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Rise of religious extremism in Bangladesh: A threat to region – Analysis

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By Rupak Bhattacharjee

The Oct 2 blast in Burdwan, West Bengal, has startled the security establishment as the international jihadi outfits’ nefarious designs to destabilise South Asia have come to the fore.

West Bengal has often been used as a transit corridor by the Islamic militants to carry out subversive acts in neighbouring Bangladesh. But the recent blast clearly shows that the state also figures in the hit list of Islamic terrorist groups.

Among other things, the security personnel recovered leaflets of Al Qaeda and CD of its training modules from the blast site. Indian intelligence officials say the security agencies have been examining all angles of the case, including the possibility of the formation of a new jihadi front, Quadat al-Jihad, for the Indian sub-continent by Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. They also have not ruled out the chance of the dreaded terrorist outfit Islamic State’s involvement since “it has a foot print in Bengal”. Recently, security personnel intercepted four youths from Hyderabad while they were “trying to sneak in to Bangladesh en route to Iraq”.

One of the two women arrested from the blast site said during interrogation that for the last three months they had been sending bombs to Bangladesh for terror strikes there. Preliminary investigation has revealed that the people involved in the blast were members of jihadi group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

In another significant development, on Oct 9, Assam Police arrested six JMB linkmen from various parts of Barpeta district. Some of them had undergone ideological indoctrination and training in handling explosives at various madrassas in Bengal’s Burdwan and Murshidabad districts. The possibility of Al Qaeda spreading its tentacles in Assam has added a new security challenge for the state government. The presence of JMB has also been reported for the first time in Assam.

Intelligence agencies believe that there are other Islamic terror sleeper cells in the state and the recent violence perpetrated against the minority community in lower Assam could have radicalised a section of Muslim youths in the districts bordering Bangladesh. Police have identified some districts having considerable Muslim population — Dhubri, Goalpara, Kokrajhar and Karimganj – as vulnerable to Islamic terrorism. Police suspect that these bordering districts may have been intruded by radical Islamic ideologues and jihadi outfits.

Bangladesh has emerged as the major coordinating centre of international jihadi groups and their local collaborators. Reports indicate that the banned terrorist outfit JMB maintains close links with fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. The JMB is totally opposed to the ruling Awami League. The Bangladesh government had already given to India a list of three JMB cadres who were involved in subversive and anti-government activities. They are now believed to be hiding in West Bengal. The Bangladesh government has also requested India to furnish information regarding the Burdwan blast. All these developments demonstrate a sudden spurt in cross-border terrorism having serious security implications for the region.

The largest Islamic party of Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami has been yearning for establishing an Islamic polity based on Shariah. A Bangladeshi political analyst maintains that Jamaat’s ulterior motive is to build a “monolithic Islamic state, based on Shariah law and declare jihad against Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and free-thinking Muslims”. A series of attacks launched in the last one year against religious and ethnic minorities following indictment and conviction of noted war criminals consisting of Jamaat’s top leaders, lend credence to the observation made by him. The civil society of Bangladesh is seriously concerned about the radical agenda of Jamaat and other religious extremist groups.

The religious fanatics have made deep inroads into Bangladesh’s economy and society. Under the names of various trusts and foundations, the Islamists run super-speciality hospitals, banks, educational institutions, transport and pharmaceutical companies with the avowed aim of capturing state power. A US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation report released on July 17, 2012, says that two Bangladeshi banks — Islami Bank Bangladesh Ltd and Social Islami Bank Ltd, have been involved in terror financing. The report says that both the banks are linked to a number of terrorist and jihadi groups based in Bangladesh.

The Awami League government has tightened laws against terror financing. On Feb 16, 2012, Bangladesh parliament unanimously passed an amendment to a 2009 law that had legalised capital punishment for domestic acts of terrorism. The 2012 Anti-Terrorism Act authorised death penalty for terrorists targeting another country from Bangladesh.

Furthermore, on July 15, 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) indicted Jamaat as a political party for its anti-people role in 1971. While sentencing Ghulam Azam, the then party chief of East Pakistan, the ICT observed that Jamaat “functioned as a criminal organisation, especially during the War of Liberation in 1971”. Again in a landmark judgment in August 2013, Bangladesh’s High Court scrapped Jamaat’s registration with the Election Commission and disqualified the party from contesting future elections since its charters are not in conformity with the secular provisions of the Constitution.

Despite all efforts of the present Sheikh Hasina government to contain Islamic militancy, the Bangladesh polity has witnessed a resurgence of radical Islamic groups in the recent period. According to various reports, there exist more than 100 Islamist parties and extremist organisations across the country, including village-level Allahar Dal. Only a few of them have been banned so far but even those continue to operate under different names. The country is often flooded with audio and video propaganda cassettes/CDs containing the ideology and programmes of the jihadi outfits.

Meanwhile, innumerable madrassas affiliated to the Wahabi school of thought have been imparting radical Islamic teachings for a long time. Local reports suggest that some external forces act as facilitators of radical Islamisation process in Bangladesh. While Pakistan is the brain behind such efforts, Saudi Arabia provides necessary funds to sustain the radical agenda.

A radical Islamic movement called Hefazat-e-Islam sprang up from such madrassas in early 2013 and gave an ultimatum to the government to fulfil its 13-point demand, which included introduction of blasphemy law, to reinstate pledge to Allah in the Constitution and making Islamic education compulsory. To press its demands, Hefazat organised two massive rallies mobilising over 100.000 people in Dhaka’s busy commercial area on May 5 and 6 and created mayhem there.

The rise of religious extremist forces not only poses a direct threat to Bangladesh’s hard-won democracy and the process of its institutionalisation but also threatens peace, stability and security of South Asia. Security analysts have expressed concern that the impending drawdown by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops from Afghanistan may possibly bolster the extremist elements to reactivate themselves in Bangladesh. This in turn may constitute a major threat to India, especially in its restive Kashmir and north eastern region.

(Rupak Bhattacharjee has worked as Senior Research Fellow at Kolkata’s Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies and New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management. He can be contacted at [email protected])


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South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor is an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the whole Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news and views content related to the region.

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