Canberra, 4 June 2015

Ever since it’s tumultuous birth in 1971, Bangladesh has been caught in an identity trap. The nation’s linguistic, secularist and, most importantly, its religious identity have often been in conflict with each other, preventing the nation and the people from forging a clearly defined identity of its own. In fact the nation can claim the dubious honour of being the only country whose identity is based primarily on language, than on any other single factor. There are two elements that influence the politics of the country—one that it is a Muslim majority nation; and two, flowing from the first, that electoral politics do not permit anyone to take an unambiguous stance regarding the role of religion in the broader aspects of governing the State. Superimpose the historical evolution of the nation, at the time of the partition of India in 1947 being hived out of the larger Bengal State as a Muslim majority region as part of the newly created Pakistan, and the confusion is almost tangibly visible.

The vagueness of perception regarding religion is starkly reflected in the constitution that proclaims secularism and at the same time also acknowledges Islam as the state religion. This imprecise view of religion makes it difficult for a political party to completely eschew religion and declare itself a truly secular entity. It is through this lens that the recent spate of murders in the country have to be viewed. In less than three months, three ‘bloggers’ who posted liberal articles regarding religion or questioned the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on their blogsites were hacked to death in public view by religious fanatics. They also happened to be on a list of 84 ‘liberals’ that the Islamic fundamentalists have identified for elimination. The response from both the Government and the opposition to the murders have been muted; there have been no strong condemnation of these heinous crimes; there was no stridently visible outrage from normal citizens. What has happened to Bangladesh?

Historic Background

Bangladesh is a country of rivers, cyclones, and paddy fields; also of poets, artists, and patriots. Since restoration of democracy in 1991, after years of military dictatorial rule, Bangladesh has been alternatively ruled by the two major national parties—the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National party (BNP). There are also a number of smaller parties that support or oppose the government dependent on their electoral alliance. The nation has a five-year electoral cycle and in 1996, all parties agreed to put in place a caretaker government to oversee the elections in a fair and free manner. However, this agreement was considered flexible and has undergone a number of amendments over the years. Further, even the electoral laws have been altered and token secularism formally introduced.

The system worked in a more or less equitable manner till 2006, when the BNP government, ruling in an alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) a fundamentalist religious organisation, appointed a caretaker government blatantly biased in their favour. The elections were delayed and in 2008 the people soundly rejected the BNP-JEI combine, giving the AL a clear majority—they won 230 of the total 300 seats. The 2013 elections were boycotted by BNP and its allies because of objections to some amendments to the constitution that emphasised the secular nature of the country, which the AL had introduced. The JEI was banned from contesting the elections since it refused to confirm to the amendments in the constitution. The end result was that the AL was elected to government unopposed. The BNP once again in opposition leads a motley group of 20 parties.

The Current Situation

Being kept out of power is always an unpalatable situation for political parties, especially when their popularity is dependent on the largesse that can be spread when in power. Having been side-lined for a year through an election that it boycotted in January 2014, the BNP launched an anti-Government agitation on 6 January this year. The timing of the agitation could also have been prompted by the AL Government led by Shiekh Hasina initiating a number of criminal charges against the leader of BNP, Khalida Zia and a number of other senior leaders of the party. By the end of February the agitation had assumed a life of its own, becoming almost a terror campaign, led by the JEI that provides the street power to the BNP. It has degenerated into an open show of belligerence by the opposition, to an extent that they called for a transport blockade on 21 February, the International Language Day which is much revered by all people in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, as in most of South Asia, agitations tend to turn violent fairly rapidly since the people are extremely sensitive to domestic political issues and are also prone to be overtly emotional in their reactions. The BNP-sponsored agitation and blockade was no exception and by late-January, violence had already become a part of the agitation process. However, popular support for it faded when the Secondary School Certificate examinations had to be postponed because of the deteriorating law and order situation in the country. In addition, the agitation has been met by brute force by the Government, which is in no mood to compromise on its own political agenda. The opposition has a single-point agenda of regaining power and the Government is oblivious to the impact of the violence being perpetuated on the common people. The reasoning provided by both sides for the impasse and initiating inimitable actions has been illogical and can be viewed merely as a struggle for power.

