Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Another Year in the Quagmire

If 2005 has any reason to be remembered by it is going to be the several suicide bombings that have left the country in a state of shock and awe. At the beginning of the year bombs started to rip through in public places more frequently. In the first display of its strengths Jama’atul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB) planted 500 bombs in 63 districts across the country: Two people died and around a hundred were injured.
The group became more desperate and defiant as the year progressed. On November 14, the JMB carried out an apparent suicide attack on two senior judges in the northern town of Jhalakathi. Though the assassin Iftekhar Hasan Al Mamun failed to kill himself, but the bomb that he heaved into the microbus ended the lives of justices Sohel Ahmed and Jagannath Pandey. Fifteen days later, in another attack on the country’s modern secular judiciary, two JMB terrorists blew themselves up in the Chittagong and Gazipur courts killing 10 people and maiming hundred others.
Two days later, another JMB terrorist tried to make his way through the Gazipur judge court. The bomber remained alive even after he blew himself up; according to the police he was smiling and saying, "I'll kill them all, blow them off to carry out the order of Allah".
After the Gazipur and Chittagong blasts, the government launched manhunts to nab the big guns of the so-called JMB; Ataur Rahman Sunny, the terrorist outfit’s operations commander, was arrested in the capital and is being interrogated. But a few more arrests that ensued could not stop the terrorists: Bombs were found at schools, under a local bus, at theatres and in different other public places.
While the country faces an uncertain future, the Begums have been going on with their petty squabble. Of them Khaleda has lately threatened to put Hasina behind bars for sedition; Hasina, for her turn, has called Khaleda a traitor for making friends with Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), a party that made several paramilitia groups to help the occupying Pakistani army during Bangladesh’s independence.
In fact, this year, fingers have been pointed at Jamaat as several arrested terrorists have turned out to be members of the JI. Newspapers have run several stories this year exposing several Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders’ role in helping the JMB flourish. The party, however, has remained in denial; this year the party sacked Abu Hena, an MP, for publicly criticising the party leadership as a JMB bastion.
The BNP, a centre right party that does not have a political ideology in particular, relies heavily on the support of the JI. Only time can tell if the BNP will be able to shrug off the JI, which is rapidly becoming more a liability than an asset for the party.

The country’s economy is in a shambles. As prices of essentials have been skyrocketing, Saifur Rahman, the finance minister has stuck to his amphigoric dithyrambs. "Instead of rice, people should eat cabbages," he once said. In another instance he claimed that the country was in full employment, while even moderate estimates suggested that over 20 percent of the country’s total workforce was either unemployed or underemployed. Even a student of Economics would know that full employment is a utopia that even developed countries has not been able to achieve.
Lately the minister has made a fool of himself when he told a gathering that migratory birds should be killed as they were destroying the natural habitat of the local birds. "Who has invited them?" he asked.
This government’s fiscal and monetary policies have made the poor even poorer. Though several shopping centres have sprung up to cater to the nouveaux riches that thrive in a system that breeds black marketing and smuggling.
Throughout the year, the country was in stagflation. When poor people in Rangpur were dying for food in a Monga (famine-like situation generated by seasonal unemployment), in the run up to the SAARC summit, the government spent millions of Taka on beautification of the capital.
Inflation rose to over seven percent; government borrowing has increased alarmingly. The financial market is remarkably dull, though the government tried to force people to invest more by drastically cutting interest rates.
Besides some black marketers and bank loan defaulters, for the ordinary citizens life remains a daily struggle to make ends meet.
When the entire city of Rome was being burned to ashes, King Nero was reportedly playing flute. The country, sadly, has a few more Neros to play with its future. Altaf Hossain Chowdhury made big promises to the public before he went to the WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong. "We will categorically and specifically veto if our demands are not met," he told journalists. "In a boxing match when your opponent moves forward you bloc, and when you move, he will either retreat otherwise he is going to get the knock," Altaf bombastically said. The result: Bangladesh has got nothing from the WTO meet-- Altaf’s comments and the government’s ineptitude have isolated the country; Bangladesh, which used to lead the Third World countries at such summits, could not even get the support of countries like Pakistan and Brazil.
Another Nero on the bloc is the state minister for home Lutfozzaman Babar. The minister has so far outlived nine lives and with the Hawa Bhaban’s blessings before him, it seems we have to make do with Babar for a year more. The government has created the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a so-called elite force, to curb terrorism. Law and order situation, on the other hand, has deteriorated sharply, and to make it even worse, the RAB members have indulged themselves in extortion and extra judicial killings.
The judiciary has been politicised and the BNP faithful have been given appointment in different higher posts. The Election Commission has also fallen victim to a culture of corruption and nepotism that has become ever so pervasive in the country. The parliament has remained ineffective, and, in the absence of the opposition, it is becoming a mere rubber stamp like the forlorn days of Ershad’s autocratic rule.
More journalists were killed this year; instead of providing security to the newspersons, some ministers have made vitriolic comments about the Fourth Estate, saying it is irresponsibly free.
Women are more and more marginalised in a society that has witnessed the birth of fanaticism this year. Though more women are coming out of the ghettos to assert their identities, assaults on women, both sexual and physical, have risen markedly.
People’s right to privacy is going to be clipped in the new year as the government has promulgated an ordinance that allows it to eavesdrop on the ordinary citizens’ telephone conversations.
The government has also decided to establish a unitary education system, which other developing and developed countries have abandoned a couple of decades ago.
The year 2005 has started with a good piece of news though: On January 10, Bangladesh scored their first test win by beating Zimbabwe by a big margin. In fact that is the only good news we come across this year, unusual for a country that, some believe, is the world’s happiest nation. Sad for a country that is going to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its independence in 2006.

Dhaka. December 25, 2005

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dancing with the Devil

Fingers are being pointed to members of the ruling coalition for harbouring terrorists who are killing and maiming innocent people in the name of Islam. With the next general elections in the offing how capable is the government of carrying out the country’s own war on terror?

