By Anand Kumar*
Bangladesh has often been seen as a moderate Islamic country. But it has also seen several waves of religious extremism. And in recent times, there has been a fear of Islamic State getting a foothold in Bangladesh.
This fear was especially strong in the aftermath of the July 1 Dhaka Café attack. Fortunately, the prompt action of the government against the terrorist groups and their masterminds did enough to quell the apprehensions of emergence of ISIS in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, ISIS itself seems to be struggling for its survival as the battle for the territory controlled by it rages in West Asia.
But the ideology that the Islamist groups have propagated seems to linger on in Bangladesh.
Its manifestation was seen in the October 30 Brahmanbaria violence where houses and temples of the minority Hindu community have been vandalised. This attack was followed by a couple of more attacks of similar kind.
There is no doubt that the present Awami League government in Bangladesh is secular in orientation and is trying to protect the minorities, but the problem seems to be quite deep.
Bangladesh has always been a divided society where one section of the population is secular but there is also a section which has been extremist. This extremist section seems to be growing in strength as influence of radical ideology has grown worldwide.
Moreover, as Bangladesh depends on migration of its workforce abroad for remittances, it has also received Wahabi and Salafi ideology along with these remittances. The Gulf countries have also fuelled extremism through charities and donations for mosques and quami madrasas.
One such group which is intimately linked to quami madrasas is Hefajat-e-Islam. This group has its headquarters in Hathzari of Chittagong. It has been involved in recent attacks on the minorities in Brahmanbaria. It is also the same group which held Dhaka to ransom when it launched its protest against the secular Gano Jagran Manch — which supports war crime trials in Bangladesh and has called for capital punishment to Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah Kader Molla.
The recent attacks by Hefazat-e-Islam are believed to be in retaliation against the alleged demeaning of Islam by a Hindu, Rasraj Das, who is a fisherman from Brahmanbaria. The group alleged that the person tried to belittle the holy Kaaba. Though the alleged guilty person has been arrested and sent to jail, the Hefajat-e-Islam, along with Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, decided to bring out two protest marches on Diwali day against the minority community. During these marches, cadres of Hefajat-e-Islam went berserk and vandalised at least five Hindu temples and ransacked more than a hundred Hindu houses.
Actually, the modus operandi is quite similar to the 2012 Ramu attacks against Buddhists in Cox’s Bazar. Even then, a supposedly blasphemous post on social media site Facebook was used to attack them. Later, it was found that the alleged culprit did not post it but it was simply tagged on his page by someone and the post showed up on his Facebook page.
Even in the Brahmanbaria case, Rasraj Das has been cleared by investigators of the charge of hurting religious sentiments of the Muslims. The district police has found that the controversial Facebook image that triggered a wave of communal attacks on Nasirnagar Hindus a month ago was not uploaded from Rasraj’s mobile phone. Actually, the post was made from Dhaka. This has also been confirmed by the Forensic Department of Police Bureau of Investigation.
Brahmanbaria is the district of Islami Oikya Jote leader late Mufti Fazlul Haque. It is a stronghold of the Islamist parties in Bangladesh. It has also been a hotbed of extremist and terrorist activities. In January 2016, a music college named after famous Bangladeshi composer and music teacher Ustad Alauddin Khan was vandalised.
The minorities of Bangladesh have been coming under attack at regular intervals. This has created an atmosphere of panic among these people who look towards the Awami League government for protection. But so far, the government has not been very effective in preventing such attacks. The government alleges that these attacks are being orchestrated by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat who want to defame the country. But such allegations do not absolve the government of its responsibility.
It is also believed in Bangladesh that the organisational set up of Awami League has been penetrated by Jamaat-e-Islami and a number of Jamaat leaders have infiltrated the party. In many cases of violence against minorities, these people are suspected to be involved.
To the credit of the present Sheikh Hasina government, it must be said that it has promptly deployed security forces (RAB and para-military BGB) in the affected areas. But unfortunately the local police has not been doing its job with alacrity. The inaction of local police against the extremists has caused concern among the minority community.
Unless the government improves the law enforcement at the local level, violence against the minorities in Bangladesh would be difficult to prevent.
*Anand Kumar is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]