Essentially, this is a no-holds barred battle between AL and BNP for control of the nation and has led to chronic political unrest. It has directly impacted the economy and led to huge losses. By the end of February, Bangladesh had reached a state of political stalemate. Although the US had tried to broker some sort of a peace between the two warring parties, it has not borne any fruit so far; and it is unlikely to do so considering the extremely chauvinistic stance that Bangladesh has regarding national sovereignty and foreign interference in domestic issues. The on-going violent rivalry between the two main political parties has been an impediment to the process of democratic institution building that has been slow to take effect in the nation even though democracy was restored in 1991.

An On-going Issue

It has been roughly estimated by a number of agencies that Bangladesh is home to around 100 terror groups, each with their own individual agenda. It is also proven that there is endemic money-laundering by the local banks of funds received from the Middle-East, both as donations as well as remittances by expat workers. More than 10 million Bangladesh citizens work in the Middle-East in a variety of jobs. Although the government is seeking external assistance to curb money-laundering, the initiative has so far only met with token success.

A fundamental issue facing the government is that a number of these terrorist groups question the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, achieved in 1971 based purely on linguistic and ethnic differences. This goes to the very heart of the existence of the nation as a sovereign entity. The fact that some Islamists have been tried and executed for crimes against the people during the popular uprising in 1971 has added fuel to the terrorist fire. The society is gradually being divided and Pakistan is actively aiding this division, as a revenge action for Bangladesh separating and declaring independence in 1971. India’s active support for the struggle for independence in 1971 has always been a bitter pill for Pakistan to swallow, which blames India for the dismemberment of a unified Pakistan.

The BNP is currently at the head of the agitation. However, its power on the street—markedly oriented towards sectarian violence—stems from the JEI cadre. The violence has taken its toll on the common people in a number of ways and has marred the socio-political system as never before. The simmering antipathy towards the BNP is pointing towards a situation wherein the classic fallout of this current agitation could well be the fall from grace of the BNP and its gradual fadeout into oblivion. If such a development does take place, it would leave the JEI, an extremist organisation if there ever was one, as the main opposition in the country. Entrenched and strategically focused violence against secularist forces will be the result—a sad commentary for a nation that is steeped in the traditional cultural ethos of religious, ethnic and linguistic tolerance.

The public opinion is also divided regarding the rule of AL under Shiekh Hasina, especially since the country has come to an economic halt in the past few months because of the intransigent attitude of the two major parties to achieving a compromise solution to the political impasse. Decline in democratic values is inherently detrimental to economic growth and Bangladesh has proven it through its lack of performance in the economic field in the past few years. It has not been able to take advantage of the shift in economic power balance from Europe to Asia and the people are impatient with the tardiness of the politicians still bent on fighting for power with not a thought for the betterment of the nation. Political stability, or the lack of it, is an on-going issue that troubles Bangladesh. There is no doubt that only a strong, well-entrenched and stable social situation will improve the socio-economic condition of the people. The travails of mis-governance has made the general public regard the perceived ‘good governance’ in more authoritarian states as a better option than a failing democracy. This perception, if developed to its logical conclusion, may yet prove to be a double-edged sword and detrimental to the fledgling democratic traditions of the nation.

Emergence of Religious Fundamentalism

Bangladesh has always had a fringe minority of religious fanatics who were tolerated by the larger community that was made up of the more tolerant Sufi-oriented followers of Islam. However, in the past few decades, extremist and fundamentalist followers of the religion has become more assertive in their attitude and turned towards violence to express their demands to further Islamise the society. Their ultimate and declared aim is the establishment of a State based on the Sharia Law in Bangladesh. This has created an ideological rivalry between secular nationalists and the orthodox religious groups.  The divide has been further exacerbated by the AL Government instituting an International Crimes Tribunal to try the collaborators of the 1971 war of independence. Currently Bangladesh is in the throes of an ideological battle between secularists and hard-line Islamists. The end-result will determine whether or not this fragile State will continue on its democratic journey.