November 29. Gazipur courthouse. At around 9:45 a young man, small wiry build, walked up the ground floor of Gazipur courthouse with a bag in hand. Within a minute a ball of fire leapt up to the ceiling of the hall building as the man detonated a bomb, killing himself along with seven others. The youth, who was later identified as Abdur Razzak, had made his small grisly place in history as Bangladesh’s first suicide bomber.
Within a minute Razzak died and left the trails of his beastly act behind: Lawyers, who were preparing the day’s case with their clients, tried to run out of the pandemonium, but their legs seemed to have betrayed them. Some tumbled over the debris; others, with a burned leg or a broken arm, managed through the mayhem. Blobs of flesh were seen on the wall of the room, limbs and body parts of the injured were strewn across the grimy floor amid charred furniture and two twisted ceiling fans.
On that fateful day Mohammad Sultan, a farmer, went to the court to consult his lawyer about a long-standing land dispute case. “I was taking a stroll when I heard a big bang and, turning round, I saw a column of smoke gush out from the library,” he says. Sultan left the room only a minute before the blast.
But others were not so lucky. At the entrance to the Chittagong court building Abul Bashar, another suicide bomber, brushed past the doorway where twenty-eight-year old Rajib Barua, a police constable, was getting briefed. A few yards away Bashar blew up a bomb strapped to his thigh: his torso heaved 50 meters up and the lower part of his body turned and twisted by the impact in mid-air as he fell to the ground. The youth, in his late teens, survived for 48 hours but in his way to “martyrdom” killed two and maimed 20 more innocent people.
Of the injured, Rajib Barua is fighting for life in the Chittagong Medical College Hospital. “My son came and told me that he had been posted to Dhaka; I blessed him, wishing every success in his new posting. But how was I to know that something like this was going to happen?” Shimul Barua, Rajib’s elderly father says.
No one knows the answer in a country where every ordinary citizen’s life is at stake.

Both the attacks bore the hallmarks of Jamiatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), a banned outfit which wants to establish a Taliban-styled regime in the country. In fact, in a note tucked into his pocket, the Chittagong suicide bomber had described himself as a Fedayee, Arabic for the one who devotes himself to Allah. “It is a primary warning message from a dedicated Mujahideen for the forces deployed for the judges' security. We will continue our Jihadi mission until establishing an Islamic welfare state,” the note continued.
The JMB’s self-styled spiritual leader Maulana Abdur Rahman, who studied at Medina University in Saudi Arabia, claims that the outfit was formed in 1998. However, the group came under the spotlight in 2004; the JMB has made three front organisations named Mujaheedin Alliance Council, Islami Jalsha and Muslim Rakkha Mujaheedin Oikko Parishad.
The group reportedly has a three-tier organisation. The first tier, known as Eshar, has an unspecified number of members; Eshars are all full-timers and maintain direct links with the seven-member Majlis-e-Shura (Central committee). The second tier, called Gayeri Eshar, has 10,000 members, Bangla Bhai once claimed in an interview. The lowest tier of the group involves those who indirectly assist the group.
Crippling the country’s modern secular judiciary is the so-called JMB’s prime objective it seems, for within 48 hours after the gruesome twin bombings, another JMB member was arrested while trying to make his way through the district commissioner’s office in downtown Gazipur.
On November 14, two JMB members, in an apparent suicide mission, killed two senior judges in the northern Jhalakathi town. Two months before this ghastly attack on the country’s judicial system, “as a warning”, the extremist group planted 459 bombs across the country. In a leaflet left near the blast scenes, the group called for a quick establishment of the Sharia law.

It indeed took the government longer than usual to accept the idea that religious extremism does exist in the country. It is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four-Party Alliance (FPA) that had been vigorous in denying the presence of zealots in the country. The history of the BNP’s denial and a string of unabated extremist activities date back to March 6, 1999 when first such blast killed 10 cultural activists in Jessore at the annual gathering of the Udichi, a cultural organisation. Since the Jessore blast, the BNP had been rubbishing claims made by local and international media that Islamist outfits were, in fact, engaged in violent activities to usurp the country’s democratic polity.
In the run up to the 2001 general elections, bombs ripped through different public places across the country more frequently. Though in its five-year term in the office the Awami League (AL) failed to nab the masterminds behind the blasts, the party leaders laid the blame at the door of the BNP, who formed an alliance with two religious parties, namely Jamaat (JI) and Islamic Oikko Jote (IOJ).
The BNP-led FPA eventually won the elections, and the first blasts in its term took place on December 21, 2002 at four movie theatres in Mymensingh. Khaleda Zia was quick to find the perpetrators: “It is the act of those who are making anti-Bangladesh campaign at home and abroad,” she said. The centre of Khaleda’s diatribe was AL-chief Sheikh Hasina, who only a few days ago told a European audience in Brussels that sympathisers of Al-Qaeda were ruling Bangladesh.
In fact, up until the Gazipur twin blasts, when it came to curbing extremism the BNP had persued a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde policy.
The infamous Siddiqul Islam alias Azizur Rahman alias Bangla Bhai who would later unleash a reign of terror in northeastern Bangladesh was arrested once while trying to launch an attack on Topon Poddar, an AL leader. But the thug was subsequently freed and later formed Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), which grouped its members in 10 camps in Baghmara, Raninagar, Naldanga, Singra and Atrai.
Though independent media portrayed the JMJB as the armed wing of the JMB, a section in the government through some state machinery actively supported Bangla Bhai who started to slaughter citizens across the northern and northeastern parts of the country. Noor Mohammad, divisional inspector general of police, told the Daily Star on 4 May 2004, that Bangla Bhai and his men were helping the police maintain law and order. “We have asked different police stations to support them whenever they (JMJB men) go to catch outlaws. You know that the Shorboharas (left-wing extremists) have been quite active for many years and it is not possible for the undermanned and ill-equipped police force to hunt them down. Aziz is helping us,” he said.
BNP’s joint secretary Baghmara unit Besharat Ullah endorsed the JMJB’s killing operations by addressing the JMJB’s first public rally.
A part of the BNP-led FPA did not change its unwavering support to the JMJB when newspapers ran gruesome reports carrying photographs of men hanging from a tree upside down, tortured to death by Bangla Bhai’s boys. The photographs had prompted the government to launch a mockery of a drive to arrest the infamous operations commander of the JMB. On May 27, 2004, Noagaon police sought the media’s support to nab Bangla Bhai. The notorious criminal who had already killed and maimed hundreds, on the other hand, seemed to be readily accessible to the press: in an interview published in local dailies he said that “three ministers and a BNP lawmaker” had assigned him to launch an “anti-outlaw operation” in the northeast.
Such help by the same coteries, in fact, continues even after the JMB has claimed responsibility for countrywide simultaneous blasts. In one instance, on November 27, a desperate deputy minister from Rajshahi, called the police to release Mahtab Ali Khamaru, a JMB cadre, who, according to police sources was behind the killing of three suspected Purba Banglar Communist Party activists. Before his arrest Mahtab had boasted several times to the press that the police would not be able to “keep him for long” as the deputy minister was behind him. His claims have reportedly turned out to be correct. According to newspaper reports, three BNP MPs, Aminul Haque, Fazlur Rahman Potol and Ruhul Kuddus Dulu opposed the police actions against JMJB saying the outfit was on a “pro-people mission” freeing the northern region of left wing extremists.
The JMJB and JMB activities in the country, meanwhile, continued unabated. On January 30 this year, the groups circulated a leaflet in Rajshahi calling for Muslims to prepare for a holy war. “The groups committed to jihad, like in many other countries, had flourished in Bangladesh as well to fight the conspiracies of Kafirs and to retain the glory of Muslims,” the leaflet titled ‘Qurbani and Jihad Fi Sabilillah’ declared. No one was arrested.
Under increasing pressure from international donors to clamp down on these Jihadi outfits, the government banned the JMB and JMJB on February 23 for engaging in “subversive activities”. Muhammad Asadullah al-Ghalib, professor of Arabic at Rajshahi University and a leader of a shadowy Ahale Hadith Bangladesh, was subsequently arrested. But the spiritual leader of the JMB proved out to be a tough nut to crack: Ghalib did not disclose any significant clue regarding his accomplices; the professor is still in jail. Two photographs of Abdur Rahman, head of the JMB and, and Bangla Bhai were circulated through the media. Though the government has made a promise to give “huge cash rewards” to anyone who can provide the law enforcers with any significant clue regarding these two terrorists, both the men are at large.
Except for providing mere lip service, the government did not take any cut-and-dried step to nip the terror in the bud. On the contrary, five days later the government slapped a ban on the groups, the Daily Star ran an investigative report that exposed another government official’s help in JMJB activities. With the help of eyewitness accounts and a special government report it showed that Masud Mia, the superintendent of Rajshahi police, used his office to help Bangla Bhai flee, even after the prime minister herself had ordered his arrest.

