It’s difficult to think of the bunch of terrorists glorying in the bombastic title “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” entrenched on the banks of the Padma river. Despite a sprinkling of foreign volunteers, ISIL cadres are Arabs; even the French, Belgian and German citizens responsible for the November 13 Paris massacre were Arabs. The Padma is quintessentially Bengali. Nowadays, of course, it’s Muslim Bengali, but does religion alone make a vital cultural difference? Would something that is impossible in West Bengal because the Indian state is secular and multicultural be possible in Bangladesh because it is predominantly Islamic?
The effect of religion on identity is something to be pondered on. But if ISIL really has made substantial inroads in Bangladesh, that means that despite the trials and hangings and the International Crimes Tribunal Sheikh Hasina Wazed set up in 2010, her Awami League government is astonishingly and criminally incompetent. Although the Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion recently caught six men, including a Bangladeshi-born Pakistani national, possible links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Bangladeshi extremists may not have been fully explored and exposed.
THE tendency to see Al-Qaeda where we should look for social, economic and political grievances recalls the 1945 joke of Monaco cabling Paris urgently to send some Communists as the principality would not otherwise qualify for American Marshall Aid.
The visit to Kolkata last week of Sharad Kumar, the new National Investigating Agency chief, may have had something to do with this suspected nexus, and suggestions of a conspiracy to flood this country with fake bank notes and false passports. There are signs of a dangerous drift towards obscurantism aided by domestic politics in both Bangladesh and India. Both countries must tread carefully to avoid a disastrous polarisation that could engulf the subcontinent in a gory replay of the horrors of partition. Posturing doesn’t help. The tendency to see Al-Qaeda where we should look for social, economic and political grievances recalls the 1945 joke of Monaco cabling Paris urgently to send some Communists as the principality would not otherwise qualify for American Marshall Aid. Tariq Ali probably overstates matters when arguing that Palestinian independence would put an end to West Asian militancy but the argument is not altogether without merit. We must admit it is also possible for a Kashmiri to take up the gun to fight for independence or even union with Pakistan – however misguided these causes might be – without joining Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIL or another jihadist outfit.
The tendency is to see all violence by Muslims as manifestations of a network straddling the Islamic ummah. This is to overlook Pakistan’s own dilemma with thousands of troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and thousands more deployed against Baluchis from Quetta or to control Mojahirs in Karachi. The mystery of the October 2, 2014 blast at Khagragarh in West Bengal’s Burdwan district has not yet been solved. Were the two men who were killed home-grown Indian Mujahideen terrorists or Pakistani or Bangladeshi agents? The NIA arrested a man who was described as a close aide of the suspected Khagragarh blast mastermind for allegedly running a recruitment and training camp for the proscribed terror outfit, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), from a madrasa in Mukimnagar in Murshidabad district, where a cache of weapons was also found.
Does this mean that West Bengal’s 25 million Muslims (27 per cent of the state’s population) are disaffected or a security threat? Does it indicate that Bangladesh’s 150 million Muslims pose a permanent danger to the surrounding Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram? Some detected the hand of pan-Islamic fundamentalism in the Khagragarh explosions. An even more sinister link was suspected in 2004 when the Bangladesh coast guard in Chittagong captured 10 trucks loaded with arms and ammunition. Motiur Rahman Nizami, then a cabinet minister in Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government, was blamed. So was her parliamentary affairs adviser, Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, who was hanged recently after being found guilty of 1971war crimes in a trial whose legitimacy has been questioned. The implication in 2004 was that the weapons were for rebel groups in north-east India, and that international jihadists were encouraging Bangladeshi extremists to destabilise this country.
ISIL has done its best to sustain that sinister reputation. It boasts of murdering an Italian and a Japanese visitor to Bangladesh and of two attacks on Shia Muslims (on a procession commemorating the Ashura holiday and on a mosque) as well as a deadly assault on a police checkpoint near Dhaka. These were followed by an article last month in Dabiq, an ISIL magazine, promising to take the fight deep into Bengal (presumably Bangladesh) and warning, “The soldiers of the Khilafah will continue to rise and expand in Bengal and their actions will continue.” The further claim that Bangladeshi jihadists were rallying behind a new “regional leader to answer the order from the Islamic State leadership” revived fears about the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) whose leader, Siddique ul-Islam (called “Bangla Bhai” by his followers), was hanged in 2007 along with five others.
The JMJB, suspected of links to Al-Qaeda, was an offspring of the banned JMB which claimed responsibility in 2004 when some 500 bomb explosions occurred at 300 locations in 63 out of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. The JMJB could well be the JMB’s alter ego, just as both might owe their existence to the Jamaat-e-Islami which was the BNP’s coalition partner during Khaleda Zia’s prime ministership. They are committed to an Islamic state based on the Sharia and to liquidating the Purbo Banglar Communist Party as much for its political ideology as its determinedly secular outlook. As if this were not ominous enough, an India-specific jihadist outfit called Ansar-ut Tawheed fi Bilad al-Hind seems to have taken over ISIL’s online propaganda in Bengali since September last year.
However, a distinction must be drawn between local rebelliousness and global terrorism. No outside terrorist was responsible for murdering Wazed’s parents, brothers and other relatives in 1975. Nor is it realistic to treat communal sentiment as exclusive to only the BNP and its allies. Zia’s party may patronise the JMJB and JMB, and some of its supporters might well look to ISIL for inspiration. But if there hadn’t been a bedrock of communalism in Bangladeshi society – even in the Awami League – Wazed would long ago have been able to undo Ziaur Rahman’s constitutional changes including starting parliamentary sessions with the salutation “Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim” (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful); Articles 8(1) and 8(1A) proclaiming “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”; redefining socialism as “economic and social justice”; and Article 25(2) promising that “the state shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity”.
Zia thought these changes necessary to placate Bangladeshi orthodoxy. Wazed dare not prove him wrong. However, the extremist activists are probably still few in number. The surest way of adding to them is to adopt policies that look like victimising people of other political persuasions. Like India, Bangladesh needs an inclusive pluralistic society. There are many threats to that ideal state: one is to imagine ISIL under every bed.