RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
Snapshot
  • The Islamic State says that its base is growing in Bangladesh, and has claimed responsibility for the slaughter of many “apostates” over the past months. It should be a matter of serious concern for India that the Bangladesh government seems to be in a state of denial about the growing threat.

“Bengal is an important region for the Khilafah and the global jihad due to its strategic geographic position. Bengal is located on the eastern side of India, whereas Wilayat Khurasan is located on its western side. Thus, having a strong jihad base in Bengal will facilitate performing guerrilla attacks inside India simultaneously from both sides and facilitate creating a condition of tawahhush in India along with the help of the existing local mujahidin there.”
—Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif , “the amir of the Khilafah’s (Caliphate’s) soldiers in Bengal”, in an interview in the April 13 issue of Dabiq, the online magazine of the Islamic State.

Bengal here refers to Bangladesh. Wilayat Khurasan refers to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where several Taliban and other radical outfits have sworn allegiance to the Daesh. And “tawahhush” literally means savagery to promote fear and chaos, which psychopathic outfits like the Al Qaeda and the Daesh believe is the only way to bring non-believers and apostates to heel.

The Daesh has claimed responsibility for the public slaughter of several “apostates” in Bangladesh over the past few months, including Xulhaz Mannan—a leading gay rights activist and editor of Roopbaan, the country’s first LGBT magazine—and his colleague Tanay Mojumdar.

More than 50 people–some local reports put the figure at over 150—have been killed by Islamist militants in Bangladesh over the past six months, with the Daesh claiming at least 20 of them. Religious minorities, agnostics and atheists, secularists, human rights activists, professors, policemen and even foreigners—an Italian and a Japanese were killed late last year—are fair game. The modus operandi usually involves machetes and sometimes public beheadings by bloodthirsty fanatics screaming “God is Great.”

Multiple rabid Islamist outfits have claimed responsibility for these killings, including the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and of late, the Daesh. The government in Dhaka, however, seems to be in a state of denial.

Following Xulhaz Mannan’s murder in late April and the strong protests by the American embassy where he worked, Prime Minister Hasina Wajed declared that “opposition parties are involved with these secret killings as they want to destabilise the government and the country.” “There is an effort by a group of people in different parts of the country—probably being supported from foreign lands—to destabilise Bangladesh,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed Shahriar Alam.

The friction between religious bigots and liberals in Bangladesh is not new. “If that had been my daughter, I would have whipped her to death in public,” muttered the bearded man to his burkha-clad begum, who nodded vigorously in agreement. It was November 2005, and I was in Dhaka to cover the 13th SAARC summit.

Taking some time out for a coffee at the food court of a somewhat decrepit mall, I was startled by the virulence of the couple, seated at a table to my left. The object of their intense ire was a young student and her male friends seated a few tables away. Dressed in jeans and a pink shirt, with a matching scarf draped over her shoulders, the girl was obviously enjoying the attention being showered upon her by her classmates.
Down the street, two madrassas shared a wall, and nothing else. One was a state-sponsored one, with a regular academic curriculum interspersed with religious classes. The other was funded by Saudi Arabia, and taught nothing but the Quran.

While asking for directions back to my hotel, I met a young professor from the government-run version, who decided to walk with me part of the way. “We are from two ends of the spectrum and rarely mingle. But fights are not uncommon,” he said when asked about the differences between the two educational institutions.
“It’s almost like our two leaders, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and her rival, Sheikh Hasina,” he went on after a bit of prodding. “Their differences of opinion as well as their hatred for each other is well known. But this personal enmity has cost Bangladesh dearly, since whoever is in the opposition does her best to prevent normal governance. There’s a bandh, bomb blast or murder almost every other day, and there’s no end to the violence.…”

Begum Khaleda Zia, whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had allied with the radical Jaamat-e-Islami (led by Amir Motiur Rahman Nizami)  to form the government in 2001, was hosting the SAARC summit as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Later, Nizami was among several Jaamat leaders sentenced to death by the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh for their role in the genocide committed by the Pakistan Army during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Nizami, who was a leader of the pro-Pakistani al Badr militia which massacred thousands of Bengalis who were seeking liberation from Pakistan, was executed on 11 May 2016. This sparked violent protests by Jaamat supporters, and a diplomatic war with Pakistan and Turkey, nations which objected to the sentencing of the Jaamat leaders.

The execution took place during the visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Subramanyam Jaishankar to Dhaka, where he expressed New Delhi’s concerns over the recent spurt of killings of religious minorities, particularly Hindus, and attacks on temples in Bangladesh. He also offered full support to Bangladesh in countering violent extremism as well as its efforts to bring justice for past war crimes.