The FPA leaders, at the same time, are going on with the same old claptrap. Khaleda Zia in a long-overdue statement has condemned terrorism asking the public not to heed to the zealots. She, however, has got a bunch of colleagues who have earned a good deal of notoriety for coming up with antithetic statements about religious extremism.
“There is a conspiracy going on to prevent Islamic revolution in the name of taming militancy,” Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, a leader of the IOJ told a public meeting in Mymensingh on August 25, a day after Ghalib was arrested.
“The government has launched the crackdown in the line with the US. The main opposition has also provoked the donor agencies to this take anti-Bangladesh and anti-Islamic stance,” Mufti Abdur Sattar Akon, a Jamaat MP reacting to the ban imposed on the JMB and JMJB told the Daily Star on the same day.
Akon’s boss, the JI chief Matur Rahman Nizami’s stance is even stranger. “Bangla Bhai does not exist in reality, it is a creation of the media,” he said when the marauding criminal was butchering people in the name of hunting down left-wing insurgents. Nizami remained the Devil’s advocate even after terrorists planted 459 bombs across the country. According to a BBC report he pinned the crime on the Research and Analysis Wing of the Indian Secret Service.
Nizami, who himself actively opposed Bangladesh’s liberation war by forming paramilitia Al-Badr, came up with another theory when terror struck in Gazipur. In an in interview with ATN, a local TV channel Nizami, who is also the Industries Minister, accused the independent media for fomenting terrorism by highlighting incidents of militant activities.
The party summarily denies involvement whenever the press comes up with the JI members’ involvement with the JMB; the JI remained silent when newspapers ran Bangla Bhai’s interview where he declared that till 1995, he was a member of Islami Chatra Shibir (ICS), the student wing of the JI. Ghalib, the militant guru, also turned out to be a former member of the ICS. Newspapers have found Moulana Washiqur Rahman, a Satkhira JI leader, to be a JMB ideologue. Abdul Khaleq Mondal, the JI MP of the area described him as a supporter, but locals beg to differ: “…Rahman, who has been on the run since the countrywide serial blasts, was always the host to militant kingpin Bangla Bhai or other JMB top brass whenever they visited the area… Locals said that Washiqur has a very close personal relationship with the local Jamaat lawmaker and if the people should meet Khaleq Mondal they have to go through Washiqur,” the report said.
Local and national BNP leaders, too, cannot avert accusation of indulging the extremists. A few weeks ago the party sacked Abu Hena, an MP elected from Baghmara constituency, for washing the party’s dirty laundry out in the open. “Islamic militancy started to spread in Bangladesh soon after Jamaat-e-Islami had come to power, riding on the BNP. The militants in fact did not exist four years ago,” Hena has told newspapers. He has categorically named Aminul Haque, the telecommunications minister, as a closet Jamaati, saying some BNP MPs in connivance with the JI and IOJ are helping the militants get a free hand.
Hena’s comments have opened a whole new Pandora’s Box. Col Oli Ahmed, a former minister and BNP MP, denounced Hena’s expulsion, terming it as unfortunate. Mosharraf Hossain, a BNP whip in the parliament, has bombarded the headquarters by describing some of his colleagues in the FPA for acting as JMB’s stooges.
In the wake of repeated media reports that the JI and IOJ have links with the militants, the BNP high command has now made it a policy decision to defend the JI. Like the way a zealous mother would guard her peerless scion, the BNP is trying to fend off any possible threat to JI’s politics. “Anti-Jamaat forces are planting bombs to undermine the coalition government,” Nazmul Huda, senior BNP leader and communications minister, said.
The history of the BNP’s reliance on religion as a political tool to woo the masses goes back to its birth. Since its formation the party gave shelter to a wide array of politicians: from dormant fundamentalists to frustrated Maoists, Gen Ziaur Rahman had a place for everyone in his newly founded party. In fact it was Zia who lifted the ban on the JI and like-minded fundamentalist groups, who had been banned for collaborating with Pakistani occupation forces during Bangladesh’s liberation war. It must have been for petit power politics, for Zia, a valiant freedom fighter, made Shah Azizur Rahman, a well-known collaborator his prime minister. Zia dumped socialism and secularism from the constitution and harboured religious-- at time fanatical elements-- of the society.
Lt Gen Ershad seized power in a bloodless coup in the aftermath to Zia’s death and later formed his own party; Ershad followed Zia’s footstep very firmly: whenever the dictator brewed a problem, he resorted to use religion to cling on to power. Ershad made Islam the state religion, and it was during his vile and corrupt rule that Jamaat’s call to establish “Allah’s law and good people’s administration” gained strong foothold in some small pockets in the Bangladeshi hinterland.
In 1991, in the first general elections after the restoration of democracy, the BNP surprised everyone by winning 140 seats. It formed a majority government with the help of the JI. In the run up to the 1996 elections, the JI formed an alliance with the AL to oust the then BNP government. The AL eventually ditched the JI and with everyone fighting their own battle the JI that won 18 seats in 1991 failed miserably to win even the expected number of seats. The BNP, without the help of JI and IOJ, lost a significant number of seats to the AL that later formed the government. As far as the paradigm of votes were concerned, the elections had shown that the BNP would never go to power alone without the help of small fringes of religious parties like Jamaat. Thus a marriage of convenience was formed between the BNP and the JI, both knowing that each of them would be indispensable to the other. In the 2001 general elections the BNP made alliance with the JI and IOJ and their combined alliance got 46 percent of the total vote. In the same elections the AL bagged 41 percent vote, which means if the BNP and the JI fight the next elections alone, chances are high that both the parties will lose a large number of marginal seats to the AL. This equation, along with the government’s failure in almost every sector, has made the BNP jittery and puts BNP’s all the apparent goodwill to curb fanaticism into question. With the general elections looming over the horizon only time can tell if the BNP is capable of sincerely curbing religious extremism, an act that may irk its two major allies.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Big Brother is Watching