The killing of the three bloggers by religious extremists is the first indication of the targeting of free thinking and also the first step towards the intimidation of common people. The public murders should be viewed as the beginning of a ‘culture of impunity’ on the part of Islamic extremist factions and the inability of the government to enforce law and order. The perpetrators were all madrasa students who, it is believed, had not even read the blog posts that were considered anti-Islam. The Islamic political parties now openly target anyone who criticises them or the Islamic religion as atheists or apostates who deserve to be killed. This overt threat to atheists is a sad turn in a country known for its peace and tranquillity; its cultural greatness; and the gentleness of its ethnic population. Reading between the lines it is easy to clearly see the concerted attempt to subvert and eventually convert the inclusive, gentle, and tolerant Sufi-influenced version of Islam long-practised in Bangladesh to the obscurantist model of Wahabi Islam that is both regressive and exclusive. The madrasa students who perpetuated the killings were obviously ‘brain-washed’ to undertake the murderous activities by more ‘senior’ extremists with a much broader agenda.

There are three factors that assist the creeping culture of religious intolerance in Bangladesh. First, the government has assumed a very soft approach towards the various militant groups, especially the newly formed vigilante groups who are at the forefront of the on-going violence. These groups pretend that they are ‘protecting’ Islam from blasphemers and the government’s reluctance to take severe action against them is indicative of a larger malaise. Second, the large number of militant groups make it difficult to pinpoint one entity as responsible for a particular anti-national and/or illegal activity, especially when multiple groups claim responsibility for the act. Third, the domestic political scene is becoming murkily polarised. The polarisation has assumed greater proportions ever since the war crimes tribunal was instituted.

The on-going violence, perpetuated in the guise of political protest, is actually well directed and coordinated attacks meant as the initial steps towards controlling the future orientation of Bangladesh and its official acceptance of fundamentalist religious ideals. The strategy of the fundamentalists can also be discerned. The first step is to polarise the nation, especially considering the inability of the government to act decisively against sectarian forces; then to intimidate the secular agencies; and finally to have the majority of the youth sufficiently radicalised through the madrasas to become the voice of the ‘people’. The mushrooming of madrasas across the country and the economic weakness of the nation combine and play into this strategy. The JEI, at the forefront of this movement, already has a militant student wing called Islami Chhatra Sibhir that directly threatens the secular ethos of the entire student body. While the JEI and its Islamic allies are in the process of constructing a religious juggernaut, the government has tended to adopt a lofty attitude towards this increasing menace, merely calling it terrorism and initiating only punitive actions. There has been no dialogue of significance between the government and the opposition BNP. If ever there was a prize for an ignorant and ill-considered reaction to a primary threat to the well-being of the nation, the government reaction in Bangladesh will win hands down.

The Dubious Role of Pakistan

Soon after the BNP agitation took hold, the Bangladesh Government asked Pakistan to withdraw an official from its High Commission, after he was arrested for collusion with, and financing, terrorist elements who were perpetuating criminal activities both in Bangladesh and across the border in India. It is clear that Pakistan’s ISI network operates from within the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka, aiding and fomenting trouble in the streets of Bangladesh. The Pakistan Army has not forgotten the humiliating defeat that it suffered in the liberation of Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) in 1971. Since the Army continues to influence the affairs of State in Pakistan and remains unchecked in its activities within the country and abroad, even though the nation is nominally under a democratically elected government, it will continue to support activities meant to subvert the stability of Bangladesh.

There is a proven link between the ISI and JEI activists and also of the ISI use of Bangladesh territory to infiltrate terrorists into India. This was far easier under the BNP-JEI rule who closed their eyes to these activities and the current government’s clamping down on free movement across the Indian border has not gone down well with the ISI. Further, since Pakistan is obsessed with India as an ‘enemy’, the improving India-Bangladesh relationship under the current government is also anathema to the ISI. Shiekh Hasina has managed to appease the Bangladesh Army, who has behaved at times as the final arbitrator in the future of the country, and has also turned towards India for assistance in stabilising the nation. India in turn appreciates the non-religious political ideology of AL and has clearly articulated its preference for an AL-led government in Bangladesh.

