By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Bangladesh has experienced a dramatic stabilization over the past year, though contradictory impulses continue to create some confusion, particularly in view of the Government’s decision to retain Islamist elements within the Constitution, against the ruling Awami League’s (AL’s) secular commitments in the past. The ongoing War Crimes (WC) Trials and sustained action against extremist elements have, however, pulled the country back from what appeared, just years ago, to be the edge of the precipice, and transformed the profile of governance in the country.
According to partial data collected by the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), there have been no fatalities related with Islamists in 2011, as compared to 48 Islamist militants, four civilians and three SF personnel killed in 2010.
By November 6, 2011 the Government had arrested 576 militants belonging to various Islamist extremist groupings, including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), and Hizb-ut-Towhid, as against 958 such arrests in 2010, and 23 in 2009. The pattern of arrests over the year suggests that the principal concentration has been directed against HuT and Hizb-ut-Towhid, because of their active penetration into the Bangladeshi society. A total of 165 cadres belonging to these two outfits have been arrested in 30 incidents throughout 2011, including Mahmudul Bari, adviser of HuT and Rajshahi District Ameer (Chief) of Hizb-ut-Towhid, Mohammad Mizanur Rahman. These two organisations have been involved in the aggressive propagation of extremist Islamist ideologies in the country.
Major Islamist extremist arrests included:
April 25, 2011: The acting ‘Chief’ of Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami – Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Abdul Hannan Sabbir was arrested, along with another extremist, from a hideout at Keraniganj in Dhaka District.
April 26, 2011: One of the most wanted leaders of HuJI-B, Rahmatullah alias Sheikh Farid alias Shawkat Osman was arrested at Tongi Railway Station area of Gazipur District.
May 26, 2011: Three JeI leaders, identified as Abu Jafar Mohammad Saleh (District Chief), Abdul Kader (sub-district chief) and Shamim Ahsan (secretary), were arrested from Charduani Dakhil Madrasa in Patharghata sub-district of Barguna District.
June 10, 2011: The General Secretary of JeI Alpana unit, Nazrul Islam alias Mamun, was arrested at West Deka of Chauddagram sub-district of Comilla District.
August 18, 2011: Moulana Yahiya, the newly appointed Chief of HuJI-B was arrested along with his two accomplices at Bhairab in Kishoreganj District.
September 3, 2011: A Majlis-e-Shura (central governing body) member of JMB, Sohag Talukdar, was arrested from his house in the Nalchhiti Sub-district of Jhalakathi District.
September 25, 2011: Police arrested a JeI ‘chief’, Mohammad Jane Alam, from his residence at Katgor in Patenga in Chittagong District.
A total of 22 Left Wing Extremists (LWEs) were killed in 2011 (data compiled till November 6, 2011), as against 46 militants, one civilian and three SF personnel in the preceding year. The District of Pabna has proved to be the epicenter of LWE violence, with the maximum number of incidents taking place there, followed by the Mirpur and Chaudanga Districts.
Significant incidents involving the LWE included:
February 2, 2011: The ‘military commander’ of Purba Banglar Communist Party – Janajudhha (PBCP-Janajudhha), identified as Hafizul Islam Reza, was killed in Santhia sub-district of Pabna District.
February 3, 2011: A ‘regional commander’ of PBCP-Red Flag, Abdul Hamid alias Thosha Hamid, was shot dead by Police in Ataikula Sub-district of Pabna District.
February 9, 2011: A ‘regional commander’ of PBCP-Red Flag, identified as Mohammad Azibor Rahman was killed at Chatmohor sub-district of Pabna District.
April 26, 2011: The Ataikula Unit ‘chief’ of PBCP-Red Flag, Tikka Khan, was killed in Pabna District.
April 29, 2011: The ‘operational commander’ of PBCP-Janajudhha, Ziarul Rahman, was killed in Pabna District.
The total number of LWEs arrested through 2011 was 62.
Bangladesh had, for years under the preceding Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-led regime, been in focus for harbouring various Islamist extremist and terrorist elements, and using these to disrupt the political equilibrium of the region (South Asia), with repercussions echoing across the world. Traces of this troubled past continue to surface from time to time, despite the Sheikh Hasina Wajed Government’s efforts to suppress Islamist extremism in the country.
On July 20, 2011, for instance, the US demanded the extradition of Bangladesh born militants who were recruited and trained by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Senior officials at the Pentagon submitted a list of Bangladeshi militants and demanded their extradition. Earlier, on February 28, 2011, a Bangladeshi Islamist extremist working for British Airways had been found guilty of plotting to blow up a plane after conspiring with US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Since November 8, 2011 Bangladeshi law enforcement officials have been on high alert after the Government received information that the Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) was planning attacks in Dhaka and Chittagong.
The ‘Islam Pasand’ (Islamist) Political parties in Bangladesh are also getting increasingly involved in such conspiracies. On January 6, 2011, a Chittagong Court placed Mufti Izharul Chowdhury, President of a faction of the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ, Islamic Unity Front), on a four-day remand in two cases under the Anti-Terrorism Act and Explosive Substance Act, for alleged involvement in a HuJI-B plot. It was also reported, on June 26, 2011, that there was a possibility that Hizb-ut-Towhid was a brainchild of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), as its founder Bayezid Khan Panni aka Selim Panni frequently reiterated his support to separatist groups as well as ISI-backed Islamist terrorists in India. Links between LeT leader Abdul Majed Bhat and HuJI-B, in the context of the August 21, 2004 Dhaka Grenade Attack, in which at least 23 people were killed, have been established by a Crime Investigation Department (CID) chargesheet filed in July 2011. It has also been alleged that Abdullah Khan of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), involved in the Mumbai blast of July 13, 2011, has been hiding in Bangladesh. Further, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) has revealed that the interrogation of Wasim Akram Malik, a resident of Jammu and Kashmir and key conspirator in the Delhi High Court Blast of September 7, 2011, has mentioned the name of ‘Major Yassir’ a Bangladesh Army deserter, as a co-conspirator. On August 17, the High Court Bench of Justice A.H.M. Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik and Justice Gobinda Chandra Tagore, directed the Bangladesh Government to form a committee to investigate the nexus between IOJ Chairman Fazlul Haque Amini and JMB, al Qaeda and Taliban.