Afsan Chowdhury, an independent media analyst and former correspondent of the BBC, believes it's no secret that the intelligence agencies frequently tap phone calls. " I was told that government agencies had tapped Selim Samad's phone to track him down while he was running away from home fearing police arrest," Afsan says. Samad, a stringer working with two visiting Channel Four journalists was arrested and later charged with sedition for working with the foreign newsmen.
Though different intelligence agencies have long been doing it, eavesdropping on phone conversation is illegal. In fact, tapped materials cannot be produced before the court as breaching individual's privacy, in such a way, is declared an offence by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Act 2001.
Section 71 of the Act states, "A person commits an offence, if he intentionally listens to a telephone conversation between two other persons, and for such offence, he shall be liable to be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding 50 thousand Taka or both." But the government has recently decided to amend the law, allowing its spies to overhear people's phone conversation and bust emails, a recently published newspaper report says.
The report, quoting an unnamed source says, a leading intelligence agency backed by others has initiated the move and has been able to persuade the Prime Minister's Office to bring changes to the law, citing the rise of terrorist activities in Bangladesh and September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Political Advisor to the Leader of the Opposition Sheikh Hasina Wajed, thinks government's logic behind enactment of such draconian law is flimsy and self-contradictory. "BNP led Four Party Alliance claims the law and order situation is good in the country; and at the same time they are enacting laws that you need when the country is in Emergency or at war with external enemies," Saber says.
On the other hand, amending the existing telecomm act on the pretext of fighting terrorism is laughable. Even the US government, in its much- criticised Homeland Security Act, wasn't able to put clauses that would breach individuals basic privacy, Saber says. "The government, which was on a repressive mode, has found a deceitful excuse in the terror attack on the twin towers," he says. Saber declares the move as the single most dangerous attack on personal liberty.
Ironically the government, particularly the office of the home minister, has been vigorous in denying the presence of AL-Qiada-like terror groups in the country. But if the government goes on with its move to amend the law, might be seen as tacit admission of its failure to curb religious extremism.
Interestingly, the proposed law will not be able to track down foreign terrorists who are using Bangladesh as their sanctuary. "A post-paid GSM mobile user either from India or Pakistan or from any other country can roam in Bangladesh. If one such user is an insurgent, or drug dealer or arms smuggler and visits here, the local intelligence may tap calls but cannot catch the caller, unless the corresponding GSM provider reveals the address," writes telecom expert Abu Saeed Khan, in a local daily. Everything will then depend on the goodwill and telecom law of that particular country. Goodwill and security measures won't work on terrorists using cells from multiple GSM service providers, Saeed says. In fact, it will be practically impossible to trace the terrorist if he uses different addresses.
So all roads lead to a plausible conclusion-- whatever the government says, this law is meant to be used on political dissidents. Many fear, the proposed amendment, when it takes effect, will be used as a weapon of blackmailing. "They can distort the voice, using the latest gadgets, and can later use it to blackmail people," Debashish Paul, a schoolteacher comments. Saber, too, thinks the government might record "different words in a particular conversation to produce a twisted version of it to the court as evidence."
Ironically, the main opposition, Bangladesh Awami League (AL), an otherwise street agitation-savvy organisation, has so far remained unusually silent about the new measures. Debashish believes the AL's silence can only be explained in one way--the party wants to use this law whenever it returns to power. "This law is going to be another Special Powers Act,' says Debashish, referring to the infamous law that allows the arrest and confinement of any citizen without any warrant or whatsoever for as long as 30 days. "This is unfortunate. Our elected government is making a law that would have put Hitler and his entire Nazi apparatus to shame," Debashish bitterly says.

September 26, 2003

This article was published in the Znet.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Heart of the Matter

As a nation that fought a bloody and ruthless war to assert its cultural identity, what does Pahela Baishakh mean to the Bangladeshi Bangalis in the 21st century?

