Islamist radicals in Bangladesh have braved Covid-19 and threatened to aggravate it by hitting the streets regularly to topple the Sheikh Hasina government using violence and intimidation, rumour and innuendo and other non-electoral means for a year now.
Hasina’s zero tolerance for terror and determined pitch for development with special focus on health, education , gender empowerment and infrastructure growth has taken the country past Pakistan ( from which it broke away in 1971) and , in many cases, even India.
The attack on a Hindu village on March 14 and social media threats to prevent Indian PM Narendra Modi from setting foot on their soil are the latest salvoes fired by the radicals ahead of the visit of the Indian prime minister.
Modi will be the guest of honour at the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence on Hasina’s invitation, a clear expression of gratitude and recognition of India’s crucial role in the liberation of Bangladesh.
Radical groups like Hefazet-e-Islam have threatened to block Modi’s entry into Dhaka city, calling him a ‘ butcher of Muslims’ in social media posts.
But Bangladesh security agencies say they are well prepared to meet the radical threat, with force if necessary.
“Western human rights proponents severely critique us and even denigrate our nation as a police state because of strong police action against Islamist radicals. But these radicals are not political elements with whom you can debate politically. They believe in force and only force and if we don’t respond suitably, we will descend into chaos like Pakistan,” said Awami League youth leader Sufi Farooq.
Farooq asked whether western human rights groups would “serve sweetmeats” to the white supremacists who attacked White House on Trump’s prodding. “If they don’t do that, they should not criticisise our police action to stop these mindless Islamist radicals.”
Former information minister Tarana Halim says there is a clear pattern to the radical violence.
“First they defy Covid and hit the streets to protest against installation of Mujib statues in the centenary year of our tallest leader. We provide evidence of such statues existing in many Islamic countries but they deface and destroy Mujib statues,” said the actor-lawyer-politician.
Halim said after plunging the nation into chaos over Mujib statues on grounds that it was tantamount to Hindu style idol worship, the Islamists attacked French interests and encircled the French embassy in Dhaka, burning effigies of President Macron.
“They tried to feed on Muslim sentiments after the beheadings and counter-action in France but once police stopped them, they turned to an extensive social media campaign that Bangladesh was getting de-Islamised and Hinduised,” she said.
Mujib statue, France, then the attack on Indian vaccine — Halim said the concerted social media campaign that Indian anti-Covid vaccines were ‘ cow urine vaccines’ and that they will never arrive was all to whip up anti-Indian sentiments which helps radicals and political parties like BNP who are close to them to set a regime change agenda.
“It cuts both ways. Attack India as a radical Hindu country with an anti-Muslim government is now climaxing in attacks on Hindu villages ahead of Modi visit. Doubtlessly these radicals will try to score a point by creating some fuss over Modi’s visit,” said Halim.
But the Modi visit is on a day that marks 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence, a proud moment for the nation created over an ‘ ocean of blood’ in a year the UN has upgraded it from a ‘Least Developed Country” to a “Developing Nation”.
Bangladesh’s Islamist radical fringe with groups like Hifazat and Khilafat-e-Majlis thrive not because they enjoy mass support but because they have powerful backers in regular mainstream politics.
This radical Islamist eco-system, made up of regular parties like BNP and the now-deregistered Jamaat-e-Islami, the radical groups like Hifazat and Khilafat and the terror groups like Jamat-ul-Mujahideen and Ansarullah Bangla and HUJI, have drawn closer in the past decade and complimented each other in a concerted politics of regime change by non-electoral means.
Violent street protests targeting public transport with petrol bombs , attack on government properties and police, vicious social media campaign ( since the mainstream media does not usually play ball) to generate religious hate and extensive covert lobbying on the plank of human rights and democracy has defined the ‘topple Hasina’ effort. They try to draw in disgruntled military elements like 1975 to provide finishing touches to the regime change effort.
“Tarnishing Hasina’s government as ‘hybrid regime’ surviving through questionable exercise of democracy, conveniently overlooks the Islamist eco-system comprising of military-established and Pakistan backed political parties , which are mere outgrowths of the military’s effort to control politics , represent the real hydribisation of political process,” says Bangladesh-watcher Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, author of “Midnight Massacre”, a definite account of the 1975 coup.
Dasgupta says both the BNP and the Jatiyo Party were created by military dictators and operated on the Pakistani model of not-so-subtle military control of politics with covert agencies dictating their agenda. “And the Jamaat-e-Islami was a religious party from the Pakistan era who backed Pakistani rule and opposed the Bengali war of independence and whose party constitution has been now found to be incompatible with Bangladesh’s constitution and its core values.”
