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Terrorism and Fundamentalism Haunt Bangladesh

The attempt at a coup last December by a group of religious extremist minded middle level army officers, as revealed by Bangladesh army spokesman Brig. Gen. Masud Razzak on January 19, reminds one of those days of BNP-Jamat-e-Islami (JEI) rule between 2001 and 2006. The ogre is still alive and kicking, and is being nourished by its old mentors within and outside the country.

When Awami League (AL) leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed took over the Prime Ministership of the country in December 2008 after winning the general election with a landslide vote, she pledged to root out terrorism from Bangladesh, and try the 1971 war criminals who had colluded with the West Pakistani occupying army and committed crimes against humanity. She honoured her pledge, but the forces of fundamentalism and terrorism had taken roots so deep, that to do a good job will take more time. Sk. Hasina and her government are highly constrained. She cleansed the higher levels in the armed forces, the intelligence agencies, the police and even the bureaucracy. But she has to run a country and needs people. A thorough clean up could not be enacted. There are also the hidden Trojan Horses. It was estimated around 2005 that 60 percent of the armed forces, from soldier level to low to middle ranked officers were ideological and political followers of the BNP and the JEI. During the BNP-JEI rule text books for schools were distorted, the vector of education was largely oriented to Islamization and Madrassas rose in power.

Eminent scholars believe there were around 125 fundamentalist/terrorist organizations in the country. According to former Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shafi Sami, with financial and technical assistance from Al Qaeda, the fundamentalists in Bangladesh had trained around 50,000 cadres by 2004-05. Funds also flowed in from Saudi and Kuwaiti NGOs as well as Pakistan. The large network remains largely intact, and fund inflows continue (apart from domestic collections). This is a formidable challenge for democracy and secularism, and also for the fundamental human rights for women including education and holding jobs.

The Bangladesh army briefing touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The problem must be more formidable. Otherwise, it would not have taken the army almost a month to make the incident public, especially since a military court of inquiry was set up on December 28.

According to official information, two retired army officers – Lt. Col. Ehsan Yusuf and Maj. Zakir – have been arrested and are undergoing interrogation. Around 14 to 16 serving officers are under investigation and are probably in army custody. One serving officer, Maj. Zia-ul-Haq, who was most active, is absconding. Two senior officers, Maj. Gen, Kamruzzaman of Comilla Cantonment, and Brig. Gen. Tariq of 9 Corps, Savar, are under house arrest.

While Maj. Zia was the moving spirit inside Bangladesh, he was in close touch with a Bangladeshi expatriate, Ishaq Ahmed, who probably lives in Hong Kong. Conversations between Zia and Ishaq intercepted by the army leads to the assumption that he was the coordinator for a much bigger group abroad who were directing the coup. The conspiracy becomes curiouser with some public activities being closely analysed now. The ‘Amar Desh’, a vernacular daily known to be an undeclared mouthpiece of the BNP and also close to the JEI, published a report on January 03, saying middle level officers were bringing a change in the army. On January 08, the banned terrorist outfit the Hizbut Tehrir, distributed leaflets with incendiary contents from the absconding Zia’s Face Book. On January 09, addressing a political gathering in Chittagong, Begum Khaleda Zia said that “army officers were going missing”.

Looked at separately, these statements and leafleteering may seem political propaganda with the country having moved into election mode. Read together, and with the background that may have been known to all the three concerned, the intent was to create confusion among the armed forces personnel. In fact, according to reports, deliberations had already started within the armed personnel as to what was happening. It appears that faced with the fact that plan-1 on the coup had been discovered, the BNP and the JEI tried to provoke confusion in the army to enable their hidden assets to strike. Once that happened, the huge extremist forces could come out on the streets and capture power.

It is reported that the arrested coup plotters have confessed they planned to overthrow the government because of its anti-Islamic policies, pro-India stance and establish an Islamic state of Bangladesh-like an Islamic Emirate of Bangladesh. They also perceived that the Indian agency, the RAW, had won over senior army officers and others, and was on the way to Sikkimise Bangladesh. To give another spin, the JEI mouthpiece the daily “Naya Diganta” published a report that the coup plot was a RAW operation. It is interesting to note here that neither the JEI nor its two print mouth pieces and its television channel Diganta TV, went anywhere remotely close to the coup issue till it was officially announced. It was the BNP which waded in somewhat, but without due diligence. The attempt to overthrow the AL-led government is not surprising at all. It has embarked on fair and transparent legal process that the BNP and JEI and their Islamist / terrorist bastion feared.