Known for her strong anti-India position, Khaleda was under international pressure for allowing the Jaamat goons to run riot during her tenure. “If someone complains to her of constipation, she’d probably blame India for it,” joked an Indian diplomat at the High Commission in Dhaka during the SAARC summit. Except he wasn’t smiling.
In 2002, amidst much consternation in New Delhi, Khaleda signed a “Defence Cooperation Agreement” with China.

During her terms as Prime Minister, Bangladesh was a safe harbour for several separatist outfits from India’s troubled north-eastern states, like the ULFA, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah), National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur.

Several ministers in her Cabinet were sentenced to death in 2014 by a special tribunal for their involvement in the Chittagong arms haul cause of 2004, which involved the seizure of over 1,500 crates of weapons and ammunition meant for the ULFA.
It was a virulent BNP campaign which ensured that the Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace, signed in 1972 by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the founder Prime Minister of the newly-minted Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was not renewed when it expired in 1997. And it was the BNP which repeatedly rejected India’s requests for a trade and transit corridor through Bangladesh to allow easier access to its north-eastern states, describing it as a “security threat”.

After Khaleda’s term ended in 2006, differences over the interim government meant to oversee the elections led to large-scale political turmoil and violence across the country, and a brief stint of military rule. When the elections were finally held in 2008, Sheikh Hasina, Mujibur Rahman’s eldest daughter and the leader of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance, won with a huge margin.

Often vilified by the opposition as a “pro-Indian” stooge, Hasina cracked down on the Indian separatists sheltering in Bangladesh, and on her opponents, which in turn sparked more violence and shutdowns by the BNP and its allies. In January 2012, Indian intelligence tipped off Hasina about a possible military coup, leading to the arrest of several senior officers, though the kingpin escaped, apparently to Pakistan. Investigations revealed the involvement of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist Sunni political organisation which seeks a worldwide Islamic Caliphate governed by Sharia law. Just like the Daesh does.

Advertisement

In 2014, Sheikh Hasina was re-elected as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. However, the election was boycotted by the BNP and other Opposition parties, protesting against Hasina’s scrapping of the clause which decreed that a neutral caretaker government would run the country during every election.

In June 2015, Prime Minister Modi, accompanied by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, made a two-day visit to Bangladesh, the highlight of which was the ratification of the 1974 Land Border Agreement, allowing the two countries to swap more than 160 tiny enclaves in each other’s territory.

A legacy of the erstwhile princely rulers of the region who used these small pieces of land as stakes in their gambling sessions, some 52,000 people were living in landlocked limbo since Partition in these “chits”, as they were called, despite several attempts to reconcile the long-festering issue.

Advertisement

After Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan, Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed a Land Boundary Agreement in 1974, but it required a constitutional amendment in India, which was finally passed by both houses of Parliament and President Pranab Mukherjee as the 100th Constitutional Amendment in May 2015, just before Modi’s visit.

When finally offered a choice, nearly 14,000 people living in the former Bangladeshi enclaves in India opted to become Indian citizens. About 36,000 people living in the former Indian enclaves in Bangladesh sought Bangladeshi citizenship, while another 1,200 preferred to move to India. In the border adjustment that followed, India lost about 40 sq km of land to Bangladesh.

A host of other agreements to boost connectivity, trade and security, as well as a $2-billion Indian line of credit for various infrastructure and other projects were also inked during Modi’s visit. After pledging “zero tolerance” towards terrorism, the two leaders flagged off the new Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala, and Dhaka- to-Guwahati bus services from Dhaka, which would mostly benefit India’s landlocked north- eastern states and tourists by dramatically reducing travel time. In November 2015, ULFA General Secretary Anup Chetia was handed over to India by Bangladesh. He had been ar- rested and jailed a few years earlier in Dhaka for using a forged passport and carrying illegal weapons and foreign currency.

Advertisement

But despite all these signs of bonhomie and goodwill, there are several—and serious—concerns which remain unresolved till date.

For Bangladesh, the main irritants are water—India is seen as being less than fair over the sharing of river waters with its neighbour—and trade. The Teesta water sharing agreement, which was supposed to have been signed dur- ing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011, was torpedoed by Mamata Banerjee, who also opted out of the Prime Ministerial delegation at the last minute. Though Mamata accompanied Modi to Bangladesh, the treaty is yet to be signed.

As far as bilateral trade goes, in 2013-14, India exported $6.1 billion worth of goods to Bangladesh, while imports from Bangladesh stood at a meagre $462 million, owing to what Bangladesh describes as unfair “non-tariff barriers” imposed by India.