Western lobbyists pontificating Bangladesh’s lack of democracy lauds this Islamist eco-system as the legitimate democratic political opposition , opposes the 1971 War Crimes trials which has led to execution of Bengali Islamist figures responsible for mass murder, rape and forced conversions . They resents police action against their violent undemocratic street protests and even call to question Bangladesh’s effective though somewhat heavy-handed response to Islamist terrorism like the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery or the execution of writers, publishers and bloggers. Hasina’s government, on the Golden Jubilee of Independence, has done the right thing by asking for UN recognition of the 1971 genocide with an appeal to Pakistan to formally apologise for it. But Western human rights vendors who pull up Rwadan or Serbian genocidal regimes conveniently look the other way over the 1971 genocide because two big UN players, US and China, backed the Yayha regime and could be dragged into an unseemly controversy for doing that.
The 2015 Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka, in which large number of foreigners were killed , would have crippled Bangladesh’s investment climate and push for infrastructure , had the security agencies not hit back at the terrorists with determination. Within six months of the attack, the entire top leadership of at least two top terror groups, JMB and HUJI, were eliminated and a huge hostage crisis in Sylhet foiled by determined and targetted counter action that prevented a crisis like India faced over the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar.
“It is this determined counter-action that restored faith in Bangladesh leadership ability to roll back terror, so projects like Dhaka Metrorail financed by Japan stayed on course. The conspiracy to cripple our growth had to be foiled by targetted use of force,” says a top Bangladesh security official, but on condition of anonymity. “We did not have a choice.”
India and Bangladesh are destined to grow together. A World Bank report has said that if seamless transport connectivity could be ensured, the national incomes of both neighbours would be hugely boosted and so would their exports to each other. With Bangladesh climbing out of LDC status, it would need the big Indian market to make up for loss of other markets once the LDC status is gone in 2024.
The Islamist radical fringe in Bangladesh may see India as an enemy and India’s home-grown Hindutva may feel Bangladeshis are ‘termites’ but a CSDS survey four years ago pointed to how most Indians see Bangladesh as its most trusted ally, several notches over traditional ally Russia. Bangladeshis account for 23 percent of India’s tourism income and they spent more money than any other group of tourists because they looks to India for all needs from healthcare to Eid-time shopping.
Calcutta’s nursing homes and shopping malls thrives on Bangladesh’s ‘creamy layer’ because the first time a Bangladesh spends money outside the country, 9 out of 10 cases it is in Calcutta. For those who can’t see the reverse flow of working migrants, half a million Indians work in Bangladesh in areas as diverse as from IT to English copyediting. So the ‘infiltration bogey, an outgrowth of Bangladesh decades of tribulations after the 1975 coup, may hurt Indians more than it would hurt Bangladeshis.
Regardless of the fundamentalist rhetoric on both sides of the border, the governments of Modi and Hasina are focussed on improving connectivity, trade and people-to-people relations. Modi’s visit, his first to a foreign country after Covid, drives home the importance India attaches to its ties with its eastern neighbour. There would always be a radical hothead lurking in the shadows who will threaten Bangladesh’s cricket hero Shakib Al Hassan for inaugurating a Durga Puja in Calcutta. There would always be anti-Bangladesh rhetoric blaming infiltration for backwardness of India’s Border States. Cheap migrant labour boosts economies, not undermine them and they flow in on local demand. The Indian workforce in Bangladesh proves that demand-and-supply mechanism.
Hasina, who has addressed India’s security and connectivity concerns big-time, is also determined to stop illegal migration into India or elsewhere for purely economic reasons. An illegal migrant is lost to the host country and never send backs any money. Legal migrants do. Remittances are the second biggest foreign exchange earner for Bangladesh after garment exports. So a former overseas employment minister of Bangladesh told me once: “Every illegal migrant to India or elsewhere is a loss, every legal migrant anywhere in the world is a gain. The military government saw our people as liability, we see them as assets because whatever they earn legally, they bring back and invest in the country.” The 6.15 km railroad bridge on the mighty Padma River, that can boost Bangladesh’s GDP by 1 percent by connecting 21 southern districts with Dhaka capital region, has been financed by Bangladesh’s own resources, primarily through bonds subscribed by expatriate labour.
As Modi and Hasina will rise to salute the two flags to the tune of their nation anthems, they will remember it was written by the same man. And Bangladesh’s success in leaving Pakistan so far behind is an encouragement to every Baloch or Paktoon, Sindhi or Baltistani that military-ruled Pakistan is no answer for their future. It is also a reminder to India’s Kashmiris that they may not have the best deal but Pakistan is no option, as it was not for the Bengali Muslims who were 60 percent of undivided Pakistan’s population.