Killings In Bangladesh: The Poisonous Seeds Were Sown In 1971

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Apr 29, 2016 04:01 PM +05:30 IST
Killings In Bangladesh: The Poisonous Seeds Were Sown In 1971(MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
    • Islamists have unleashed mayhem in Bangladesh
    • Over the past few weeks, many secular and liberal bloggers have been hacked to death
    • How did such a situation come to be in the country?

At least a dozen secular and atheist bloggers, writers, publishers, teachers and members of religious minorities have been killed by radical Islamists over the past year and half in Bangladesh. Few arrests have been made and the government has, instead, blamed bloggers and jailed some for blasphemy. The killings are a manifestation of the deep divide between the country’s liberal secularists and the growing number of radical Islamists. The Islamists are slowly occupying the political vacuum created by the Awami League government’s harsh crackdown on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that has nearly obliterated political opposition.

In a way, the continuing spate of killings of secular and atheist bloggers and all those the radical Islamist groups of Bangladesh view through their narrow and intolerant prism of being ‘anti-Islam’ has its roots in the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. That conflict resulted in the genocide of an estimated 30 lakh Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus by Pakistani army regulars and their accomplices, the Al-Badr, Al-Shams and the paramilitary Razakars. They brutalized the then East Pakistan and its Bengali-speaking populace from March 1971 till the country was liberated in December the same year.

Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, was bitterly divided between a large majority of the people who were secular Bengali nationalists opposed to dominance by West Pakistan and a minority who were Islamists and supporters of West Pakistan. The horrendous genocide of the Bengali nationalists and targeted rape of a few lakh women that followed left bitter scars that never healed. The assassination of Sheikh Mujib, the founder of Bangladesh, and his family members (Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister, escaped death since she was out of the country) by a group of army officers and the subsequent turmoil that gripped the country only exacerbated the divide between the liberals and the Islamists.

A few months after Mujib’sassassination, then deputy chief of army staff Major General Ziaur Rahman took control of the government, imposed martial law and became the country’s President. He undertook major reforms in administration and governance and put Bangladesh on the fast track to progress. He kept his promise of reinstating democracy in Bangladesh and formed the BNP in 1978. The party was elected to power and he became the country’s elected President. But he was assassinated on May 30, 1981, by a group of army officers.

However, it was Ziaur Rehman who was also responsible for the rise of Islamist forces in Bangladesh. He dropped the word ‘secular’ from the country’s Constitution, lifted the ban on Islamist parties like the Jamaat and Muslim League that had collaborated with the West Pakistani regime and started rehabilitating the killers of Mujib, the Razakars and the 1971 ‘war criminals’. That put him on a warpath with the Awami League founded by Mujib. The bitterness between the two main political parties not only persisted, but got intensified and transformed into personal enmity between Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and Ziaur Rehman’s’s widow Begum Khaleda Zia. Bangladesh politics has, over the past few decades, revolved around the bitter rivalry between the two ladies, who are often referred to as the ‘battling begums’ and whose enmity has cost the country dear.

The history of this young nation is gory. Apart from the military coups, bloody feuds between the Awami League (AL), which sees itself as a secular and progressive force, and the BNP, which is aligned with the Jamaat-i-Islami, have repeatedly hurt the country. The Jamaat stands accused of having played a major role in the 1971 genocide, and the AL holds that by aligning with the Jamaat, the BNP has encouraged radical Islam in the country. Thousands of supporters of the two parties have lost their lives in intermittent clashes and both the parties, when in power, have been accused of eliminating their rivals.

Bangladesh’s Islamists have a long history of targeting secular and liberal intellectuals and student leaders, starting from the 1971 genocide. Apart from the rise of the Bengali nationalist movement in 1971 that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and pitted the liberals bitterly against the pro-Pakistani radicals, the current spate of killings has more recent roots in the Shahbag movement of 2013.

