What is more important is the sincerity to fight menace of terrorism: Pranab
DHAKA: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has proposed the formation of a South Asian task force to combat terrorism, in the interest of maintaining greater security for all countries in the region.
She told External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee here on Monday that terrorism and poverty were the two basic issues which had to be resolved through a regional approach. Ms. Hasina also stressed the need for establishing a durable peace in the region.
Responding to Ms. Hasina’s proposal, Mr. Mukherjee, who addressed a joint press conference with his Bangladesh counterpart, Dipu Moni, said: “So far as the concept of regional task force to fight terrorism is concerned, already certain regional and international mechanisms exist. All of us are part of U.N. Security Council resolution... to ban terrorist organisations… What is more important is the sincerity to fight against the menace of terrorism.”
Spot the difference
While counting the number of Muslim countries enjoying democracy now, a senior BJP leader on a recent Indian television chat show , failed to count Bangladesh. Barely fifteen days later, the Awami League and its allies won a landslide victory in the recent parliament elections in Bangladesh. In a world torn asunder by religious strife, there has been a tendency to see Pakistan and Bangladesh as two sides of the same coin — failed states steadily undermined by Islamic religious radicalism , that many in Washington and Delhi saw could be held together only by the army and its “moderate Islamic allies.” The election and its aftermath has proved them wrong. The Awami League-led Government has fired its first salvo in an attempt to push the Islamic radicals on the defensive — a parliament resolution for trying the “war criminals of 1971” has been unanimously passed. Begum Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was caught in a nutcracker. Voting for the proposal would upset its Islamist allies like the Jamiat-e-Islami, because most of its senior leaders would be facing the trial for collaborating with the Pakistani army in 1971 in its genocidal campaign against freedom-loving Bengalis. Opposing the resolution would undermine their nationalist credentials completely. The BNP lawmakers staged a walkout, opposing the seating arrangement in the parliament , to avoid taking a position on the resolution on the war crimes trial.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also mooted the formation of a South Asian taskforce on terror, a proposal the Jamiat-e-Islami was quick to oppose. Jamiat chief Motiur Rehman Nizami was of the view that Bangladesh should handle Terror with its own forces and not do anything to allow “foreign forces “ (read Indian) into the country. Hasina has made it clear that her government will go on an all-out offensive against “all extremist forces” in the country — meaning the Islamic radicals and perhaps the separatist groups from India’s northeast who were used against her party by the BNP government. But while police and military action is required to curb the underground radicals , something like a “war crimes trial” will help destroy the overground godfathers of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh — legitimate political parties like Jamiat e Islami who provide the overarching platform for such radical activities.
Secular , anti-fundamentalist groups like the Ekattorer Ghatak o Dalal Nirmul Committee led by the late Jahanara Imam and Shariar Kabir have been strongly campaigning for a war crimes trial since the early 1990s. Many feel Bangladesh may be pushed into civil war if this trial starts, because it will reopen the wounds of 1971. But secular intellectuals and political leaders in Bangladesh argue that a war crimes trial is the only way to permanently demolish the “evil forces of Pakistan-style Islamic radicalism.”
This is what many in Washington and Delhi never understood. Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh cannot be tackled by US Marines or drones — or for that matter by Indian surgical strikes. It has to be fought by homegrown secular forces with the unstinted backing of the international community. They never understood that Bangladesh is not Pakistan. It is a society where, even in the 2001 election that brought Begum and Jamiat to power, the Awami League remained the single largest party in terms of voteshare — 40.8 per cent. To treat Bangladesh and Pakistan as parts of the same coin just because they are Muslim nations is to treat, to use a Bengali idiom, Tagore and a bearded goat as the same because both have beards.
The tragedy of post-1971 Bangladesh is that its people have rarely been able to vote freely. After 21 years of military rule following the assassination of the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the army and its intelligence continued to manipulate elections. The Awami League managed to beat that jinx in 1996 but despite ensuring food security for the first time in Bangladesh’s recent history, it could not come back to power. In 2001, the BNP-Jamiat unleashed a terror campaign against Hindus and forced most of them to stay away from voting. With full military backing and tacit support from the interim government , the BNP-Jamiat’s violent campaign won the day for the coalition. Unlike their Bengali Communist brothers across the border, the Awami League had failed to build a party machinery to withstand terror and run the elections.
The December 2008 polls were fair and the army was non-partisan for the first time in post-1975 Bangladesh. Analyts argue that the huge induction of young voters also tilted the balance in favour of the Awami League and its version of a secular democracy. Begum Zia and her Islamist allies got barely one-tenth of the parliament seat, their appeal to vote for them to save Islam fell on deaf ears. Bangladesh is the most homogenous nation-state in post-colonial South Asia. Its population is predominantly Muslim, so most Bangladeshis don’t buy the “Islam in danger” thesis.
