By Sudeep Chakravarti
Jan 08 2016
Be safe and very vigilant,” Elite Force, a Dhaka, Bangladesh-based security firm posted on its Facebook page about a countrywide strike on 7 January. “Keep track on news, but don’t let silly rumours panic you. Take care.”
If ever there was a message for the country with which India shares its longest border, and which remains its security, trade and energy pivot in this populous eastern arc of South Asia, that was it.
The country was locked down on account of a strike called by Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. The radical organization was protesting the confirmation by that country’s Supreme Court on 6 January of the death penalty given to a Jamaat leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami.
He stands convicted of counselling the killing of several hundred innocents during the war of 1971, in particular the massacre of intellectuals towards the end. Nizami was at the time chief of the Al Badr Bahini, a militia that stands accused of assisting Pakistan’s army in genocide.
The Jamaat is livid; last November, its leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed was executed for war crimes.
Some portray what is going on in Bangladesh as a fight of good against evil. A young Bangladeshi businessman with excellent access to that country’s prime minister’s office went as far as to tell me: “We keep telling you (India) we need 10 more years. We’ll finish them off.”
The gentleman reflects the point of view of several loyalists of the Awami League party, which has ruled since 2009—and practically unopposed since 2014, as major opponents such as Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted general elections to the national assembly that year.
Basically, it’s the diminishing of ultra-conservative Islamist forces in the country. This list begins with the opposition BNP, its ally Jamaat (Nizami was a minister in a BNP-led government between 2001 and 2006), those accused of war crimes, relatively more recent extremist coalitions like Hefazat-e-Islam, and organizations like Ansarullah Bangla Team that have openly threatened and killed liberal bloggers these past three years. (In end-December a special tribunal in the capital Dhaka sentenced two Bangla Team members to death for the killing of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in February 2013.)
These days, in-your-face extremism across the country is Bangladesh’s headlining global news alongside robust socio-economic growth, booming trade and worker remittances, and among the most successful rural credit networks in the world. Impetus to the latter aspects is the declared goal of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She has also assiduously networked with India on a number of matters ranging from cross-border terrorism, trade and sharing of river waters, to settling long-pending disputes such as the agreement last May to swap 160 enclaves.
The spread and cultivated fury of extremism in Bangladesh is a subject that Dhaka liberals and Awami League stalwarts—not always the same species—prefer to downplay. The editor of a major Dhaka-based newspaper bemoaned to me the fact that his country’s critics are fond of highlighting the growth of madrasas, or Islamic seminaries—a recent article in the New York Times cited estimates that mapped an increase from 4,100 madrasas in 1986 to 14,000 in 2015, at any time schooling in excess of one million. Such critics rarely highlight that many times that number attend state- and privately-run schools in villages and cities that impart secular education.
While I agreed with the editor, I also suggested that we may need to recognize a shift: for the generations radicalized since 1971, sentencing their leadership for past crimes, even heinous ones, may amount today to sentencing Islam. For so many millions today, a future for Bangladesh is also a future for securing Islam. This may seem superfluous in a country where the state religion is Islam, but extremism follows its own distorted logic.
Ironically, Awami League may be adding to the distortion. Cronyism is rampant. Awami League cleaned up at the recently concluded countrywide mayoral elections, but its overall victory over BNP and others—the first time the parties have electorally faced off after the boycotted national elections of 2014—were replete with reports of stuffing of ballots. The government’s critics point to centralization of power, in some ways reminiscent of 1975, the year Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in a plot led by army officers.
Thereafter, development arrived with large doses of state-mandated conservatism, including a pardoning of war criminals. For India, it meant two decades of diplomatic chill.
Something has to give, or radical forces may take more than what Bangladesh bargained for.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear. Hold. Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org