Advertisement

But most of the issues plaguing the two nations revolve around the extremely porous 4,096-km (Assam—262 km, Mizoram—318 km, Meghalaya—443 km, Tripura—856 km, West Bengal—2,217 km) border.

The smuggling of people, cattle, counterfeit currency, drugs, arms, fish, cotton, gas cylinders, cycles, cloth, medicines and other goods along the densely populated border areas is said to be worth almost a third of the near $7 billion official bilateral trade.

Some reports say that at least 25,000 heads of cattle, many shipped all the way from the north Indian states of Haryana and Punjab, are smug- gled every day into Bangladesh from West Bengal alone. This number trebles during festivals like Eid. Every third head of cattle in Bangladesh is said to be from India.

Attempts to fence the border have been stymied by difficult terrain, as well as by vested interests on both sides. The thinly stretched In- dian Border Security Force is often forced, and at times paid off, to turn a blind eye to the rampant smuggling. BSF patrols and outposts have often been attacked by locals following raids and seizures of contraband.

Illegal migration from Bangladesh—aided, abetted and encouraged by local Indian politicians seeking new voters—has dramatically changed the demographics of Assam, West Bengal and Tripura, leading to violent social and ethnic unrest in these states. In 2009, I saw a boatload of Bangladeshis being given Indian ration cards by a young CPM cadre near Islama- pur, in West Bengal’s North Dinajpur district, the moment their boat docked on the Indian side of the Nagar river, which forms the border with Bangladesh.

When I later accosted a young CPM MLA over this at the party headquarters on Al- imuddin Street, Kolkata, I was startled by his response. “It is bhadralok like you who will take to the streets if we stop letting people in, because the cost of your maids, plumbers and carpenters, and all others who do your menial work for you, will double,” he sneered.

Advertisement

As for cattle, a senior Indian official at the SAARC summit in Bangladesh had this to say:
“Both the BSF and the Bangladesh Rifles as well as local politicians on both sides earn a reason- ably large sum from the smuggling. Anyone who tries to export it legally faces the possibility of being attacked by the Hindu right wing in India. Why do you think people are afraid to take the export licences? Besides, the export licences only apply to buffaloes, and not milch cows. And there is a huge demand for that too in Bangladesh. There is a massive cattle mafia in India which stretches all the way across to Haryana and other places, where cow slaughter is illegal. Most of the cattle are sent by train to West Bengal, where buffalo slaughter is legal, but the numbers far exceed the demand in that state. Besides, each animal fetches between Rs 1,000 and 1,200 more in Bangladesh than it does in India.”

“Most of the firing and other clashes along the border are over cattle smuggling,” said a Bangladeshi customs official. “Both the Bangladesh Rifles and BSF have too much at stake here, and they both believe the other side as well as the smugglers are trying to undercut them.” Apart from the fact that the thriving leather industry in Bangladesh would be severely hit if the flow of Indian cattle stopped, he urged “sensitivity” to the fact that if the smuggling was stopped, “the price of beef—which is part of the staple Bangladeshi diet—could double from the present Taka 120 (about Rs 80) per kg, causing social unrest and strengthening the anti-Indian sentiment in the country.”

“A Pew survey in July 2014 which showed that over 70 per cent of Bangladeshis view India favourably should be put in context,” argued a senior Indian official I spoke to recently. “The same survey shows that over 77 per cent of them are favourably disposed towards China. Also, if Khaleda returns to power, all bets are off.”

Advertisement

While there is no denying that Hasina’s tenure has been fairly good for India and for Bangladesh, it is important to remember the circumstances under which she was re-elected,” he cautioned. “Her increasingly autocratic manner and concerted attempts to muzzle her opponents and the media by any means possible has started alienating the very section that voted her in. She cannot blame every act of violence on her opponents. By narrowing the room for democratic activity, she might actually be em- powering the fundamentalists in the country.”

Which brings us inevitably back to the Daesh in Bangladesh.

In his interview to Dabiq, Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif denounces the Jaamat-e-Islami, but gloats that several lower-rung followers have seen the light and migrated to the Daesh.

Vowing to step up the attacks on “non- believers”, he says: “It is not the methodology
of the Khilafah’s soldiers to send more threats to the enemies of Allah. Rather, we let our actions do the talking. And our soldiers are presently sharpening their knives to slaughter the atheists, the mockers of the Prophet, and every other apostate in the region, bi idnillah (by Al- lah’s will).”

Ignoring this warning would be a serious mistake, both for Bangladesh and India.

Advertisement

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.