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