Bangladeshis are a confused and confusing bunch when it comes to the question of defining its cultural identity. Religion and culture intermingle constantly and the conflict between these two creates widening gaps between different groups. Initially after the British Imperialists colonised the Sub-continent, Muslims, who had just lost power to them, had refused to learn English, and stuck to Persian and Arabic. Hindus, on the other hand, collaborated with the colonisers, and Muslims, in general, lost out on their share in the power structure.
Many Muslim converts, descendants of low-caste Hindus only a hundred years ago, leaned more and more towards a culture that remained alien even to themselves. For around 200, date-trees, deserts and minarets epitomised Muslim culture in this part of Bengal. Some even took up surnames like Sheikh and Syed just to deny their Hindu past. In fact, to get popular vote, Sheikh Hasina, leader of a supposedly secular Awami League once boasted that her ancestors came from the Middle East as Muslim saints. Bangali Muslims' insecurity is tied to denial of the past, and it has been haunting them since the conversion of faith. Bangalis' search for finding the roadmap for its culture lies in the painful struggle between their past and the resulting insecurity.
The division of Bengal in 1905 first made Bangali Muslims aware of their cultural presence on this land. Though it was meant to divide the Bangalis who had become a thorn in the flesh for the Raj, Muslims in this part of the volatile province first realised that their interest did not lie with the predominantly Hindu west.
Division of Bengal was, however, scrapped later; and to compensate the Bangali Muslims, a university was set up in Dhaka in 1921. Interestingly Dhaka University (DU), which was a result of Bangali Muslims' cultural and political aspirations, later contributed to the spread of secular values in this part of the Sub-continent.
After the establishment of Pakistan, from the Language Movement of 1952 to the Independence war, DU remained on the forefront of East Pakistani Bangalis' struggle for cultural identity.
Bangalis, who overwhelmingly voted for Jinnah's Two Nation Theory, got a jolt when the Pakistani ruling class refused to recognise their mother-tongue as one of the state languages of the newly independent country. It was during the Pakistan era that the Bangali Muslims first tried to excavate its root that it had lost to an otherwise alien Arab culture. They started to celebrate Pahela Baishakh and Choitro Shonkranti en mass, and the Pakistanis viewed this as a revival of Hindu culture in them.
In fact, in the run up to the Liberation war, it was as if the Bangali Muslims truly believed they had discovered their cultural root in secular Socialism.
Though, one of the major reasons of it was the conflict of interest between Bangali and West Pakistani bourgeoisie, the emergence of Bangladesh has also proved that religion alone can bind a country together only for the time being. Thus the people who endorsed the formation of Pakistan 24 years ago took up arms again to break it.
The situation, however, has changed immediately after Independence. From day one, the newly emerging Bangali ruling class started to use Islam as a tool to hold its grip on power. Horseracing was banned; Sheikh Mujib's Awami League, which led the country towards independence, soon put an embargo on cabaret and gambling to keep the country in tune with religious values.
The trend to make Bangladesh more Islamic continued during the military rule that followed. Ziaur Rahman dumped Secularism and Socialism; Ershad, Zia's predecessor, soon followed his footsteps like an overzealous convert. Ershad made Islam the state religion and a law was enacted which required citizens to get a license to drink alcohol.
This so-called Islamisation of the country has gained a new momentum since the restoration of democracy in 1990, through a mass upsurge that witnessed the fall of Ershad's corrupt and autocratic rule. The subsequent governments that came after Ershad's fall, have, in fact used Islam to reap political dividends.
A Pahela Baishakh celebration on Ramna Green was bombed in 2001; both the BNP and AL governments have so far failed to nab any of the culprits. Even the Punjabi ruling class, who during the forlorn days of Pakistani rule saw the programme organised by Chayanot as a Hindu-ploy, had never dared to bomb it.
It was, in fact, the so-called Islamisation of the country that has contributed to several bomb blasts that have ripped through some cultural and political gatherings in the country in the last 13 years.
Besides this ever-growing tendency to mix religion with politics, secular Bangla culture is facing another menace: Satelliteculture. As it has happened before, big cultures influence its smaller counterparts and change the latter forever. Post-communist Imperialism is thriving to establish a monoculture, where the brand names are the new demi-gods, where one's value in the society depends on one's purchasing power.
The Khans, who now determine what middle-class Bangali men will wear, do not belong to the Khanshenas that the Bangladeshis so fiercely fought to get independence from. The Parvati, whose latest chiffon makes every middle-class Bangali woman go crazy, is not from Indian mythology either. These demi gods and goddesses adorn the Bangali's idiot box and influence their lives.
Another cultural expansionism, meanwhile, has been going on. The 13 small nationalities that have been staying in the South eastern part of the country were advised to become Bangalis in 1973. Ironically the people who gloriously fought for their mother tongue have denied these indigenous people the same rights-- their languages are not constitutionally recognised. History repeated itself when they took up arms for their political and cultural rights. Ziaur Rahman's government made small settlements in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where hordes of poor Bangalis were lured to build their houses. Subsidised food and clothing were given to these people, who were used as a buffer between the Army and Jhumma people. Ironically, the Pakistani occupation army used the same techniques against the Bangalis during Bangladesh's Liberation War. Though a treaty was struck a few years ago between the government and indigenous people, peace remains an elusive dream.
Bangalis' quest for their cultural identity, too, remains as problematic as ever. The onus is on them to find what they really are. Whatever the answer, one thing is for sure, it cannot lie in mimicking an alien culture the way their Bangali Muslim predecessors did during their futile attempts to become more Muslim than Bangali during the time of the Raj.

April 14, 2005

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Marriage of Convenience

The government woke up from a long slumber last week. In the wake of widespread local and international criticisms, it banned Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jama'atul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), and arrested four leaders of the banned groups.

What took the government so long? With the shadows of its two fundamentalist allies pulling strings from behind, how capable is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to rein in these militant outfits?

The BNP's reliance on religion as a political tool to gain popular support dates back to its birth. Born in the cantonment by a military ruler, the party gave shelter to a wide array of politicians. In fact Gen Ziaur Rahman's BNP was a classic example of unity of the opposites. From frustrated Maoists to dormant fundamentalists, the party had a place for practically each and everyone who sought its shelter.

That stance was hardly changed when the party surprised everyone by winning the 1991 general elections. As far as the paradigm of votes was concerned, 1991's general elections had shown that it would never go to power alone without the help of the religious elements of the society.

The Awami League, BNP's archrival, which was deemed to win the elections, soon followed the BNP's path. The party had always boasted on its secular credentials; but at the first party conference immediately after the defeat, the AL dropped socialism from its party manifesto; and Sheikh Hasina, the party leader started to wear a head-scarf, apparently to become more Islamic than her BNP counterpart.

To shrug off the centre-left brand that the party had been wearing since its formation around 50 years ago, the party made an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JI). In a move that irked most of its secular supporters, the AL even launched simultaneous programmes with the JI, who only a year ago had been a political pariah.

The AL eventually dumped Jamaat, and the party, which won 18 seats in the previous elections, did not fare well-- with every party fighting its own war, the JI only bagged two seats. That disaster taught the JI a harsh lesson: Without the help of BNP, the party would not be able to proceed further.

The BNP, on the other hand, which failed to get even the expected number of seats, had learnt something that is no less jarring for its polity. The BNP can lose JI's friendship only at its peril; thus a life-long marriage of convenience was born. In the general elections that followed the AL tasted the most humiliating defeat in its political history in the hands of the BNP-JI led Four-Party Alliance.

Immediately after coming back to power, riding on an electoral landslide, the Alliance blamed the opposition for the bomb blasts that had rocked the country during the AL's five-year term in office. In fact from the very first such blast, because of its sheer political insecurity, the BNP have been blaming the AL for hatching a conspiracy to tarnish the country's image in the eyes of the donors.

It remained conspicuously silent when newspaper reports suggested that a section of BNP members had been giving shelter to Bangla Bhai, the so-called operations commander of the recently banned JMJB. The party broke the silence at times only to deny the existence of the group.

Arrests, meanwhile, went on. Local police made some significant breakthroughs and the arrestees, who confessed carrying out a number of terrorist acts, were granted bail.

In the wake of a barrage of international criticisms, the prime minister ordered Bangla Bhai's arrest a few months ago. But the police have so far failed to nab the notorious criminal, who allegedly in connivance with some local BNP leaders, has established a reign of terror in northern districts of the country.

That double standard got a jolt last week when the government was excluded from a conference on "Good governance" jointly organised by the European Union, the World Bank and the US State Department. While the exclusion came as a slap in the face for the Alliance, M Saifur Rahman, the finance minister, cried innocence.

"If there is a meeting on Bangladesh's development process, this should be held in Bangladesh. We are a sovereign country," he told journalists a day before the conference begun.

Ironically the government started to clamp down on the JMJB and JIB from the day the Washington meet began. Four leaders of JMJB, JIB and Ahale Hadith Bangladesh (AHM) were arrested on February 24 in a pre-dawn raid across the country. Both the JMJB and JIB were banned; and the press note that followed blamed the groups for carrying out some of the blasts that took place in the country in the last 10 years.