Linkage between Bangladeshi Islamist elements and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the separatist group operating in the north east Indian State of Assam have also been disclosed by intelligence sources. Worse, such linkages went up to the highest levels of the establishment under the previous Government. On July 5, 2011, security sources in Dhaka disclosed that former President Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rahman was a business associate of ULFA chief Paresh Baruah. On September 26, 2011, Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence (NSI) agency launched a probe to investigate Baruah’s financial affairs and investments in the country. Baruah was also involved in the in-famous Chittagong arms smuggling case of April 1, 2004. Apart from ULFA, a number of other Indian extremist groups had their bases in Bangladesh, but these have been dismantled by the Sheikh Hasina Government, and a large number of militants and leaders have been handed over to Indian authorities, while some others remain in Bangladeshi custody. Baruah and the leadership of several other groups have escaped into the only surviving safe haven for north-east Indian rebel groupings along the Myanmar-China border.
In an unfortunate shift impacting on the innate character of the country, the Bangladesh Parliament, on June 30, retained Islam’s status as the ‘State Religion’ with the passage of the 15th Constitutional Amendment Bill. Thousands of protesters marched in capital Dhaka against the adoption of an Islamic Constitution by Parliament, which they believe steered the country away from the secular political culture enshrined in the 1972 Constitution. Protestors were enraged by Sheikh Hasina’s turnaround from the AL’s commitments to a secular ideology from the moment of the country’s birth in 1971. The retention of an Islamic character in the Constitution appears to be motivated by an effort to contain an Islamist backlash against the Government’s widespread arrests of the extremist leadership and the WC trials.
The WC trials, initiated on March 25, 2010, moved forward through 2011. On September 16, 2011, an International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) confirmed the involvement of JeI ‘assistant secretary-general’ Muhammed Kamaruzzaman in ‘crimes against humanity’ during the 1971 liberation war. Earlier, on August 10, 2011, the ICT opened its first case against JeI leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, charged with atrocities during the 1971 War of Independence, including genocide and rape. JeI Chief Matiur Rahman Nizami and secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed have also been formally charged for crimes against humanity. On June 15, 2011, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told Parliament that, “Permanent and qualitative change will come by in the country’s law and order if the War Crimes trial ends.” She said her Government wanted to hold the trial of 1971 Liberation War criminals “as a unique symbol of establishing rule of law and we are trying our level best to complete the process”.
The Government has also initiated a series of trails connected with the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) (formerly Bangladesh Rifles, BDR) mutiny of February 25-26, 2009. The cases include the mutinies at Jessore, Chittagong, Dinajpur, Shatkhira and Dhaka, with trails going on in the Special Courts. In an important development, on September 12, 2011, the Special Court-8 sentenced 182 troopers of the Signal Sector of the erstwhile BDR to rigorous imprisonment ranging from four months to seven years, and fined each of the convicts BNR 100 in the Pilkhana Mutiny case.
2011 also proved productive in terms of the bilateral relations with India, with an official visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka in the month of September, and the signing of significant agreements, including long-pending accords relating to border disputes and the Adversely Possessed Lands (APLs). The Singh’s visit was also preceded by that of Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. Earlier, in July 2011, it was reported that India and Bangladesh had launched a joint census to count populations in 162 enclaves on both sides of the border. On July 15, 2011, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Survey of APLs along the Meghalaya-Sylhet frontier resumed amid tight security at the Sonarhat Border point in Gowainghat sub-district of Sylhet District.
The signing of the ‘Bangladesh and India Coordinated Border Management Plan’, on July 30, 2011, dealing with cross-border smuggling and human trafficking, was also considered a major step towards achieving the goal of establishing a ‘safe-zone’ across the Indo-Bangladesh border. On August 14, 2011, Bangladesh Home Ministry officials disclosed that India and Bangladesh had, for the first time, prepared strip maps of their 4,156 kilometer International Border (IB), towards settling outstanding border disputes. This was followed by the signing, on September 6, 2011, of the agreement on the demarcation of the entire land boundary between the two countries, resolving the status of 162 APLs. During the bi-annual conference of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and BGB, held at Dhaka from September 25 to 30, 2011, the BSF handed over a fresh list of Indian insurgents hiding in Bangladesh to the BGB, requesting action.
A sea change, both in the state’s relations with Islamist extremists and Indian separatist groupings, and in Bangladesh’s troubled relations with India, has done much to heal the self-inflicted wounds that Dhaka has suffered over the past decades. The shift has been far-reaching in its immediate impact, bringing an unprecedented stability, both to the regime and to the broader social and political milieu in the country. Nevertheless, troubling undercurrents persist, and a mishandling of the complex forces within Bangladesh could, once again, revive threats to the tenuous stability that has been secured over the past years.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management