The security establishment in Pakistan has been colluding with extremist groups for decades, much to the detriment of its own integrity. The only way to redeem the situation would be for it to make a permanent break with this decades-long affair with the jihadists—for the good of Pakistan and a better future for Bangladesh.

India’s Interest

India is in the process of asserting its position as a strategic power and attempting to assume a regional leadership role. While domestic political considerations impinge on realising this vision, the urge to thwart China’s influence in South Asia is a cardinal principle guiding India’s external dealings. In this context, Bangladesh which has common borders with seven restive Indian states in which China foments trouble on a regular basis, becomes an important piece of the larger picture. For India a friendly Bangladesh is a non-negotiable imperative to ensure peace and stability in the volatile North-East of the country. This was the primary reason for India having supported the elections in Bangladesh in 2013, while the opposition had boycotted it and in defiance of the US, which had expressed its discomfort with the single party election going ahead.

The current political impasse and the mayhem brought about through the BNP-led violent agitation makes the AL government look for greater support from India to normalise the situation. India and the US have different views and opinions regarding the direction that Bangladesh should take in furthering its democratic institutions. The US wants the country to establish and entrench a two-party system, similar to what prevails in the US. India on the other hand wants secularism imposed on the political system as a prerequisite for democratic development. The AL fits the bill, whereas the BNP-JEI combination clearly is theocratic in nature.

The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already passed the constitutional amendment bill to implement the long pending Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. The Indian Prime Minister is also slated to visit Bangladesh in June, and if the current situation is anything to go by, an understanding on the Teesta water sharing treaty could also be forthcoming. It is significant that the West Bengal Chief Minster, Mamata Banerjee who was instrumental in the previous Manmohan Singh government shelving the agreement, has been invited to accompany the Prime Minster on this visit. With this background, it is expected that a number of agreements—ranging from transport to trade—will be signed between the two countries during this visit. This is important for Shiekh Hasina to bolster her credibility as a leader who can deliver improvements for the country since she has been constantly lambasted in local politics as an ‘Indian stooge’, mainly by the Islamist opposition.

Bangladesh is a proud nation, born out of one of the bloodiest civil wars in which thousands of Bangladeshi freedom fighters operated out of India and millions of refugees were accepted into Indian Territory. However, history alone does not make for mutual understanding when large volumes of water has flown down the Teesta, Brahmaputra and Padma Rivers. The nations need to work together in a transparent manner to address each other’s concerns regarding security and economy for stability to be built in the region.

Where to from here?

The space in which free and liberal ideas flourish and inevitably come to fruition is shrinking fast in Bangladesh. The reasons are many and common to fledgling democracies across the world—governmental apathy and inaction that permit extremist forces act with impudence; the corrosion of socio-economic ideals brought about through the entrenchment of crony politics and corruption; unchecked persecution of freedom of speech and expression by official decree and extra-judicial groups; and the inability of the judiciary to remain independent or to have their writ adhered to by other elements of the government. By polarising the society on religious grounds and imposing an impossibly harsh writ on the functioning of the normal society, the Islamists seem to be gaining ground in Bangladesh. The focused targeting of free thinkers who express themselves in cyberspace is visible proof of the decline of a once robust culture of enlightenment and tolerance.

Democracy can only be sustained through the propagation and entrenchment of liberal values—freedom of speech, the right to dissent peacefully, the right to practice one’s religion of choice, the right to be treated as an equal irrespective of caste, creed and colour. It is the State that should determine who are criminals and bring them to justice and not religious extremists who act as judge, jury and executioner all at the same time. Placating these vigilantes will be the first brick placed in bording up the concept of liberal democracy once and for all. Hopefully the peace-loving majority of the Bangladeshi population will wake up to the dangers that their nation faces, before they too get swept away—swallowed by inaction.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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