The Finance Minister's claptrap, meanwhile, has remained as vigorous as ever. Even the day his government slapped a ban on the JMJB and JIB, Saifur termed the newspaper reports on Bangla Bhai and cronies as "foul propaganda".

Immediately after the February 23 arrest, reports on these extremist groups started to flood the front pages of different local dailies. Eleven more activists of the banned outfits were arrested in Dinajpur and the police seized bomb-making materials, printers, acid, electric wires and batteries.

The BNP's two religious partners in the alliance have reacted sharply to the clamp down. Of them, Fazlul Haque Amini, leader of Islami Oikko Jote (IOJ), a small constituent in the Alliance, said, "There is a conspiracy going on to prevent Islamic revolution in the name of taming Islamic militancy".

Maulana Abdur Rob Yousufi, general secretary of a faction of the IOJ) goes further. Asked to give his reaction about the banning, Yousufi told the BBC's Bangla service, "There is no Islamic militant organisation in the country."

The JI has remained dead-against the idea of a crackdown. "The government has launched the crackdown in the line with the US. The main opposition has also provoked the donor agencies to take anti-Bangladesh and anti-Islamic stance," JI MP Mufti Abdus Sattar Akon told the Daily Star.

Chances are high that the BNP's new-found zeal will die down when the attention of local and international media shifts to a different issue. Many observers have termed it as eyewash while the others want to wait and see if the BNP will walk down a path it has never taken before. If the party does change its attitude towards the issue of religious extremism, it will mark a major shift in the BNP's one-and-half decade old history. With the next general elections getting closer, only time will tell if the BNP is capable of taking a U-turn.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Living in a Tinderbox

While all the major political parties remain indifferent, ordinary citizens have been trying to come to terms with the bomb blasts that have created a sense of panic in this dangerously divided society.

Twenty-four-year old Moumita Chowdhury was talking to her fiancé at a Pahela Baishakh gathering when a bomb went off in Ramna Green in 2001. Panic gripped her and she ran for cover as a string of blasts soon followed. Shrapnel hit her left thigh when a bomb exploded in an abandoned package a few paces away.
Moumita, then a student of economics, was taken to a private clinic where her left leg was amputated. Four years after that traumatic incident she is still trying to grapple with life. Her fiancé left her immediately after the surgery; and Moumita, a budding Rabindra Sangeet artiste at that time, quit singing. "I know my life will not be the same again," she says.
Like several other blasts that have ripped through the country in the last 10 years, police investigation into the blasts has failed to make any significant headway.
The subsequent governments' failure to bring the culprits to book has given birth to widespread rumours. Of them, a long-running conspiracy theory, primarily aimed at the ruling BNP-led coalition government, blames Islamic extremists for the attacks. In its full five-year term, the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) could not nab the culprits behind the blasts, but this did not deter the party from speculating about the identity of the culprits. Fearing an electoral defeat to the BNP, the AL fed several rumours before the 2001 general elections that pointed the finger at BNP's electoral allies Jamaat and Islamic Oikkya Jote.
The AL, however, failed to get the cutting edge over its archrival in the general elections. The BNP, with the help of its Islamic allies, came back to power riding an electoral landslide; and blasts, meanwhile, have continued to rock the country at a regular interval.
Another conspiracy theory has taken birth at the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headquarters. To repel a barrage of local and international criticism that accused the party for being lenient with the religious fundamentalists, the BNP shifted the blame on the AL. Immediately after coming to power in 2001, the party blamed the AL for planting bombs in public places to portray the country as a haven for Islamic extremists. This disturbing trend repeated itself when grenades were thrown at Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the opposition, at a rally in Dhaka on August 21 last year.
In fact, in the aftermath of the killing of the former finance minister SAMS Kibria, in a characteristic display of arrogance, the BNP has blamed the AL for taking the injured leader to Dhaka on a microbus, instead of waiting in Habiganj for the government-sent helicopter to come. The party has never publicly apologised, though local newspapers have found that it was the government that took an unusually long time to make any decision about sending a helicopter for the injured AL-leader. In fact, investigation shows that the government never really informed the AL or Kibria's family about the availability of the helicopter, if such a decision was taken at all.
Though 22 AL-workers, including party leader Ivy Rahman, died in the August 21 blasts, questions were raised by some BNP members as to how Hasina survived the mayhem when so many people had died.
Bomb attacks, meanwhile, have continued; on February 16, eight people were critically injured in two identical bomb attacks on two BRAC offices in Naogaon and a branch of the Grameen Bank in Sirajganj. Three grenades were later recovered from another BRAC office.
Public opinion about the blasts has remained dangerously divided in a country where politics dominate people's lives. In the absence of any proper investigation, rumour has remained people's only source of information.
Brig Shahedul Anam Khan, a security analyst, thinks both the major political parties' indifference is helping the culprits to get away with the crime.
"The AL has never been serious in its claim; if they had really believed what they say now, they would have been able to arrest some zealots while they were in power. The BNP, on the other hand, has been amazingly soft on the extremists. Otherwise, how would you explain the fact that when the whole world believes in the presence of religious extremists in the country, why would the BNP try to hush this thing up?" Anam asks.
In fact, as the history of these blasts go, both the parties' ambivalent political stance has been the prime hindrance to a proper investigation.
"The government, it seems, does not want to run an independent investigation as they fear it will open a whole new Pandora's box.
"How can one expect the police to nab the culprits when the prime minister herself thinks the AL is behind the killing?" Anam asks.
The government has remained conspicuously silent when the so-called Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (Awakened Ordinary Muslims of Bangladesh; JMJB) has been killing ordinary citizens in the name of Islam. Though the PM has ordered a crackdown on the militant outfit, the police have failed to arrest Bangla Bhai, the so-called operations commander of the JMJB.
Lately the police have made some arrests, and of them, Shafiqullah, a member of the JMJB, has confessed the party's link to some blasts that took place across the country.
"The JMJB is determined to carry on attacks on all forms of anti-Islamic activity until an Islamic revolution takes place in the country," he says in a statement given to a First Class Magistrate. He admitted that JMJB had been responsible for a number of bomb attacks on NGOs.
Farman Ali, another JMJB member who was arrested in Natore, told the police that JMJB operatives regularly held meetings at the Baitul Mukarram Mosque and Kakrail Mosque in Dhaka to chalk out their plans.
In fact, alarm bells were raised on September 19, 2003, when police arrested Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of Jamiatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), along with his 17 accomplices. Though Rauf confessed to going to Afghanistan to fight for the Talibans, the militant leader was later granted bail. The police, too, have lost tab on him, and recent arrests made by the police suggest that Rauf is back to where he belongs-- different madrassas across the country to train aspiring militants.
The recent arrests also make a surprising revelation. "Dr Asadullah Al Galib, a teacher at the Arabic department of Rajshahi University, is involved with the JMJB and is leading it towards an Islamic revolution," Shafiqullah told the police. Farman Ali, too, says that Dr Galib is the regional commander (South) of the group.
"I was introduced to Galib and Shahi Bhai (Abdur Rahman, leader of JMB), at a religious programme in a graveyard in Narayanganj and we discussed ways to bomb anti-Islamic programmes in the country," Farman says.
The story took a dramatic turn on February 17 when a docket containing Shafiqullah's confessional statement went missing from the court in Bogra. Sources said a top staff of the Bogra police took the docket to the office of the Superintendent of Police (SP), though the SP does not have any authority to read any confessional statement. Police, however, told journalists that they know nothing about its whereabouts.
Though both Shafiqullah and Farman's confessions implicate Dr Asadullah Al Galib as a terrorist, the professor remains a free man. "Of course we have political ambitions for an Islamic state, but we don't follow traditional politics. We have our Islamic way of invitation and Jihad, which is devoid of terrorism. We will continue our movement unto death," Dr Galib tells journalists.

