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    South Asia
     Mar 2, 2005
Bangladesh steps out of denial cocoon
By Bibhu Prasad Routray

On February 24, Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia instructed the Home Ministry and intelligence agencies to "root out" Islamist militants, their hideouts and subversive activities. She also decided in principle to set up an additional bench at the High Court to ensure the speedy trial of cases involving subversive acts.

The orders came after the government decided to ban the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), accusing them of a large number of bomb attacks and killings in recent times. A press note to that effect read: "The government notices with concern that two organizations called Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Jama'atul Mujahideen have been carrying out a series of murders, robberies, bomb attacks, threats and various kinds of terrorist acts causing deaths to peace-loving people and destruction of property. Under the circumstances, the government announces enforcement of ban on all activities of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Jama'atul Muhjahideen."

Bangladesh's English-language The Daily Star on February 24 described the government decision to proscribe the JMJB as a case of Dhaka "eating [its] own words". Only a month earlier, State Minister for Home Lutfozzaman Babar had emphatically denied the existence of the JMJB and said on January 26, "We don't know officially about the existence of the JMJB. Only some so-called newspapers are publishing reports on it. We don't have their constitution in our record." Babar was reacting to a spate of reports documenting the activities of the JMJB and evidence of its linkages with at least a section of the political establishment and administration.

The past week has witnessed several raids on the JMJB and JMB establishments across the country and the arrests of key leaders and activists. Police personnel arrested a professor of Arabic at Rajshahi University, Dr Muhammad Asadullah al-Ghalib, chief of the Islamist organization, Ahle Hadith Andolon Bangladesh (AHAB), and three of his close associates on February 23. On the same day, three JMB operatives in Gaibandha and two in Rangpur, as well as two JMJB activists in Rajshahi were also arrested in a police crackdown in the northern parts of the country. Eleven JMB activists were arrested from different places in the Dinajpur and Thakurgaon districts on February 24. On February 25, two JMB cadres Qaree Nazrul, a teacher at the Shibganj Hajardighi Islamia Madrassa (Islamic school), and Nurul Islam, a teacher at Chandpur Dakhil Madrassa, were arrested from Shibganj in the Chapai Nawabganj district.

The current flurry of governmental activism (the present regime has largely been seen as a benefactor or at least a mute spectator to the steady growth of Islamist radicalism in the country) was preceded by a well documented publication by the opposition Awami League (AL), titled "Growing fanaticism and extremism in Bangladesh: Shades of Taliban". Released on February 13, the 74-page document, apart from its inherent political import, was significant on three grounds.

It marked a widening of the divide in the polarized politics of the two primary political parties in the country. The AL has now taken its "war" with the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to an international audience. The AL has enormously increased pressure on the BNP-led regime to respond to mounting Islamist extremist activities in the country.

It is one of the first detailed documents by an "internal" source in Bangladesh, of systemic acts of State-tolerated terror, which have been repeatedly highlighted by a number of foreign news agencies and organizations, including SAIR, over the past years.

The AL report documents at least 34 bomb blasts between 1999 and February 2005, in which 164 persons have been killed and 1,735 people have been injured. While the magnitude of attacks and casualties recorded would count for little in a country with Bangladesh's profile, a pattern appears to be developing. The bomb attacks have mixed in with a much wider campaign of intimidation, violence and terror, even as the number of bombings demonstrates rising trends. An analysis of the bombing incidents in the AL report show that, while there were just 13 bomb attacks between 1999 and 2003, the year 2004 alone witnessed 13 such attacks, and there have been another eight within the first two months of 2005.