This movement was a spontaneous protest by millions of secular and liberal Bangladeshis demanding capital punishment for the 1971 war criminals. The trigger was the February 2013 sentencing of Abdul Quader Molla to life imprisonment by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), Bangladesh, which found Molla, a leader of the notorious Al-Badr that collaborated with the West Pakistani army, guilty of killing 344 civilians and other war crimes like rape.

Liberal and secular Bangladeshis were appalled by what they viewed was a liberal punishment to a genocide-accused and demanded that Molla, who was a leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami, be sentenced to death. They called for protests at Shahbag in the heart of Dhaka and tens of thousands rallied to their call. The Awami League government then amended the rules governing the ICT and after appeals by the prosecution against the life term awarded to Molla, the ICT passed the death sentence on him. Molla was hanged later that year.

The Shahbag movement pitted secular liberals once again against hardline Islamists. The movement spread to the rest of the country and demonstrations demanding death for the war crimes accused were held even in villages and small towns. The Islamists organised counter-demonstrations, but apart from the mullahs and madrassa students herded to such rallies, these did not evoke much of a response, proving that a majority of Bangladeshis are liberal and tolerant.

The killings by radical Islamists started right from then. One of the first of the ongoing series of killings was that of Ahmed Rajib Haider, even while the Shahbag protests were on. Haider’s blogs were said to have fuelled the Shahbag movement and he was brutally hacked to death in front of his house by machete-wielding young men on February 13, 2013. Since then, machetes and cleavers have been used by Islamist radicals in the killings of bloggers, intellectuals, members of minority communities. Within a few weeks of Haider’s murder, police identified the killers—students of a university who had been radicalized by the hate speeches of a firebrand mullah. The killers were awarded the death sentence by a court last year.

On January 15, 2013, a self-confessed ‘militant atheist’ blogger Asif Mohiuddin was attacked by machete-wielding men, but he survived the attack, attributed to the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Islamist terrorist organisation. The Bangladesh government, later, arrested and prosecuted Mohiuddin on charges of blasphemy and he spent several months in prison. Bangladesh’s intellectuals criticized this move, saying it encouraged the Islamic radicals. Mohiuddin, who is still facing death threats, is now living in Germany, as are many other liberal bloggers and others whose names have figured in a hit list issued by an Islamic terrorist group.

After Haider, a number of others were killed by the radicals. On March 7, 2013, another blogger and Shahbag movement activist Saniur Rahman was attacked in Dhaka. He survived. The arrest of Haider’s killers and a government crackdown on Islamist radicals forced the latter to lie low for a while. But at the same time, the ICT kept on sentencing to death and lifelong incarceration many of the accused war criminals, including senior leaders of the Jamaat and its affiliate bodies and even one BNP leader. As those sentences were passed, the anger of the Islamist radicals grew and they stepped up their attacks on the police and on soft targets like liberal secular intellectuals, bloggers and minorities.

The next prominent fatal attack was on Rajshahi University Sociology teacher AKM Shafiul Islam on November 15, 2014. He was accused by Islamists of being ‘anti-Islam’ and banning the burqa from his classes.  Eleven people, including two belonging to the BNP’s student wing, the Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal, were arrested for the killing. Three months later, on February 26, 2015, Bangladeshi-American blogger and writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death with machetes in Dhaka and his wife seriously injured. Later, three members of the ABT were arrested for the ghastly murder. Soon after, on March 30, 2015, another secular blogger, Oyasiqur Rahman Babu, was killed in the same fashion. His killers have not yet been brought to book. On May 12, 2015, another secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in Sylhet. His killers, too, have not been nabbed.

Niladri Chattopadhyay, a blogger writing under the pen-name of Niloy Neel, was hacked to death inside his Dhaka apartment on August 7, 2015. Two members of the ABT were arrested for the murder.  Dhaka was shocked by the simultaneous attacks on four intellectuals on October 31, 2015. Faisal Arefin Dipan, owner of JagritiProkashoni that had published books by slain writer Avijit Roy, was hacked to death inside his Dhaka office. The same day, these radicals also attacked Ahmedur Rashid Tutul of Shuddhoswar Publishing House as well as Ranadipam Basu and Tareq Rahim who were present there. The three survived the attack. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police chief said this week that the killers of Roy and Tutul have fled the country.

