Bangladesh clashes claim 35 lives
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury
DHAKA - The deaths of 35 people in clashes between law enforcement officials, supporters of Bangladesh's ruling party and an emergent group that wants to uphold the tenets of Islam have left an open wound across the country.
On May 5, Hefajat-e-Islam protesters from Chittagong, where the Islamist party originates, moved to Dhaka to blockade the capital in a bid to press a charter of 13 demands, including anti-blasphemy laws, delivered to the Bangladesh government on April 6, when they staged one of the largest protest marches in Bangladesh's history and gave May 5 as the deadline for action.
The blockade descended into chaos as Hefajat supporters, who
according to reports numbered 200,000, clashed with police and ruling Awami League and opposition activists in central Dhaka. Eye-witnesses claimed they saw Hefajat supporters and rivals using firearms, explosive cocktails and other weapons, and said that police fired shotguns and tear gas as pitched battles raged into the night.
More than 100 people have been killed in protests this year since a government tribunal investigating abuses during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan sentenced in January a leader of the main Muslim party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, to death in absentia.
The Hefajat-e-Islam emerged from the tribunal protests to counter the so-called Shahbagh movement that since February 5 has been demanding capital punishment of all war criminals from the 1971 conflict. Commentators have waived off Hefajat's repeated claims that it does not hold long-term political ambitions, and they say that its rise could harm the nation's secular foundations.
The deadly violence in Dhaka on May 5 broke out after tensions rose when Hefajat activists, who until around noon had been peacefully blockaded six entry/exit points to the capital, were given permission to hold a rally in the center of the city.
Eye-witnesses claim that as thousands of Hefajat men began to march toward Shapla Chattar, a huge sculpture at the heart of Motijheel, near the center of Dhaka, scuffles broke out in different as ruling party activists and the police obstructed them. This led to clashes that saw the use of firearms, explosive cocktails and other weapons allegedly by the Hefajat and ruling party activists. The police, who retaliated by firing shotguns and tear gas.
The Hefajat men allegedly set fire to hundreds of shops and police outposts at Motijheel as the clashes wore on. The group's core group of leaders still tried to hold a rally at Shapla Chattar after declaring that they would not move from the spot until their leader, Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, had arrived. Around 2:37 am of May 6, police and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), backed by Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) personnel, moved in on the site while firing tear gas, rubber bullets, sound grenades and shotguns at the protesters.
The 15-minute operation resulted in the arrest of many of the assembled Hefajat activists, while some fled. At that point the death toll was 13, including a police sub-inspector and three civilians. The injured numbered more than 1,000.
To try to avoid further clashes, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police imposed a ban on all rallies and protests in the city until midnight on Monday. By the evening of May 6, 22 more people had been killed as Hefajat activists fought pitched battles with law enforcers in Narayanganj, Hathazari and Bagerhat.
Fifteen of the victims, including two policemen and a BGB soldier, were killed in Narayanganj, six at Hathazari in Chittagong and one in Bagerhat during the ongoing battle that left more than 200 people wounded, according to the Daily Star.
Around 8 pm on Monday, police detained Hefajat secretary general Junaid Babunagari in connection with the killings of policemen and the violence. Around the same time, the Hefajat chief Shafi landed in Chittagong from Dhaka. Police earlier in the day had held two meetings with Shafi to ask him to leave Dhaka or face arrest.
State Minister for Home Affairs Shamsul Hoque Tuku, visiting battle-torn Dhaka's Paltan area and the national Baitul Mokarram mosque in Motijheel on Monday, was quoted by bdnews24.com as saying, "Those who had lent support to Hefajat are responsible for the violence. Actions will be taken against them too."
None of Hefajat's leaders were available to comment. A week earlier, Moinuddin Ruhi, joint secretary of Hefajat-e-Islam, told Asia Times Online that the organization's activists had never taken part in violent incidents, either prior to or after their long march on April 6.
In a May 6 statement about the security forces' role in clashes on Monday morning, Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) cited "unverified information" they had received that "a huge number of lives have already been lost. Numerous victims have been shot at close range by the state agencies. It appears that the international community stationed in Dhaka is fully aware of the brutal crackdown and the wanton extrajudicial execution happening within Dhaka and in the outskirts of the city."