However , when the Islamic groups killing secular intellectuals and judges, attack Bengali New Year day celebrations or Bengali cultural groups like the Udichi , or they explode 450 bombs in as many locations in a day, most Bangladeshis fear their “Bengali identity”, on the bedrock of which the nation was created, is threatened. The December 2008 mandate is clear — Bangladesh should not be turned into another Pakistan at any cost.
So, with such a huge mandate, the Awami League is now in a position to pursue the war crimes trial and snuff out the embers of Islamic radicalism, despite obvious patronage from Pakistan and the Middle Eastern nations, who provide huge funds to groups like the Jamiat e Islami. India cannot expect Bangladesh to be a restaurant waiter — to take orders and deliver it on a platter. Delhi has to engage Dhaka in constant dialogue to pursue its own economic and security interests and be patient if it wants to achieve them.
The writer is BBC’ s eastern India correspondent
Cracking the whip
Thursday, Februry 5, 2009
Hasina keeps her word, clamps down on terror outfits
Sheikh Hasina has begun well. Two most conspicuous indications of this are her moves to eradicate terrorism from Bangladesh and bring war criminals to justice. On December 31, 2008, during her very first Press conference after the Awami League’s landslide victory in the parliamentary election on December 29, she talked of setting up a South Asian Task Force against terrorism. That it was not an off-the-cuff remark but represented well-thought-out policy became clear on January 7, 2009, when, referring to the force, the country’s first woman Foreign Minister, Ms Dipu Moni, told journalists that since militancy and terrorism transcended geographic boundaries, Dhaka will hold talks with neighbouring countries to chalk out effective measures to fight both. Ms Hasina herself repeated the proposal during an interview with Mr David Frost telecast by the Al Jazeera channel on January 17. She reiterated the proposal again and sought national and international cooperation on the subject while presiding over a Cabinet meeting at the Bangladesh Secretariat on January 19.
There are also indications that firm action will be taken against terrorism inside Bangladesh. Ms Hasina has instructed the Home Ministry to immediately institute a fresh investigation into terrorist activities — including the grenade attack in Dhaka on August 21, 2004, which killed 23 Awami League leaders besides almost killing her — during the regime of the four-party coalition Government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The objective, she made clear, was to identify the masterminds and their national and international links. She was not impressed by a report on terrorism that the Home Ministry had submitted and dubbed it incomplete and traditional. Back in the Home Ministry after the meeting, Bangladesh’s State Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Tanjim Ahmed Sohel Taj, censured the Home Secretary, Mr Abdul Karim, and asked him to resubmit the report detailing all aspects of terrorist activities during the four-party rule led by the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islmai Bangladesh.
What must particularly interest India is Sheikh Hasina’s statement, made at the December 31 Press conference in response to a question by an Indian journalist, that her country will not allow its soil to be used by any terrorist outfit against any country, including India. She also said on the occasion that though people had already ‘tried’ war criminals and anti-liberation forces in the election, the Government would legally try them. This too should be of more than passing interest to India considering that the people identified as war criminals — those who worked as auxiliary forces of the Pakistani occupation Army and committed crimes against humanity including mass murder, looting, rape, arson and forced people to leave the country — are the Jamaat and other fundamentalist organisations who are pathologically anti-India and who constitute the matrix of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh.
Things have moved considerably since then. Parliament has passed a unanimous resolution calling for immediate trial of the war criminals. Ms Hasina has asked for UN help in holding the trial. Home Minister Sahara Khatun, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed and State Minister for Law Qamrul Islam have had a meeting with Attorney-General Mahbube Alam and asked the latter to examine the legal procedures. The Home Ministry has asked for all exit points to be guarded to prevent war criminals from fleeing the country.
Some difference is already being felt on the ground. New Delhi had in the past repeatedly suggested joint patrolling of the India-Bangladesh border by its Border Security Force and the Bangladesh Rifles, but to no avail. It has begun in some stretches of the border after the new Government’s ascent to power. Apprehending tough action by the new Government, some secessionist insurgent groups of north-eastern India are reportedly trying to shift their camps from Bangladesh to Bhutan and Burma.
Beginning well, however, is not enough. Ms Hasina had begun well after becoming Prime Minister for the first time in 1996 and had closed down a number of camps. She, however, had to abandon the drive under pressure from Bangladesh’s premier intelligence agency, the Directorate-General of Forces’ Intelligence. She no doubt has an advantage this time which she lacked earlier — a bulldozing majority in Parliament. But she has to seize the moment and act now — before her opponents can regroup and strike back. Will she have the will to do that?