On April 6, Dhaka law student Nazimuddin Samad, a secular blogger and prominent activist of GonoJagoronMoncho, which played a prominent role in the Shahbag protest, was killed. On April 23, Rajshahi University’s English professor Rezaul Karim Siddique was murdered. Though the Islamic State claimed responsibility for his killing, Bangladeshi authorities have consistently denied the existence of the Ansarul Islam Bangladesh, which claims to be the local affiliate of the al-Qaeda, as well as the existence of any local unit of the Islamic State. This, even though the Ansarul Islam Bangladesh has publicly posted a list of all those they consider ‘anti-Islam’ and, hence, candidates for brutal murders.

A strong body of evidence does exist that these global Islamist terror groups may have found a firm foothold in the country. Recent reports in the global media attest to this. But the Sheikh Hasina government, critics say for obvious and narrow political reasons, prefer to blame these murders on home-grown terrorists who, it says, are aligned with the Jamaat and the BNP.

The latest killings—of USAID executive and LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Tanay Majumder—on April 25 has outraged the country and the Western world. Once again, the Ansarul Islam Bangladesh claimed responsibility for the killings, but Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blamed the BNP and Islamist radicals affiliated to that party for the murders. She also said that the BNP, which was accused of carrying out a wave of firebombings in January-February 2015, was tarnishing the image of the country and the killings were part of the BNP’s sinister attempts to focus global attention on Bangladesh.

The killings have terrorised the country’s large liberal and secular populace. Zia Rahman, who teaches Criminology at Dhaka University, said the “extremists are trying to create panic in society by targeting significant people”. “It seems these terrorists are slowly scaling up their attacks. Everyone is apprehensive, especially due to the failure of law enforcing agencies to nab the culprits,” said Kaiser HamidulHaq, a professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts. “We are all in a state of panic. These extremists can strike anywhere, anytime. We are not safe anywhere,” said Shantanu Majumder, teacher of Political Science at Dhaka University and a liberal activist.

Analysts say a major reason for the rise in homegrown Islamist radicalism is the massive crackdown on the BNP and the Jamaat by the Awami League government, which has often been accused of being authoritarian. Sheikh Hasina came to power in January 2009 and soon after, announced the system of elections being held under a neutral caretaker government. That was because the caretaker regime that took over in 2006 exceeded its brief and was misused by the army to control the levers of power.

The BNP started a series of violent protests that left many dead and ultimately boycotted the 2014 parliamentary polls that resulted in a landslide win for the Awami League. The BNP launched an intense agitation in January 2015 on the first anniversary of the Awami League government assuming power. The resultant violence, including a spate of firebombings caused hundreds of deaths. The government then initiated a massive crackdown on the BNP and the Jamaat. Even Khaleda Zia was kept confined to her office for 17 days while her top aides and BNP leaders were arrested. A series of enforced disappearances of BNP and Jamaat activists drove tens of thousands of members of the two parties and affiliates underground.

“This crackdown intensified the bitterness between the Awami League and BNP and, coupled with the death sentences awarded by the ICT to top Jamaat leaders and their executions, has led to intense anger among the Islamist radicals. The radicals, finding the liberals and secularists very soft targets, have been attacking them,” said Shamsul Huda Babul, a political analyst who teaches at Dhaka University. “With the withdrawal of the BNP and Jamaat from the opposition space, the Islamist radicals have started occupying that space. In that sense, the crackdown on BNP and Jamaat in the name of curbing Islamist extremism may turn out to be counterproductive,” he warns.  Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at Woodrow Wilson Center at Washington DC, says that the crackdown has been so hard that “it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of extremism”.

Given all this, and the government’s inability to nab the murderers of the bloggers, intellectuals and minorities, attacks by machete-wielding Islamist radicals is likely to continue in Bangladesh.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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