By Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman*
Walking down the streets of Gulshan and Mohakhali in the central business district of Dhaka, one can sense a curious mix of chaos and order. Various government offices, private and international donor agencies, conference centres, embassies, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants of almost every major international cuisine and upscale residential colonies dot this area and the business activity here is a mark of the growth aspirations of Bangladeshi society. It was here, by the waterfront, in the Holey Artisan Bakery at Gulshan, that the heart of Dhaka was hit by terror on 1 July 2016.
It is clear that homegrown terrorism has shown its ugly face in Bangladesh in a violent, sophisticated and calculated manner. All around the world, where such attacks have taken place in recent memory, it has become increasingly convenient to assign responsibility to various terror front organisations and also for such outfits to take responsibility, be it international or domestic ones. However, one needs to dig deeper and find out how young Bangladeshis have come to this juncture, where they have gone to such depths of radicalisation. It is a long and difficult process to unravel the underlying reasons behind such events; instead of merely blaming the Islamic State (IS) for Bangladesh’s recent terror attacks the situation requires a comprehensive assessment of Bangladesh’s ground reality.
Let us shift attention to the height of the Shahbagh movement in February 2013, when Dhaka was in a frenzy of student-led activism and where students and people from all parts of the country converged, demanding capital punishment for the Razakars (a paramilitary force formed by the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War, 1971) who were accused of leading the brutal killings and rapes during the Bangladesh Liberation Movement. The ruling Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League party and the Shahbagh protestors were politically pitted against the opposition, the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally the Jamaat-e-Islami. The political polarisation between important leaders of the Jamaat was intense amidst the sentencing of the Razakars and this led to a subsequent boycotting of the parliamentary elections by the opposition parties, marking a complete breakdown of electoral democracy.
The opposition-led violence in various parts of Bangladesh left the country paralysed, with the city of Dhaka and several pockets of Jamaat influence in the country witnessing spectacular and barbaric incidents of violence. In the political life of Bangladesh, this trend of violence is the main element that has remained unabated ever since; and disturbingly, has taken on a normalisation trend. Such violence, by the use of machetes, blades, swords etc, has come to be seen as the norm in the narrative of political violence in Bangladesh and the government has utterly failed in containing this. The government of Bangladesh has conveniently chosen to blame all the political violence in the country on its main opposition party and the Jamaat.
In recent memory too Mohakhali and Gulshan have witnessed barbaric incidents of political violence, during strikes, bandhs and hartals, with people being slaughtered on the streets. Conference attendees and other international donor agencies’ visitors have had to be ferried from their hotels to central Dhaka in ambulances on such days and this too is seen as normal. The killings of liberal bloggers, LGBTQ+ rights activists, Hindu and Buddhist minorities in various parts of Bangladesh, including Dhaka, have been witness to similar barbaric violent incidents, which have been covered well in the national and international media. The government has failed to contain such sporadic incidents of brutal killings, and this spectre of violence has taken a mindset form.
The terror attacks at Holey Artisan Bakery and the methods used for killing – in addition to using automatic weapons the attackers cut and mutilated the victims with sharp blades and machetes – are indicative of the normalisation of such violent and brutal means in Bangladesh. This has gained dangerous proportions in the post-Shahbagh political polarisation phase, and the recent attacks have shown that young terrorists are taking to such brutal means as a preferred, and in all likelihood, the normal choice to create terror. The government and the civil society in Bangladesh will have to address these underlying manifestations of violent means, and realise that homegrown terror will take shape from what are generally acceptable and normal modes of violent behaviour.
The events have regional implications as well, and can affect India through its porous borders. India must be well prepared, and not wait for such an event to happen. It must engage with Bangladesh in combating terror activities, which have the potential of spreading in the region. Bangladesh should and must wake up to its ground reality, late as it already is, and take effective steps to revert this process of the brutalisation of political violence, which is now being manifested in terror activities. The restoration of faith in a healthy electoral democracy in Bangladesh is also in its best interests and its larger neighbourhood. Terror and its means are evolving, and the approach to understand it and offer solutions must also evolve.
* Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman
Research Scholar, IIT Guwahati, Assam
E-mail: [email protected]