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