February 25, 2005

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Chronicles of a Death Foretold

Awami League (AL) leader Shah AMS Kibria has become the latest victim of a spate of bomb blasts that has threatened to destroy the country’s already fragile democratic polity. As the nation mourns yet another casualty of our long running culture of political killing and violence, chances are low that Kibria’s killers will be brought to justice.

The spectre of death looms large on our political horizon again. Only six months after the grisly attack that claimed 21 lives in the heart of the capital, terror struck in full force on January 27; this time it chose its prey further down north-east.
On that fateful day Shah AMS Kibria, the 74-year-old economist-turned Awami Leaguer, went to attend a rally in Habiganj without any clue of what was in the offing. He and fellow party members did not smell a rat even when power went out several times in an otherwise serene wintery evening.
In a grim recreation of what happened in the AL-rally in Bangabandhu Avenue on August 21, a grenade was lobbed when Kibria walked down to his car. Another grenade soon followed; "The second grenade was thrown from the primary school ground as we ran for cover," says Shahiduddin Chowdhury, a witness to the carnage and former chairman of the local Pourashava.
Unconscious and profusely bleeding, Kibria was taken first to the nearby Sadar Hospital, and then driven away to Dhaka by an ambulance, as the AL-workers could not manage to get a helicopter. The former finance minister died on his way.
Under scathing criticism from local and international press, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four Party Alliance has sought the help of the FBI and Scotland Yard. But the precedence of the government’s non-cooperation with these international agencies during the investigation into the August 21 massacre has left many sceptical about the BNP’s intention behind the move. In fact, this time the US government wants the BNP’s assurance that "full access to all evidence and witnesses will be given to the investigation".
"In both cases, the August 21 and January 27 attacks, the potential utility of the FBI assistance was greatly undermined when the crime scene was not properly protected from contamination," a US government spokesperson said. "For such assistance to be useful, we believe it would be important for the government to establish clear terms of reference and to make other provisions to ensure that FBI consultants are given full access to all relevant evidence and witnesses.
"If such terms of reference had been established prior to the involvement of foreign consultants of the August 21 attack, their contribution to the investigation might have been more meaningful," he continued.
Kibria’s name adds to a long list of 200 people that were so far killed in 18 bomb blasts across the country in the last eight years. The first such blast took place in March 6, 1996 when a bomb ripped through an annual gathering of Udichi in the northern district of Jessore killing 10 cultural activists. Though the AL, then at the helm, blamed BNP-backed zealots for the attack, Sheikh Hasina’s government, however, was never serious in running an independent investigation.
In fact, when seven Communist Party workers died in simultaneous-blasts in downtown Dhaka, the AL-led government was quick to find the culprits under the shelter of the BNP. The party, as an opposition, always denied its link to the blasts; and in the last year of the AL’s term, fed some bizarre conspiracy theories, among them one accusing the government of planting bombs in public places to win the upcoming elections. This disturbing trend has repeated itself several times during the last six years.
Many believe that though both the major political parties were not sure of the nature and motives of the blasts, they blamed each other only to reap political dividend. "How come the AL-government did not crack down on these religious outfits if they really believed the zealots were behind the blasts?" asks Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, a national security expert.
Interestingly, bombs started to rip through public places more frequently as the time for 2001’s general elections progressed. Actually, the year had witnessed six such incidents that had claimed 69 lives.
The BNP, armed with the support of two religious parties, eventually won the elections and since then it has been following the path of its predecessor, only the other way round. The party has been describing the blasts a ploy to damage the country’s image abroad since the first such incident took place during its term on September 28, 2002 at a cinema hall in Satkhira.
Khaleda Zia’s government walked further down the path of conceit and deceit when several powerful bombs went into four movie theatres in Mymensingh. Even before the primary investigation began the PM herself blamed those "who are making anti-Bangladesh campaign at home and abroad".
Sheikh Hasina was the prime target of the PM’s tirade as only days ago the AL-supremo told a European audience in Brussels that the sympathisers of AL-Qaiada were ruling Bangladesh.
In fact the PM’s paranoia has been manifested time and again in the face of local and foreign claims that the country is becoming a breeding ground for religious extremists. Her government banned issues of some international newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and Far Eastern Economic Review, for making unsavoury comments about the BNP’s reliance on religious parties to cling to power.
In one of the most publicised denials, the government arrested two British journalists from Channel Four who came to the country to make a documentary on the rise of militant Islam in Bangladesh. Zaiba Naz Malik and Bruno Sorrentino were later released; but their two Bangladeshi fixers, Selim Samad and Pricilla Raj, did not get away so easily. Sedition charges were brought against them; and it was, in fact, a High Court, order that ensured their release.
Such is the extent to which the BNP, which relies heavily on Jamaat and Islamic Okkya Jote (IOJ) for popular support, has been rejecting the presence of religious extremism here.
Bangladesh’s contribution to militant Islam dates back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During the early eighties, many Bangladeshi Madrasa-students went to Pakistan to fight for the mujahideens. When the Afghan-war ended with the fall of Najibullah’s government in Kabul, many came back home and with them have brought religious bigotry to a country that always prides itself on its Sufi past.
One of them is Afghan war veteran Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of the Jamiatul Islamia, who was arrested on September 19, 2003, along with 17 accomplices. Rauf confessed to fight for the Talibans. "About 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan to fight the Jihad and of them 33 died," Rauf told the police. The militant leader later got bail and his party’s activities, perhaps, is still going on.
One of the big extremists group working in the country, Harkat al Jihad al Islami (HJIB) Bangladesh came under spotlight when the group was charged with planting two bombs at a meeting that was to be attended by the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The mission of HJIB is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh. According to the US State Department the group has an apparent cadre-strength of more than several thousand members and it operates and trains in at least six camps inside Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has officially banned the group.
Subsequent governments have never tried to reign in on these extremist groups. In fact Khaleda Zia and her cabinet have remained conspicuously inactive when different self-styled vigilante groups have been butchering innocent people in the name of Islam. Bangla Bhai, the so-called commander of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), has issued several edicts-- à la Talibans-- calling men to keep beard and forcing women to wear Burka.
Some newspaper reports even suggest that the so-called JMJB is working in connivance with some bigwigs of the ruling Four-party Alliance. Though the PM has ordered the arrest of Bangla Bhai, according to a Daily Star report, "Two police officer tipped off Bangla Bhai who holed up in an outlying village in Raninagar where he set up a vigilante camp to launch anti-outlaw drives". Another grim reminder of the BNP’s reliance on religion to tighten its grip on power. That may explain why we have an ostrich of a government that systematically turns a blind eye to the activities of zealots in the country.
Some observers, however, want to differentiate between the last two blasts with the others. The terrorists, who were otherwise using bombs to kill people, have been using grenades since a huge cache of arms were retrieved in Chittagong. Though the government vigorously denied it, many believe a large amount of grenades went missing and have subsequently fallen into the hands of extremists.
"How is it possible that all of a sudden the terrorists have started using the same Arges grenade that were retrieved by the police a year ago?" Brig Anam asks.
The last two blasts, Anam thinks, were unique for a different reason altogether. "Most of the blasts that took place before August 21, 2004 were not targeted at any party’s leadership," says Brig Anam. He believes it is likely that the last two major blasts, where grenades were used, were carried out by a different group.
"I think these two attacks are different because the attackers’ chose only grenades unlike the previous attacks," the security analyst continues.
Even the targets and motives of the killers were different. "In Jessore, Ramna Batamul or in all the attacks where bombs were used the target was the general public and the aim was to deter people from holding programmes that the bigots think were anti-Islamic. Just look at the places where they planted bombs-- Bengali New Year celebration, cinema halls, cultural programmes… "
But, Anam believes that in August 21 carnage and January 27 blast the target was only the AL’s leadership. One conspiracy theory is that the attackers may have links to the self-confessed killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
"But you never know," Anam says. "The whole situation is chaotic. The BNP denies the presence of extremists in the country as this questions its alliance with parties like Jamaat or IOJ. On the other hand, the AL is using the blasts as a pretext to undermine the government," the retired army-man says.
Unless and until both the BNP and AL go beyond their petty political interests, the ordinary citizens have to live with bomb blasts and targeted killing of opposition political leaders. This indifference, coupled with the BNP’s sheer arrogance and the AL’s lack of political vision, are leading the country to an impending disaster.

