Monday, February 09, 2009

In the Shadow of Terror

Last week, reports of several international intelligence agencies have suggested that Sheikh Hasina has become the target of a couple of international terrorist organisations. What can be done to fend off such attacks, which are meant to destroy our fledgling democracy?

The grisliest and the most deadly attack that any surviving political leader of the country has withstood came five years ago on August 21 when about 15 grenades were thrown at a rally organised by the Awami League in downtown Paltan. The attack left 20 dead, among them was Ivy Rahman, the party’s then women affairs secretary. The party chief Sheikh Hasina was critically injured; her hearing ability was partially lost. In fact, Hasina, immediately before the first grenade was hurled, was coming down the makeshift truck that was used as a podium, when photojournalists requested her to stop to let them take a last snap. It was then that the first grenade struck where she would have been had she not answered the photographers’ call. Ivy, who was helping Hasina to get down the truck, was hit by the shrapnel only to succumb to death a day later.

It was not for the first time that Hasina had brushed past death. The first of its kind happened during Ershad’s regime, when a group of thugs belonging to the Freedom Party led by Col (retd) Farukh Rahman, the self-proclaimed killer of her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, tried to launch an attack on her home at Dhanmondi 32. The next attempt came a decade later when bombs were found at a meeting, which was to be attended by Hasina in Tungipara.

Subsequent probes in these attacks and other numerous terrorist incidents that were launched in the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four-Party Alliance (FPA) were deliberately misled. The police investigation into the August 21 attack is a case in point. The members of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, who came to Bangladesh to probe into the carnage, did not get any assistance from their local counterparts--the unexploded grenades were hurriedly disposed of and with them valuable clues to the attack were lost. The police later launched the mockery of a probe in which they nabbed a ‘terrorist’ called Joj Mia, who ‘confessed’ to his ‘crime’. Matters reached a head when the media found out that Joj was in fact a petty criminal and his mother spilled the beans, telling the press that she was being given money by the police because her son played along with their version of the story.

Not only this, the FPA government’s role in handling the probes into such terrorist attacks have been appalling. At the dawn of April 2, 2004, huge caches of illegal arms were found in wooden boxes from MV Khawja and FT Amanat, two feeder vessels that were moored in the jetty of the Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Factory. The discovery was staggering, the number of arms was enough to launch a war on a regular army-- 1, 290 SMGs, 100 Tommy guns, 400 semi-automatic spot Rifles, 150 rocket launchers with 40-mm barrels, 2000 grenade launchers, 840 rockets (40mm), 25,020 hand grenades, 6, 392 magazines of SMGs and 18,40 lakh bullets.

The probe into the smuggling of such deadly weapons, again, got lost in a blind ally. No significant breakthrough has ever come, as though no such incident had ever taken place. The smugglers are still at large and it has been alleged that some of these arms were given back to those they belonged to because an influential BNP MP was the mastermind of the trafficking.

A recent investigation done by the immediate past caretaker government into the August 21 massacre has revealed some dirty home truths--behind the attacks were two influential BNP leaders (of them one was a minister) who were close to the so-called Hawa Bhaban, the alterative centre of power that BNP chief Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rahman created for himself. Compelling though the findings are, one feels that the new investigation is inadequate. Because of the shoddy nature in which the FPA government has handled the terror attacks, especially that of August 21, one should not be blamed for pointing fingers at the big names of the BNP leadership.

In the run-up to the national elections, it was evident that a string of terrorist attacks was imminent. There was a specific alert from an intelligence agency of a neighbouring country that Sheikh Hasina, who was busy electioneering, was a target of the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJi) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which were behind a couple of suicide bombings that rocked the country in 2005. Even though the hanging of the top notches of the JMB and the arrest of HuJi kingpin Hannan have weakened the operational abilities of the groups, recent ammunitions haul in Dhaka’s Mirpur suggests that the terrorists are regrouping for their next attack.

The extremists have never been fond of Hasina; her non-communal stance and, on top of it all, her declaration of war on terror have earned her the wrath of the terrorists, who, there is no doubt, will want her to be silenced. And there are the war criminals, who, now faced with the prospect of being handed down justice, may want to destabilise the country by launching terrorist attacks; some of the war criminals can even give a helping hand to the terrorists by providing them with logistical support.

Terrorists can plant bombs at any place or they can blow themselves up anywhere. To ward off such attacks, the government has to take pre-emptive measures. To begin with, the probes into the Chittagong ammo haul and different terrorist attacks must be done quickly; a White Paper on all the terrorist attacks have to be prepared. The Chittagong arms smuggling and the August 21 attack are two important clues to find out the lynchpins of terror in the country. The government must find out the names that tried to derail the investigations during the FPA government’s regime. Besides this, the most important weapon that a government has against terror is intelligence. As no security force in the world, no matter what weapons it has at its disposal, can prevent determined criminals from blowing themselves up, the best way to fight terrorism is to prevent the creation of suicide bombers.

