.  History stands testimony to the fact that US imperialism had thrown its full weight behind the Pakistani military dictatorship in their denial of claim for Bangladeshi freedom. It is this gory past which had its effect in the uncomfortable US-Bangladesh relationship. Only during 1977-1990, when Bangladesh was under its own military rule, the relationship improved.  It is during this time that secularism was removed from the Constitution and influence of religion on national and public life gained ground.  It is during this period, the Jamaat was also rehabilitated by BNP and that alliance has continued beyond military rule.  However, this connection between US imperialism and the fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh remained under wraps and has not figured in the public discourse in any significant way.  Similarly, the role of the US-led West in their ‘war against terror’ leading to the emergence and blossoming of forces like Al Qaeda and IS was equally absent in media narratives. But even today, in this time of crisis, if this collusion between this Islamist forces and the West is not fully comprehended, the imperative of meeting the challenge of fundamentalism will remain an empty platitude.  Equally, on the basis of specific enquiry, if concrete facts are not brought out by the government to unmask the real culprits, the threat cannot be effectively faced.



Following Gulshan’s gory violence, IS has claimed ‘credit’.  Equally, IS is losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, forcing it to try expanding its operations in new territories. South Asia with its substantial Muslim population is an obvious destination. 

The catalyst for the cancerous growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh has been the Jamaat-e-Islami and their student wing.  Though Jamaat has claimed that they are not directly linked with acts of terror, several reports by international humanitarian organisations make it eminently clear that they maintain close links with international terrorist groups.  Amnesty International in a report in January 2013 had documented that they were directly responsible for destruction of 40 Hindu temples and looting and arson of several minority homes. It is along the same time that several Maulanas belonging to Imam Ulema United Coordination Council made a public statement directly alleging that the Jamaat believes in Wahabism and Modudism (Maulana Modudi was the founder of Jamaat in Bangladesh) and they encourage distortions of Quran and Sunna and are actually enemies of Islam. In 2013 itself, a local human rights organisation marshaled documentary evidence to establish that Jamaat-Shibir were responsible for 276 major attacks which claimed 492 lives including those of 15 police men, injuring 2,200. 

Though JMB’s birth is shrouded in mystery, but several JMB activists have been convicted for a ten year jail term January this year for their involvement in several bomb explosions in 2005.  Despite being allies, several leaders of the BNP including some of their MPs had alleged that Jamaat had actively connived with JMB.  They also firmly state that Jamaat has a direct role in furthering extremism in Bangladesh.  It is also pertinent that JMB openly claims to be the local IS affiliate. 

The enquiry into Gulshan killings is at its primary stage.  But even then, the official investigators are denying possibilities of links with international groups.  But there is a difference.  The series of secret assassinations were carried out by medieval methods using crude weapons. But this time, the theatre of extremist action happens to be the diplomatic nerve centre of Dhaka. The restaurant was a regular haunt of foreign tourists, international diplomats and the social elite of Dhaka.  Prime Minister Hasina has claimed that the terrorists were trying to undermine the international credibility of the Bangladesh government, implying a handiwork of the internal opposition.

However, the socio-economic profile of the perpetrators has raised serious questions.  Most of them belong to upper middle class families having connections with power centres.  One of them is reported to be the son of a top Awami League leader.  That they were prompted by concerns of insecurity or unemployment is difficult to digest. Most of them were also educated in elite institutions in Bangladesh and abroad.  Therefore, nothing but ideological indoctrination can explain their involvement.  Who motivated them?  Who   masterminded these efforts in Dhaka?  Only a transparent and non-partisan enquiry can bring out the truth.  But Awami League cannot just evade responsibility by invoking their past legacy. 

It is premature to pose this question; because millions of Bangladeshis proudly bear the glorious legacy of their freedom struggle in fighting Islamic nationalism.  Wide sections of religious Maulanas and Ulemas are opposed to Wahabism, Salafism and Modudism.   They firmly see these ideologies as inimical to Islam.  These democratic sections are also firmly opposed to integrate Bangladesh as part of the hegemonic and totalitarian Islamic State.  Even the institutions have stood up to the fundamentalist challenge.  In 2013, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh had opined that Jamaat is illegal and had debarred them from participating in elections.  Even at the popular level, Jamaat has never ever recorded more than 4 percent of popular votes in electoral history.

But the question is not merely of elections.  The struggle against fundamentalism is multi-dimensional; administrative political and, most importantly, ideological.  And, it is imperative to be carried out with unyielding consistency. Without integrating all these elements, the new State born in 1971 will inevitably move towards catastrophe.  The edge of the abyss is visible!  Unless the Awami League is actively engaged in defeating the obnoxious designs of politicising Islam, they cannot evade the responsibility of such a disastrous consequence. 

Religious belief is a matter of the individual.  Religion is a product of the material circumstances. Danger arises when merchants of organised religion incite people towards divisive objectives for securing political power.  Without integrating the struggle to change the material circumstances to safeguard the interest of the majority of the people and the ideological prerequisite of uniting the people – success cannot come. 



The threat is knocking at the doors.  But here in India, the nature of danger is different.  Following the violence and terror in Dhaka, the Hindutva camp played by RSS can hardly conceal their glee. Social media manifests this mood of RSS acolytes; these foot soldiers hardly miss any opportunity of cynically stereotyping the Muslims. With the new found confidence in Assam, in other bordering states with substantial Muslim population, they see this as a major opportunity despite the sinister implications. 

Particularly in West Bengal, the threat is even more.  The TMC and the West Bengal government has consistently avoided the question of seriously fighting minority communalism, not to speak of several instances of appeasing these very forces. The Gulshan act of terror has naturally brought back the reference of the Khagragarh explosions right next door of Bardhaman town in central Bengal.  The area happens to be a political electoral stronghold of the TMC. But even then, the TMC had denied their complicity. And, the Modi government led NIAs charge sheet in the court has found only JMB’s involvement, failing to find any local linkage! 

This is not unsurprising; because communalism and fundamentalism have acted as Siamese twins mutually reinforcing each other.  Bengal and Assam bear the wounds of partition.  Therefore, the reverberations of Gulshan can be ignored only at our own peril.  The threat does not come from religious beliefs; but the merchants of divisiveness who invoke religious sentiments on both sides of the border. Thirst for power is threatening to tear asunder the very social fabric.  Therefore, unity of the people for resisting this evil of divisive violence assumes paramount importance.  Peace and harmony will have to be safeguarded like the apple of the eye.