February 10, 2005

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Book Review: From the Barrel of the Gun

Ekram Kabir’s study on small arms proliferation sheds light on a menace that has threatened to tear apart our already fragile democracy, writes Ahmede Hussain

Proliferation of Unauthorised Small Arms
Impediments to Democratisation in Bangladesh
By Ekram Kabir
A Newsnetwork Study
BDT 150/ $4 pp136

The post-Soviet unipolar world has been witnessing a flurry of unauthorised small arms falling into the hands of warlords and insurgents. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, about 10,000 or more people have died due to small arms. In his first book, titled ‘Proliferation of Unauthorised Small Arms’, journalist Ekram Kabir traces back this threat to the cold war; due to which, he writes, "more and more small arms are pumped in by the western powers to fight Communism in Indo-China".

During the early eighties, things got even worse for these South-east Asian countries, as ethnic insurgents started to use poppy-trade to fuel their war. This disturbing trend repeated itself across South Asia too. The Soviet-backed revolution led to a bloody and ruthless civil war in Afghanistan; and the mujahideens, armed with the blessings and military logistics of the US, flooded the already volatile underground arms market with the latest devices.
"During the war in Afghanistan, of the original 900 stringer SAMS that the US supplied to Pakistan to deliver to the Mujahideens, as many as 560 were untraceable," Ekram writes. Unbridled arms business was soon followed by poppy-trading, wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and Southern Pakistan where thousands of Afghan refugees were staying in camps.
Another major source of illegal arms in the region has been the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). When the Indian government withdrew its support in the eighties, the LTTE kept its supply-line up and running by developing a unique international network.
Unauthorised arms proliferation has taken a grave turn in the early nineties.

In fact, US, the world’s only superpower, is also the world’s largest producer of small arms. "It has the largest number of companies for a single country that produce small arms or ammunition, is a major exporter of small arms, and is estimated to have one of the world’s largest domestic markets for small arms," Ekram writes.

In Asia, China produces the largest cache of small arms, most of which are used by its own army. Ekram, quoting a recent study writes that, " At its peak the Chinese military inventory probably totalled at least 27 million firearms, probably the biggest in the world."

So, how do these weapons make their journey from a manufacturing plant in North America or Europe to the ragged terrain of Nepal or yam fields of Uganda? In varied ways, writes Ekram; of them one is stealing arms and ammunition from national storehouses.
Ekram has discovered that some manufacturing companies, in connivance with their governments, forge documents to supply arms to Sierra Leone or Liberia, countries that are under arms embargo.

Ekram touches the threads of this threat to world peace with brilliance, but what makes the book a must for any researcher is its portrayal of the local scenario. And it is quite grim indeed. The country, which was primarily used as a transit for smuggling weapons in the late eighties, has now become a big market itself.

Ekram’s investigation goes deep down into this thriving business; with a journalist’s nose and a writer’s mastery, he tracks down the types and nature of the weapons used in Bangladesh. Huge caches of arms that were used to fight the Pakistani occupation forces have never been surrendered. Three other major sources of arms procurement that Ekram has found in his study are external sources like, "a foreign government that gives arms to friendly insurgents, international arms dealers and individuals/insurgents who sympathise with insurgents of another country."

Signs of a researcher’s hard work are evident in every page of this book. The writer does not even forget to sprinkle some wit on this sordid saga; while describing brands of pistols, readers get to know things like what 32-bore (Ruby pistol) or 22-bore (tokai pistol) pistols are called in the curb market. Ekram’s prose is, in most cases, pleasantly intelligible and at times gets poetic ("Crawling with crime and sleaze, Dhaka’s underworld is a place where the extent of murder, mayhem and the use of illegal arms would put any mafia movie to shame").
Though throughout the book Ekram mesmerises the reader with his mastery over the subject, readers may stumble on some acute bouts of sloppy editing. The indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are referred to as Juma people (instead of Jhumma).

Apart from the slip-ups, Ekram’s first book is thorough, extensive and a job well done. It is something researchers working on national security issues in the country have looked forward to, and Ekram quenches their thirst well. A must read.