By Rupak Bhattacharjee
The growing incidents of religious intolerance and Islamist violence in Bangladesh have created a vicious atmosphere threatening the country’s peace, stability and liberal democracy. Containing Islamic radicalisation has become a key challenge of governance for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh which witnessed a series of violent attacks unleashed by the religious fanatics on bloggers, writers, publishers, foreign development workers, pastors and some minority groups in the recent period.
In its endeavour to fight religious extremism and terrorism, the Awami League (AL) government of Hasina decided to join Saudi-led counter-terrorism coalition in the second week of December this year. The broad alliance consisting of 34 Muslim nations also includes South Asia’s Pakistan and Maldives.
This development assumes significance against the backdrop of the rapid spread of Salafi ideology and increasing activities of the militant outfits linked to the dreaded international terror network the Islamic State (IS) in the country. Bangladesh State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shariar Alam said Dhaka had agreed to participate in the new Islamic military alliance on principle and underscored the need to discuss the initiative in the parliament before formally acceding to it. He noted that Bangladesh’s decision to take part in the international alliance was in pursuance of the “zero-tolerant” policy of the Awami League (AL) government against “terrorism and violent religious extremism”.
The influence and activities of the IS in Bangladesh has been growing steadily over the last one year or so. The AL government denies the presence of the IS in Bangladesh but the jihadi group is operating in this South Asian nation through its affiliates, including Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen-Bangladesh (JMB). Of late, this decade-old radical Islamic group has embraced Salafi ideology and tied up with the DAESH. It recently threatened government officials and minority communities in the country and stepped up attacks on the religious gatherings of the Shias and Hindus. The JMB and other religious extremist forces are also targeting Christian missionaries and organisations engaged in numerous development works in Bangladesh.
In a bizarre incident on December 18, six Bangladesh Navy personnel were seriously injured in two explosions triggered by suspected JMB militants inside Chittagong’s naval base while offering Friday’s prayer. The security forces promptly arrested two militants, who revealed JMB’s involvement in the terror act, and deactivated five unexploded bombs from the naval base’s mosque. Islamic terrorists’ attack on the Bangladesh armed forces personnel is a new phenomenon and matter of concern for the government of Hasina.
In another incident, the militants attacked a Shiite mosque in northern Bogra district killing a cleric and injuring three other persons. The IS claimed responsibility for launching the offensive against the Shias. This small minority community of Bangladesh was targeted earlier too. On October 24, Islamic militants hurled crude bombs on a religious congregation of the Shias killing one person and injuring 100 others in old Dhaka. Attack on the Shias was never heard in Sunni-dominated Bangladesh. Preliminary investigation confirmed that the violent assault on the 17th century Shiite shrine Hussaini Dalan was planned and executed by the proscribed JMB.
Facing relentless anti-terror crackdown of the security forces across Bangladesh, Islamic militants are now targeting minority groups’ religious functions in desperate bids to prove their relevance in the Muslim-majority nation. On December 5, at least 10 people were injured in a bomb attack on a medieval-era Kantaji temple in northwestern Dinajpur district. Assailants hurled home-made bombs when thousands of Hindus assembled in the temple premises to participate in the “Rashmela” festival. Reports say the priest of the famous temple was warned by the Islamists not organise any major religious gathering. In one more such attack on a religious congregation at an Isckon temple in the same district on December 11, two people were injured.
All these incidents highlight a growing trend of religious intolerance in Bangladesh. This is a disturbing aspect as perseverance of communal harmony and respect for each other’s faith are conspicuous features of the Bengali nation that totally rejected rigid interpretation of Islam more than four decades back and won the war of independence against the religious bigots and fanatics. The non-Muslims have been living peacefully in the country for several hundred years and attack on religious gatherings of the minorities is unprecedented.
Such Pakistan-style jihadi assaults on the military installations and minorities are serious developments which could undermine Bangladesh’s reputation as a moderate Muslim nation. The people of this country follow Sufi-inspired Islam which is rooted in the sub-continent. Bangladesh’s legendary folk singer Lalan Fakir, lyricist Abbashuddin and many others popularised Sufi culture and it has been fully assimilated into the Bengali mores and tradition.
However, Bangladesh now faces the danger of losing its distinctive characteristics as the country’s Islamic discourse is gravitating towards ultra-conservative Salafi ideas. A section of the Bangladeshi clerics is also facilitating Islamic radicalisation and patronising jihadi forces linked to IS and Al-Qaeda. The mushrooming of thousands of Arab-funded Madrassas adhering to Wahabi and Salafi School of thoughts has transformed the narratives on political Islam and complexion of the secular polity in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, the AL government has intensified countrywide counter-terrorism operations and apprehended several militant leaders and activists in recent months. On December 24, the security forces raided a JMB’s hideout in Dhaka’s Mirpur area and arrested six operatives of the banned outfit, including three leaders and seized huge explosives and suicide vests following a brief encounter. One more JMB militant was nabbed the previous day.
The law enforcement and intelligence agencies closely monitor the terror modules of the JMB as it poses a direct threat to the current secular-democratic dispensation in Bangladesh. In a major breakthrough on July 27, 2015, Bangladesh police apprehended acting chief of JMB Abu Talha and seven other cadres of the outfit from the capital city Dhaka.
The Detective Branch (DB) of Bangladesh Police claims that a foreign intelligence agency provided sophisticated communication devices to the JMB to evade the security forces’ increased surveillance on the activities of Islamic militants. The interrogation of the arrested terrorists and confiscation of spy-phones from them clearly demonstrated the jihadi outfit’s close nexus with a foreign intelligence agency. Reports indicate that the JMB is also linked to Pakistan-based Laskar-e-Taiba.
In early December, New Delhi apprised Dhaka that the JMB has once again become active in certain areas of Bangladesh and this might endanger the security of the region, especially along the international boundary. After being driven out of West Bengal, the JMB has been trying to set up bases in Bogra, Sylhet, Rajshahi and Kushtia areas of Bangladesh. The JMB militants, who had earlier been operating in Bengal’s Murshidabad and Burdwan districts, shifted their bases along the border with India.
Following the October 2014 Burdwan blast, New Delhi handed over to Dhaka the dossiers of the jihadi outfit’s plans of launching massive terror strikes to dislodge the secular government of Hasina and establish a Sharia state in Bangladesh. India’s National Investigation Agency submitted a list of 100 JMB operatives to the Bangladesh government last year. Both the South Asian nations have enhanced bilateral cooperation between the security and intelligence organisations to tackle the growing menace of cross-border terrorism during the last one year.
So long, Bangladesh has been cooperating with the United States and India to fight Islamic terrorism at the bilateral level. Such collaboration had yielded positive results and the AL government earned the appreciation of the international community for its firm resolve and measures to uproot Islamic militancy from Bangladesh’s territory and deny any opportunity to the foreign insurgents particularly from India’s restive North-East to use the country as a safe haven. It is expected that by joining Saudi-led multilateral alliance, Bangladesh would be able to deal with the jihadi elements, especially those that are inspired and aided by IS and Al Qaeda, in a more coordinated and effective manner and turn the tide of Islamic radicalisation.
(Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is a New Delhi-based independent political analyst specialising on Bangladesh and the sub-region. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)