Islam, the religion that the terrorists use to justify mass murder, has no place for terror in its fold. One way to neutralise the terrorists is perhaps to spread the teachings of Islam, which profess peace and harmony. The curricula of the religious schools need to go through an overhaul. Sheikh Hasina wants to establish a ‘Digital Bangladesh’; where else but these schools can modern IT training start, especially in the religious schools of the poverty-stricken regions?

The government must also share intelligence with the citizens. Siddikul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, the militant guru was arrested on a tip off from an ordinary individual, it was in such a way that Abdur Rahman, JMB supremo, was caught. The ultimate weapon that we have against terrorism is the people of the country, who loathe extremism, and who will never let their religion be used as a pawn by the terrorists.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

First 30 Days

In its first 30 days in office the Awami League-led Mahajote government, besides some occasional glitches, has shown promise

The last general elections, in which the Awami League (AL) and its centre-left coalition have won an overwhelming majority, were held in the backdrop of unabashed corruption and equally shameless nepotism of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four Party Alliance government. In the latter’s five-year-rule the country’s democratic polity hit hard and a state of anarchy prevailed in its economy. The elections of December 29 have proven that, the ordinary voters do not forgive their politicians for any mistakes; the polls have witnessed the fall of the titans of the ‘nationalist politics’--all the big guns of the BNP have been silenced by the voters. Besides its rival’s tainted past in governance, what has helped the AL to win such a big victory is the statesmanship that Sheikh Hasina, the party chief, has shown in the run up to the elections.

When, in a last ditch attempt to withstand a possible wipe-out, the BNP chief indulged herself in mudslinging and character assassination, Hasina remained composed, her speeches showed vision to a people grown weary of promises made by politicians. Her dreams of ‘digital Bangladesh’ and a ‘poverty free country’ also generated huge enthusiasm among the young first-time voters. Elections, for the AL, were a smooth sailing. The real challenge has come later.

Faced with the task of forming her cabinet, Hasina has relied on the fresh blood in her rank. It is indeed surprising to see the AL, which is the oldest political party in the country, come up with a band of ministers who are young and some of the holders of important portfolios have been elected for the first time. The presence of those allegedly involved in corruption and thuggery in Hasina’s cabinet is being kept at a bare minimum.

The AL, in its third term in office, has shown political maturity. It has rightly reduced the prices of diesel and fertiliser, which is going to give impetuous to the green revolution. All is well on the economic front too; even though the rest of the world is going through a recession, Bangladesh’s economic indicators have remained buoyant. Bangladesh has stood third in the world of ready-made garment export. Growth, in this fiscal year, one hopes, will be greater than the previous one. Prices of essentials have come down to the reach of the masses, and with another bumper production of rice in the offing it is expected that the prices of rice and dahl will fall further.

The government has also taken the right step of forming a war crime tribunal to bring the perpetrators of the genocide of 1971 to book. The move is going to gain the party widespread support, as one of the reasons behind the BNP’s election debacle is its patronisation of the war criminals. The government has also initiated the process of building Padma Bridge and Ganga barrage.

Even though the AL has come up with a revolutionary charter for change, followed by a cabinet with fresh vibrant faces, in its first 15 days in office, the AL leadership has initially failed to tame its young members, some of whom ran berserk, illegally taking control of different educational institutions while the law enforcers looked on. In the face of mounting criticism, the prime minister herself intervened, instructing the leaders of her party’s student body to behave. Over the last few days, the law and order situation has also posed a problem to the new administration; in the last one month incidents of killing and mugging have increased; mob violence specially setting fire to public and private properties by students to draw attention to their demands has become a norm.

Another episode that has blemished the AL government’s first one month is the Upazila elections, when an AL MP has been found violating the electoral laws, prompting the Election Commissioner to opine that he has been disappointed to see the actions of some ruling law makers.

A lot more actually needs to be done. Sheikh Hasina and her colleagues must keep in mind that the voters have put their faith in the party thinking that this time the AL will be able to bring about the change it said it would bring to the country. It is alarming to see the old gangsters back in the business of mugging and extortion. To improve the law and order situation, the government, on a priority basis, has to overhaul the police, which, as a force, have lost the trust of the general public. New officers have to be recruited, and the force has to be allowed to work neutrally.

It is not possible to root out the corruption from the country in a month, which has spread its tentacles over the last couple of decades. Hasina and her team should allow the Anti-Corruption Commission to work freely; the latter needs to work with diligence, putting emphasis on institutionalised corruption.

We hope, moreover, that a new pro-people economic policy is going to be taken where poverty alleviation will be prioritised, and the government will play a pro-active role to tackle the storm that is brewing in the big economies across the globe.

The first 30 days of Hasina government have gone on well. The new face of governance that the prime minister has brought about shows the promise of a brighter beginning. Her strength is the people of the country who have given her the mandate to change the course of history. It is only hoped that her term in office is going to sow the seeds of a Bangladesh free of bigotry and intolerance, a country on strong financial footing, the Golden Bangla that the founding fathers of our country dared to dream of.