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Bangla chickens home to roost

The history of Bangladesh is a cautionary tale for leaders in South Asia who cannot assess long-term costs to their nations in their haste to secure short-term partisan gains.

From the euphoria and hope that Liberation brought in 1971, this benighted country has plummeted into a darkness that can only be explained by the utter folly and blindness of its leadership.

34 years after its traumatic birth, Bangladesh is already a country without a future, captive to the very forces who inflicted one of the greatest genocides in the regions history on its hapless people.

Today, the Islamists, led by the Jamaat-e-Islami, who collaborated with Pakistan in the atrocities of 1971, as well as Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, are again firmly entrenched in the country's politics, its Government, and crucially in its institutions of education and mass culture.

The coordinated series of 459 explosions within a single hour across 63 of Bangladesh's 64 districts on August 18, 2005, was little more than the visible tip of the menacing iceberg that threatens this luckless country. All societies that foster terrorism have eventually themselves fallen prey to this scourge.

Bangladesh cannot be an exception, though the country's political leadership has sought to cover up the realities of state complicity with flat denials of state support to extremism and terror, even as they have sought to mask the steady spiral towards thuggish Islamist extremism, lawlessness and disorder.

Indeed, the falsification has gone well beyond the state. A wide range of international institutions and foreign Governments have contributed directly to the deception, speaking in glowing terms of Bangladesh's arguable 'successes' in development, in health sector reforms, in population control, and in non-governmental sector operations, all of which have been projected as examples for other developing countries to follow.

The truth of the comprehensive political mischief and administrative mismanagement in Bangladesh has systematically been brushed under the carpet. This truth is now becoming increasingly difficult to conceal, even in the most prejudiced circles, and despite the state's relentless policy of suppression of the national Press and of denial of access to the international media.

It is significant in this context that an independent study carried out by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, which drew up a listing of 60 of the world's failed and failing states on the basis of twelve specific "indicators of instability", placed Bangladesh at the 17th position, among the 20 'critical' states that are most at risk.

There is, unfortunately, no evidence of any visible transformation in the trajectory of politics or of the orientation of the state in Bangladesh, despite the country's growing difficulties. Indeed, the multiple blasts of August 18 demonstrate a continuation of the same perverse politics that has long undermined the country's stability and future.

The blasts have been blamed on the Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), an armed faction closely linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami - a partner in the ruling coalition - and to the notorious Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and its brutish 'commander' Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai (in fact, the 'link' with the JMJB is more than just that - the two organisations are virtually inseparable and Bangla Bhai also heads the military operations of the JMB).

Some 300 arrests have reportedly already occurred, mostly of lower level activists of the JMB, though the police are still on the lookout for the planners and leaders. If this suggests that the Government is finally beginning to take the threat of such extremist Islamist groups seriously, a closer scrutiny of reactions would tend to dilute such a conviction.

Already, several leaders of the ruling coalition - including some from Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's ostensibly secular Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have sought to shift the blame to the Awami League. Thus, despite police disclosures regarding arrests of JMB cadres and confirmation of their involvement in the bombings during interrogations, the Deputy Minister for Land, Ruhul Quddus Talukder, a BNP Member of Parliament, declared, "I don't think they (the JMB) have such a strong network. Awami League must have done this, using fake leaflets, to destroy Bangladesh's image internationally."

There is a half-truth hidden in this claim - the JMB does not, in fact, have "such a strong network" across the country, and its activities in the past have largely been restricted to North and West Bangladesh. There is, consequently, reason to believe that some other organisation or organisations have also been involved in orchestrating the nationwide blasts.

While it is premature, at this stage, to make a definitive assertion on the specific identities of such organisations - and, given Bangladesh's past record, the truth may never, in fact, see light - it is useful to look at the facts themselves.

The first of these is, as some Bangladeshi sources have pointed out, that most of the 33 Islamist extremist organisations and political parties in the country (53 according to some other estimates) do not recognise each other and do not have - individually or in concert - a countrywide operational network. A synchronised operation of this scale, thoroughness and dispersal would, consequently, require a single and centralized coordinating agency.

It is useful, within this context - with a measure of caution given the polarised and partisan nature of the discourse in Bangladesh - to note the Awami League President and former Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina's assertion that the explosions were carried out under protection of the BNP-Jamaat-led alliance Government and direct supervision of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Sheikh Hasina claimed further that the "Jamaat has been supervising activities of various terrorist groups in the country for a long time."

The Government's responses to JMB and JMJB terrorism in the past have, moreover, been extremely suspect. Despite mounting evidence of their activities, state agencies continuously denied the very existence of these entities until fairly recently. Indeed, on January 26, 2005, State Minister for Home, Lutfozzaman Babar, in the wake of a spate of disclosures relating to JMJB extremist activities, had declared emphatically, "We don't know officially about the existence of the JMJB. Only some so-called newspapers are publishing reports on it." Less than a month later, on February 23, 2005, under extraordinary pressure from Western donor countries who have been crucial in keeping the fragile Bangladeshi economy afloat, the Government announced a ban on both the JMB and JMJB, organisations of whose existence it was ostensibly unaware! However, the ban is widely acknowledged to have had little impact.

Some arrests were, of course, made, but most of the arrested leaders and cadres were shortly released. Even in cases where cadres were arrested in connection with acts of terrorism, after 'encounters', or in connection with the manufacture and storage of explosives, Islamist militants from these groups have been routinely released.

It appears that the ruling coalition continues to believe that it can 'manage' and orchestrate Islamist extremism and terror to serve its own partisan political and electoral objectives - and this, indeed, may well be the source and motive for the current spate of countrywide bombings. In this belief, Bangladeshi politicians are not alone. The leadership in Pakistan has long travelled this path, but is now discovering that the chickens, eventually, come home to roost.

At least some political parties in India have also flirted with extremist creeds and organisations for transient political gain - and despite the disastrous experience of other countries that have done so, the lessons have still not been learned.

It appears that every society has to go through its own learning process - a process, in the case of terrorism, that is the most destructive of the human soul, of the spirit of man, and of society.

(Published in The Pioneer, August 20, 2005)





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