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.