By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On April 28, 2021, Mufti Habibullah Mahmud Kashemi, a Central Committee member of Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI, ‘Protectorate of Islam’) was arrested from the Vatara area of Dhaka city for his alleged involvement in violence during street protests in March 2021.
On April 23, 2021, Nur Hossain Noorani, a central leader of HeI and president of the anti-Ahmadiyya group Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Bangladesh, was arrested from the Munshirhat area of Munshiganj District for his alleged involvement in attacks on Police personnel on March 28, 2021.
On April 22, 2021, three HeI leaders were arrested from three different places for their alleged involvement in violence in March 2021. Khaled Saifullah Ayubi, Joint Secretary General of HeI, was arrested from his village home in Manikganj District. Maulana Sanaullah, Executive Member of Dhaka city HeI, was arrested from a madrasa (seminary) in the New Market area of Dhaka city. HeI’s Joint Office Secretary, Maulana Ihteshamul Haque Sakhi, was arrested from the Bangshal area of Dhaka city.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 25 HeI leaders and 881 activists have been arrested from across the country over acts of violence in March 2021, since April 1, 2021 (data till May 2, 2021). At least 17 people were killed as HeI men clashed with Security Forces (SFs) in different parts of the country, especially in Brahmanbaria District, between March 26-28, 2021. The HeI men were on the streets protesting against the two-day visit (March 26-27) of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. Modi was visiting Bangladesh to participate in the celebrations of Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee of independence.
Some of the arrestees since April 1, 2021 were also involved in violence in May 2013. For instance, Mufti Habibullah Mahmud Kashemi (arrested on April 28, 2021) was accused of leading violence at Shapla Chattar, Dhaka city, in May 2013. He, however, had not been arrested for that crime.
On May 5, 2013, HeI enforced their ‘Dhaka Siege’ programme to mount pressure on the Awami League (AL)-led Government to implement their 13-point demands, including the demand to “pass a law providing for capital punishment for maligning Allah, Islam and the Prophet Muhammad… and smear campaigns against Muslims.” Four civilians were killed and several others injured as cadres of HeI fought running battles with Police across Dhaka, spreading panic across the capital city. 70,000 Islamists marched down at least six highways and took positions at the entry points of the city, stopping road transport and cutting off Dhaka’s road links with the rest of the country. More than 10,000 personnel drawn from the Police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) jointly launched a drive late on May 5, 2013, to clear demonstrators from Dhaka. As violence moved beyond the capital on May 6, 2013, at least 27 persons, including three SF personnel and a HeI cadre, were killed and several other injured in Narayanganj, Chittagong and Bagerhat Districts.
Police later filed cases and investigations began. However, the Sheikh Hasina Government allegedly slowed down the proceedings because the then leader of HeI, Shah Ahmad Shafi, decided to change the organisation’s stance and strengthened his ties with the Hasina Government. Shah died of sudden illness on September 18, 2020. On November 15, 2020, Junaid Babunagri was appointed as the new Amir (Chief) of HeI. Since his appointment, he started asserting radical views and engaging in violent protests. On November 27, 2020, Babunagri put forth four demands before the Hasina Government: stop International Society for Krishna Consciousness’ (ISKCON’s) activities in Bangladesh; officially declare the Ahmadiyas ‘non-Muslim’; close the Embassy of France and expel the French Ambassador; and pass a resolution condemning France in Parliament. HeI is protesting against French President Emmanuel Macron because he has held his ground against attacks by Islamist forces extremists and terrorists on his country’s values and the freedom of belief. Babunagri also threatened to pull down and destroy all sculptures, no matter which party put those up. The outfit led violent protests across the country against installation of sculptures of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for his birth centenary celebrations in 2020. Unsurprisingly, the Government has decided to reactivate the cases for the May 2013 violence.
Meanwhile, on April 24, 2021, Mahbub Alam, Joint Commissioner of the Detective Branch (DB) of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police asserted,
Even though HeI claims it is a non-political organisation, many of its leaders are affiliated with different political parties. Using madrasa students as shields, HeI leaders were carrying out subversive activities to gain power. These leaders conspired in 2013 to oust the Government through HeI. Similar efforts were made through violence centring (around) the Indian Prime Minister’s visit in the country in March this year.
Indeed, in a confessional statement before the Dhaka Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court on April 20, 2021, HeI Assistant Finance Secretary Muhammad Ilias Hamidi admitted that the Islamist outfit’s recent violent activities were aimed at toppling the Government.
Moreover, HeI’s direct links with terrorist groups have also come to the fore. On April 28, 2021, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal disclosed, “Hefajat sometimes gets stuck in political entanglements and gets involved with identified militants and criminals who always act against the state.”
On April 25, 2021, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP)’s Deputy Commissioner (DC) Harunor Rashid said that HeI Joint Secretary General Mamunul Haque had links with the militants who carried out the grenade attack on an Awami League rally on August 21, 2004, which resulted in the death of 24 people and injured over 400. He also disclosed that Mamunul had gone to Pakistan with one of the militants to contact the extremist groups there. “He had political ambitions. He had been thinking about grabbing power with the help of Jamaat-e-Islami,” the official added. All these revelations have come to the fore after Mamunul Haque’s arrest from Dhaka city’s Mohammadpur area on April 18, 2021, for his involvement in street violence in March 2021.
Further, on April 26, 2021, Mahbub Alam, Joint Commissioner of DB asserted, “we have got evidence on Hefajat’s links with militant outfits.” Similarly, Tohidul Islam, Additional Deputy Commissioner of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit, noted,
A number of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) operatives were holding posts in the Hefajat committee. These operatives are now trying to use the Hefajat banner to fulfil their purpose and carry out subversive activities in the country.
According to an intelligence report, the 249-member HeI central committee, which was dissolved on April 25, 2021, had at least eight leaders who were either former operatives of HuJI-B or had connections with the militant group.
HeI was under tremendous pressure from the Government to restructure its central committee by removing from it, those leaders who were involved in the March 2021 violence. As a result, the central committee of HeI was dissolved on April 25, 2021. HeI Amir Junaid Babunagari announced, “The committee has been dissolved on advice of some important members of the central committee.” The HeI Amir also declared that the organisation would run its activities through a convening committee in the interim. HeI is now trying to negotiate with the Government, which continues its crackdown on the outfit’s top leaders. In a bid to convince the Government, an HeI delegation met the Home Minister at his residence on April 19, 2021, and assured him that students of the Qawmi madrasas will not get involved in any anti-Government or anti-state activities.
In another development on April 25, 2021, the highest policy-making body of Bangladesh’s Qawmi madrasas, Al-Hayatul Ulaya Lil Jamiatil Qawmia Bangladesh, decided that the teachers and students of Qawmi madrasas will stay away from all sorts of political activities. HeI is a Qawmi madrasa-based organisation. There are approximately 15,000 registered Qawmi madrasahs in Bangladesh, with 200,000 teachers educating four million students.
On the other hand, on April 26, 2021, Ahlea Sunnah Wal Jama’at Bangladesh Secretary General A.N.M. Masoud Hussein Al-Qadiri demanded a ban on HeI. Ahlea Sunnah Wal Jama’at Bangladesh is an Islamist group based on Sunni edicts.
The Shiekh Hasina-led AL Government has intensified its crackdown on HeI in the aftermath of the violence in March 2021, as intelligence agencies have found numerous connections of the leaders of the HeI with other anti-Government entities. It will be interesting to see how long this crackdown continues, given the past record of the Government’s dealings with HeI.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management