The exclusion of Bangladesh from the 'Democracy Summit' hosted by the United States earlier this month has been rightly interpreted as a manifestation of Washington’s indirect backing of radical Islamists in that country.
Bangladesh was excluded from the summit, to which 111 countries were invited, ostensibly because of lobbying by Islamist groups in the USA. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s determined and continuing crackdown on Islamists, including the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in her country had angered these groups.
The BNP is closely aligned with hardline Islamist groups like the Hefazat-e-Islam, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangaldesh and the Harat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), whose avowed aim is to overthrow the Sheikh Hasina government, which they consider India’s stooge.
These Islamist groups have been carrying out terror attacks on Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League (AL) leaders and on the country’s embattled minorities. The AL leadership believes that all such attacks are being carried out at the behest of the BNP in order to destabilise the government.
“There is irrefutable evidence of the BNP’s close involvement with these Islamist terror groups which are indulging in various acts to destabilise Bangladesh. A crackdown on these terror groups, thus, also translates into a concerted strike on the BNP. It is impossible to root out these Islamist radicals without acting against the BNP which inspires, aids and assists them,” senior AL leader Shauqat Ali told Swarajya from Dhaka.
“Not only does the BNP have very close links with Islamists, it is guilty of many acts of corruption and siphoning off huge amounts of public money when it was in power. A multi-pronged crackdown on BNP’s corruption and its links with terror groups was launched by Prime Minister Hasina ever since she came to power in 2008,” said Ali.
Many top BNP leaders, including former prime minister Khaleda Zia, have been jailed for corruption and her son (Tareque Rehman) is in exile in the UK. Some BNP leaders have been convicted and are serving their prison sentences.
Simultaneously, many Islamists who collaborated with the then West Pakistani military junta during the 1971 liberation war and committed atrocities on the masses were tried before the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of Bangladesh. The ICT sent many top leaders of Islamist outfits to the gallows.
The hanging of Pakistani collaborators and war criminals in Bangladesh invited censure and condemnation from human rights groups in the West, including many such groups considered close to the Democrats in the USA.
The executions also triggered nationwide riots by Islamist groups, backed by the BNP, in Bangladesh. The resulting crackdown by law enforcement authorities in that country netted many BNP leaders as well.
Also, the Islamist groups have been targeting minorities, especially Hindus, in Bangladesh. Assaults on Hindus and their properties, rape and forcible conversion of Hindu women and loot and desecration of Hindu mandirs by Islamist radicals has been commonplace in that country. Islamist groups have also targeted civil society activists who have stood up for the rights of minorities.
All these Islamists were nurtured and sheltered by Bangladesh’s military rulers after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman in 1975, and also during the BNP’s two stints in power from 1991 to 1996 and 2001 to 2006. The close and organic links between the BNP and the Islamists meant a crackdown on the Islamists translating into a strike on the BNP as well.
But the West, and the USA (especially the Democrats who have close ties with human rights and civil society groups that are sympathetic to Islamists), has preferred to ignore the close links between the BNP and Bangladesh’s Islamists and has been exerting pressure on Hasina to go soft on the BNP.
Hasina’s refusal to relent on the crackdown on Islamists, and by extension the BNP, has not gone down well with the USA, especially the ruling Democrats in Washington. Hasina has been deploying the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) to strike against the Islamists.
Islamists, and their human rights and civil society supporters, have carried out a smear campaign against the RAB, BGB and also the Bangladesh Army for the strong and ongoing crackdown on the Islamic terror groups and their BNP sponsors. They have portrayed Bangladesh’s paramilitary forces (the RAB and BGB) and the country’s army as violators of human rights and anti-democratic forces.
That explains why, immediately after the ‘Democracy Summit’, Washington sanctioned seven senior Bangladeshi law enforcement officials. These seven sanctioned officials include the country’s police chief, Benzir Ahmed, and senior RAB officers.
Also, the US visa of former army chief General Aziz Ahmed, who has been closely involved in Bangladesh’s war on its Islamist terror groups, had been cancelled following unsubstantiated and biased media reports of his alleged corruption and links with criminal elements. There hasn’t been any confirmation or denial of this from the USA.
Washington’s latest actions — excluding Bangladesh from the summit and sanctioning its law enforcement officials — will only encourage the Islamist radicals in that country.
It will also act as a strong deterrence for law enforcement officials from taking strong action against Islamist terror groups.
That can only weaken the Sheikh Hasina government and diminish its resolve to act against the Islamist radicals.
And that is bad news for India. Rise of Islamist radicalism in Bangladesh will definitely spill over to India. Bangladesh’s Islamists have close ties with their Indian counterparts and these ties will receive a boost if there is any letup in the crackdown on Islamists in Bangladesh.
It is in India’s interests that the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina continues to be in power in Bangladesh. Under her, Bangladesh has eliminated militant groups of Northeast India that were sheltered by earlier regimes in Bangladesh. Dhaka has agreed to trade and transit links through its territory to the landlocked Northeast India and has protected India’s interests.
It would now be in the fitness of things for New Delhi to intercede with Washington on behalf of Dhaka and convince the US leadership that Sheikh Hasina is a bulwark against the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in South Asia. It is in India’s interests that it does so.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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