Begum Khaleda Zia was charged a week earlier for a corruption case (during her tenure as Prime Minister) from which she will find it difficult to wriggle out. Her two sons Tareque Rehman and Arafat Rehman face several cases of corruption. The 1971 war crimes trial is being heard by a special tribunal. All the top leaders including former Amir Prof. Golam Azam of JEI who led the program against Bangladeshi civilians including old men, women and children are under arrest. There is hard evidence against them including files left by the Pakistani army when they surrendered.

Both BNP and JEI leaders are being investigated for other crimes including attempt to murder, political murder, extremism and terrorism. In the 2004 illegal arms haul case in Chittagong, not only have top BNP and JEI leaders and top intelligence officers been indicted, but Pakistan’s ISI’s direct involvement has been established. The ten-truck loads of arms imported from China were meant for the ULFA insurgents in Assam, India. In the case, the then NSI Chief got personally involved as very senior leaders of the BNP/JEI were participants. The objective was to seriously destabilize north-east India, mainly a Pakistani objective shared by the Bangladeshis in power then.

The culmination of these cases can decimate the BNP and the JEI, and the government has put these cases on the fast track. The Chinese government may deny any involvement in the armed shipment, but that is to be expected. It is open knowledge now that all these years the ULFA and Naga separatist leaders at least have been guests of the Chinese agencies. But that is another matter.

For Pakistan’s Army and the ISI, conviction of the Bangladeshi culprits would be a big setback. They are not unduly perturbed with their names and reputation being sullied. They have no reputation left any way. But their anti-India operations through Bangladesh could be severely disrupted.

During the BNP-JEI rule, the unofficial understanding was to revert Bangladesh as an unofficial federation of Pakistan. The dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 with India’s assistance remains a dishonour in their minds, which must be avenged somehow. The biggest obstacle that Pakistan and their Bangladesh acolytes face is Sk. Hasina. She is then living symbol of Pakistan’s break up and the birth of Bangladesh. Her father, Sk. Mujibur Rahman, who is the architect of Bangladesh, was assassinated on August 15, 1975 by the same combination of forces. She is secular, democratic and perceived pro-India. She must be eliminated. After that, the AL can be sabotaged.

Two attempts on Sk. Hasina’s life were made, in 2001 and 2004. The second attempt killed several AL leaders, but Sk. Hasina escaped with a permanent injury. The main perpetrator, Mufti Abdul Hannan, commander of the now banned Harkat-ul-Jehad Al-Islami (HUJI) Bangladesh, has since surrendered. He confessed that the then Minister of State for Home Affairs, Lutfuzzaman Babar, had promised him protection. Hannan is under trial. It is, therefore, not surprising, that a section of the Bangladesh Rifles revolted in March, 2009, within three months of the AL-led government coming to power. They killed 70 Bangladeshi officers, in some cases their families, at the Pilkhana headquarters of the BDR. Sk. Hasina astutely controlled the situation, otherwise there would have been a blood bath. Incidentally, a few days before this incident, Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari, had sent a personal emissary to Dhaka to plead against opening of the 1971 war crimes trial which involved the names of several high ranking Pakistani army officers posted in Bangladesh in 1971. Sk. Hasina declined the Pakistani request.

The coup attempt is not going to adversely affect the relations between the governments of India and Bangladesh. In fact, this is the time for the two governments to work even closer together and enhance security relations. The safety and security of Sk. Hasina and her family is foremost. That does not mean that India station security personnel in Bangladesh. That would be counter-productive. People of no country welcome foreign forces on their soil, no matter what the reason may be. The people of Bangladesh are proud, and highly sensitive about their sovereignty. But on the other hand, closer interactions between the armed forces of Bangladesh and India would be more desirable to cement security ties. This episode should send a signal to the other countries of the subcontinent that cherish democracy and secularism, but yet have fears.

Western countries, especially the USA, must take a lesson here. The JEI is not a tolerant political-Islamic party that Washington or Langley can put up as a symbol for their support to liberal Islamic groups. This will not work. Also, cutting down the AL to size is not at all advisable, given the politics of Bangladesh.

Finally, the foiling of this plot is not an end of the threats facing a democratic and secular Bangladesh. This is just the end of one such endeavour.

There is a lesson here. The BNP-JEI government had used terrorist groups like the Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), its affiliate JMJB, HUJI, Khatme Nobuwat others as political assets. In 2005, Bangladesh came close to being declared a state sponsor of terrorism, with even Al Qeda cadres having visited Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong. The same political combine, the same leaders, are trying to recreate the same scenario. A terrorist and fundamentalist Bangladesh spewing out these elements is just not acceptable.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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