AHRC said, "Our concern, however, is for the right of everyone to participate in protests. At all times the sacredness of the right to life must be respected."
United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called on all sides to end the violence and express their views peacefully. "The Secretary-General urges political and religious leaders to engage in constructive dialogue and help defuse the tensions," he said in a statement.
Hefajat gained strength after the Shahbagh movement picked up speed as "Jamaat's propaganda managed to penetrate the qaumi [that is, private, rather than state-regulated) madrassas at the grassroots," according to Konka Karim, a popular columnist of the New Age daily in Dhaka, Fabricated and some actual posts by bloggers have hurt "religious sentiments" of these madrassa students and the rural people, driving them toward Hefajat as "people at the grassroots in Bangladesh do not have any particular political belief".
Political analyst Farhad Mazhar, managing director of UBINIG, a non-government organization concerned with the promotion of social rights in Bangladesh, pointed out last week that the Shahbagh movement is a "contradiction between the rural and urban people".
"The grassroots people are possibly considering that Shahbagh is just demanding the lynching of some people, rather than seeking justice for crimes committed," he said. As "democracy has been denied to the masses of Bangladesh by major political parties", they are thus looking for alternatives," he added.
The Hefajat-e-Islam's 13-point charter declared at the April 6 gathering at Dhaka included a request for an anti-blasphemy law, a demand that the government take measures against self-proclaimed atheist bloggers of the Shahbagh movement, a call for a ban on the free mixing of males and females. It called on the government to officially declare Ahmadiyyas (members of an Islamic reform group dating from the late 19th century) as non-Muslims, and a demand that the government cancel its women's and education policies.
It also demanded that the government put a stop to "anti-Islamic" activities by NGOs across the country and for all arrested Islamic scholars and madrasa students to be freed.
Although immediately after the rally in Dhaka last month Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir thanked Hefajat for holding a peaceful program while assuring them that the government would consider their demands, there were allegations of violent incidents perpetrated by activists during the day.
A female journalist, assigned to cover the gathering, was assaulted by Hefajat activists. A few hours later, a group allegedly swooped on Shahbagh protesters three kilometers away from the Shapla Chattar, before being chased off with the help of police. Last month, Hefajat was also allegedly involved in clashes with Awami League activists in Fatikchhari, Chittagong, that resulted in the deaths of three people.
When asked about these incidents, Hefajat spokesman Moinuddin Ruhi on April 21 said Asia Times Online that Hefajat was not involved in any violent incidents in the past few months. He added that his organization has "no political ambition" and that it did not defend Jamaat for the 1971 war atrocities.
"We are for Islam and against any unreligious activities in society. No matter who is in power, we want the government to maintain a situation in the society under which practicing Muslims can survive with their faith and basic rights," he said then.
In a bid to take advantage of the situation, the Bangladesh National Party-led alliance, the 18-party political opposition in Bangladesh, on Monday evening announced a two-day nationwide strike from Wednesday morning to protest against the deaths in Dhaka.
Likening the law enforcers' actions to foil Hefajat's sit-in at Motijheel on Sunday night to the genocide committed by Pakistani occupation forces in 1971, the alliance said in a statement read out by senior BNP leader MK Anwar, "It is a recurrence of the genocide that took place on the black night of March 25, 1971 and it surpasses the crimes against humanity committed during the country's liberation war."
BNP vice-chairman Sadek Hossain Khoka alleged at the press conference that more than 1,000 Hefajat men had been killed and their bodies were concealed.
Earlier, former Communist Party Bangladesh (CPB) president Monjurul Ahsan Khan told Asia Times Online that such "fundamentalist forces" like Hefajat had gained strength over the decades in Bangladesh as the two main political parties of the Awami League (AL) and BNP had always encouraged and allied with religious political parties.
"BNP is still allied to Jamaat, which had opposed the war of independence in 1971. AL had time and again tried to reach an understanding with Jamaat and that process is still underway," he said. "Taking advantage of these and the religious majority in the nation, religious parties like Hefajat are gaining popularity."
Khan said he hoped that secularism would prevail and Hefajat or any other religious political parties would fail to gain significant political strength as "Bangladesh's people will never support fundamentalism".
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.
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