With implicit patronage from the current regime, or a benign disregard of their activities, the Islamist forces in the country, have systematically targeted opposition political parties like the AL, as well as minorities such as the Ahmadiyyas and Hindus, progressives and intellectuals. The January 27 grenade attack at Boidder Bazar in Habiganj district, in which former finance minister and AL parliamentarian, S Kibria was killed, appears to have breached the limits of the AL's patience, provoking the new report. The AL had witnessed a similar attack at a rally addressed by its chief and former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, on August 21, 2004 in Dhaka. Eight of the 34 bomb attacks documented by the AL report have targeted the AL; nine were detonated during cultural functions such as jatras and fairs; and five occurred at religious shrines, including the one in the shrine of Hazrat Shahjalal in Sylhet on May 21, 2004, in which the British High Commissioner was injured. The AL report notes, "The selective and deliberate targeting of AL and the like-minded secular and progressive forces, cultural organizations, religious minority groups and entertainment places such as movie halls or local fairs indicates a clear pattern that clearly unmasks the identity of perpetrators of such crimes and their ideology."

Does recent action by the government mean that Bangladesh is now on a changed track? There has been wide speculation that the government's steps were precipitated by pressure from Western donor agencies and diplomatic circles, provoking State Minister for Home Babar to deny any foreign pressure. Babar told the British Broadcasting Corporation's Bangla service on February 23, "We did not receive any international pressure to ban them. The government has done it out of its sense of responsibility." Nevertheless, this sudden "sense of responsibility" does appear to have been excited by mounting external pressures and perceptions, including the hard stand taken by the European Union on the regime's "apathy in tackling the situation" and the belief that Bangladesh's slide toward a fundamentalist regime continues unabated. Although the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank appear to have taken a softer stand, lauding Bangladesh for its "impressive performance" in many social sectors, the overall impression is that the situation in the country has been deteriorating fast and the government has failed to improve governance. Bangladesh's development partners rounded off a meeting at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on February 25, 2003, with an expression of concern regarding deteriorating governance, and deciding to keep a close watch on how the government tackles the rise of fundamentalist militancy and improves the overall scenario of governance. A joint statement issued at the end of the meet stated, "The participants, by consensus, expressed serious concern at the deterioration of the governance situation in Bangladesh, especially the situation of law and order, political violence including recent bombings, and the climate of impunity."

Despite the intensity of external pressure, the early "positive" signs could be deceptive. Amidst the prime minister and the president's call for strong concerted action against Islamist fundamentalism in the country, there are already indications that the current phase of activism might not last long. The Daily Star on February 26 reported that, on February 24, a day after the government ban on the JMJB, 50 cadres of the outfit gathered in a meeting at the house of an Islamist fundamentalist leader in Bhabaniganj Bazar. In Bagmara, JMJB leaders in many areas continued to organize their fellow workers. Among them were JMJB Bagmara unit president, Lutfar Rahman, a professor at Atrai Mollah Azad Memorial College; Sakoa college teacher Shahidullah; Bhabaniganj college teachers Abed Ali, Abdur Razzak and Kalimuddin; Ibrahim of Jhikra and Akkas of Goalkandi. Similarly, even three days after the arrest of the AHAB amir (chief) Dr Muhammad Asadullah Al Galib and his three top aides, police had not arrested any of Galib's known associates. Galib is the suspected kingpin of Islamist militants in the western region, and a large number of documents in his office and the various AHAB-run madrassas were left untouched by the Government at the time of, and after, his arrest. On another front, the Independent reported on February 26 that all the accused in the April 2, 2004 Chittagong arms recovery case, billed as the biggest in the country's history, had been released on bail.

The BNP is bound to find itself in an unenviable position once its Islamist alliance partners in the coalition government begin to act to protect their "interests". On February 24, Fazlul Haque Amini, chairman of a faction of the Islami Oikyo Jote (IOJ), warned at a public meeting in Mymensingh, "We'll sharply react if any Islamic leader falls victim to the ongoing operation." He also said that there was a conspiracy to prevent an Islamic revolution in the name of taming the Islamist militants, "But the conspirators will not succeed." On the same day, Maulana Abdur Rob Yousufi, secretary general of another faction of the IOJ, opposed the ban on the JMJB and JMB, declaring, "There's no Islamic militant organization in the country". It is a matter of time before such statements are translated into political action. It remains to be seen whether the BNP will choose to alienate its alliance partners to secure greater appreciation and support from the outside world.
Bibhu Prasad Routray, Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management.

(Published with permission from the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal)

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