"Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan?"
Bibhu Prasad Routray ·       

Bangladesh's experience with the full cycle of terrorist growth, consolidation, orchestration of violence and neutralisation appeared to be rather swift. Subsequent to the arrests of prominent terrorist leaders, rulers of the country today proclaim that they have been able to contain terrorist violence to a significant extent. Such an optimistic assertion obviously needs careful evaluation. Radical Islam grew and thrived under a regime of denial and power politics. Hence it is difficult to accept that the government of the day has reversed its support to the very forces it once created and nurtured.

Incidents such as the August 2004 grenade attacks on the Awami League rally in Dhaka, the 17 August 2005 country-wide bombings, persecution of the minority community, several cases of recoveries of illegal arms and explosives in various districts, fuelled a growing apprehension that the country is gradually sliding into a quagmire of terror and extremism. Hiranmay Karlekar's 'Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan?' is a product of those apprehensions that confirms in no uncertain terms that Bangladesh's journey is directed towards a chaotic future.

Although linguistic nationalism spurred the birth of Bangladesh, Islamist forces, once an alienated lot, today have occupied centre-stage in national politics. Whether it is a problem with the very process of nation-building where power politics finds it convenient to base itself on emotive issues, possibly is an important issue not specific to Bangladesh alone. A lot many countries in the developing world have fallen prey to this temptation of bonding the inherent desire for modern development with the archaic, regressive and obscurantist ideologies of the past. And once such a slide is complete, the route to recovery becomes a Herculean effort. Bangladesh's claim of instant success thus needs constant verification and evaluation.

Though the Islamic consolidation in Bangladesh had started during the country's war of liberation in 1971, fears about the country getting radicalised were expressed following the electoral victory of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 2001, with the help of the Islamist fundamentalist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ). However, it is difficult to see that the forces like the Jamaat, with a declining share of popular votes, will be happy playing second fiddle to the mainstream BNP. In fact, speaking on 30 April 2005, the JeI Chief Matiur Rahman Nizami said that his party has achieved its short-term goal of coming to mainstream politics and asked his party colleagues to work for achieving the long-term programme to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic State. Such an 'Islamist theocratic order', Karlekar feels will have to be built on the debris of Bangladesh's present plural parliamentary system.

Karlekar discusses what he calls "a two pronged process" by the "Jamaat, IOJ and other fundamentalist Islamist organisations" to push their Islamist agenda. "The first element of their strategy is the creation of a wave of Islamist fanaticism on whose crest they can ride to power, swamping all their opponents. ?The second element is installing their own men in strategic positions in the government- thereby creating a state within a state- and taking over institutions like universities, colleges and schools to propagate their brand of reductionist Islam", he writes. Karlekar further notes that the instrument of such a transformation would essentially be entities like the Shibir and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-I-Islami Bangladesh (HUJIB). "If the Shibir is the kingpin of the Jamaat's terror network, HUJIB has close links with it and is perhaps the most important component of Bangladesh's jihadi infrastructure."

The gradual decline of India's influence in the 'liberated' country has been the fallout of its confused foreign policy. India over the years has demonstrated an unexplainable weak-kneed approach while dealing with Bangladesh. