By Anirban Ganguly
July 1, 2013
There is something sinister brewing in the politics of Bangladesh. But one is not sure whether the ever-clueless UPA-II is keeping a close watch on the evolving situation in that country. The recently concluded June 16 election to four city corporations saw the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) make inroads and come out victorious in four city corporations – Rajsahi, Khulna, Barisal and Sylhet.
With the General Election in Bangladesh about six months away, the regrouping and grassroots consolidation of the BNP is a cause for concern for Sheikh Hasina and for India as well. The political reasons for such a victory has already been analysed, observers feel that a raging internal feud at all levels within the Awami League (AL), a disconnect between its central leaders and political workers at the grassroots and the BNP’s united show along with its other allies are some of the factors that have led to the AL’s civic debacle. It has been said that Hasina, because of the series of challenges she has had to continuously grapple with, has become dependent on a coterie of leaders and bureaucrats and the Army and has virtually cut herself off from the vast ‘middle class civil society.’ The recent civic losses is a result of this disconnect and feuding.
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The AL has to seriously try and get its house in order before the next elections if it wishes to emerge as a genuine credible counter-weight to a seemingly resurgent BNP and more importantly to a rising tide of Islamic extremism in the country. The BNP’s victory, in an otherwise normal political climate, would have been seen as just another routine seesaw effect in Bangladesh politics. But then, Bangladesh’s political climate is hardly ever stable and rarely normal. The present BNP victory has come about after huge efforts were made by the new Islamist force in Bangladesh, the Hefazat e Islam. Its calls of “Islam being in danger” and “death for the atheist bloggers” were the blaring keynotes of this election campaign. In fact, as noted Bangladeshi historian and political commentator Muntasir Mamun has observed, a new political equation, the He-Ja-Bi (Hefazat e Islam-Jamaat-BNP) has begun to rise on the Bangladeshi political firmament signifying an era of greater religious unrest and political instability.
The Jamaat, now incapacitated by the series of war crimes charges against its leaders has outsourced the work of solidifying political Islam in Bangladesh to the Hefazat e Islam. The outfit, which became publicly active between 2010 and 2011 and has always campaigned for an Islamic Bangladesh, gave a call this May in support of the Jamaat leaders who were sentenced to death. Its call to topple the Hasina Government had seen a huge congregation in the first week of May in Dhaka bringing the city to a standstill and unleashing violence that left scores dead, including a large number of security men.
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The mayhem and disturbances that the Hefazat e Islam militia perpetrated has been compared to the 1975 killing of Bangabandhu and the 2004 grenade attack on the AL public meeting in the heart of Dhaka that killed a number of senior leaders of the party. Interestingly, during its Dhaka siege, the Hefazat e Islam cadres ransacked and burnt a number of shops selling religious ware near the Baitul Muqarram national mosque in Dhaka. The BNP, like it did with the Jamaat, is again nurturing and legitimising a religious force which may very soon go out its control.
Like all other radical Islamist clones across the globe, the Hefazat e Islam Islam’s agenda for Bangladesh is medieval. It wants stricter blasphemy laws, segregation of sexes in public spaces and wants to ban women from working in public. A number of its leaders and preachers are declared veterans of the Afghan war. As a repeat of 2001, when a number of Taliban trained Bangladeshi Islamic radicals had returned to spread radical Islam in rural Bangladesh, this time too, the Hefazat e Islam leaders of Taliban vintage are active in spreading radicalism in the rural hinterlands. One of its slogans, unleashed during the civic elections, was the same as the one given by the now dead Bangla-Bhai, the self-styled commander of the now defunct Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), “Amra Habo Taliban, Bangla Habe Afghan” (we shall become the Taliban and Bangladesh shall become Afghanistan). The Hefazat e Islam is seen as an unabashedly pro-Pakistan outfit which seeks to generate and perpetuate internal instability in Bangladesh, such a situation serves its foreign masters well and it keeps India’s eastern neighbourhood on the boil and creates an environment that helps further incubate Islamic terror.
The Hefazat e Islam’s Islamic agenda in Bangladesh has also received support from Islamic groups in West Bengal. The political rally this March in Kolkata in support of Bangladeshi war criminals and ‘Razakars’ were an eye opener. The congregators basking in the liberal sun of Indian democracy gave a call to support the Jamaat leaders in Bangladesh and made demands that were aligned with the Hefazat e Islam’s political demands. The Government of West Bengal, by turning a blind to such developments and to the growing Islamic radicalism in the State, is in effect working to link the radicals on either side of the border and serving the core agenda of radical pan-Islamism.
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The present Indian Government thinks that it can do business with Khaleda Zia and appears not be disturbed with the civic election results. It overlooks the fact that Khaleda’s party now derives political and religious oxygen from the Islamists. It forgets how Khaleda has repeatedly fanned the flames of anti-Indian bias in Bangladesh, has presided over the anti-Hindu pogroms of 2001, recently snubbed our President by calling off a pre-arranged meeting with him in Dhaka and has repeatedly aligned herself with Pakistan and China and supported insurgent groups in India’s North-East. In short, Khaleda has symbolised and actualised Pakistan’s anti-India agenda in Bangladesh and strengthened forces that are inimical to India’s interests in the region.
This smugness of forgetfulness may cost us dear in the future, but then this Government is without a direction and without a compass, especially when it comes to handling and reading the situation in India’s neighbourhood.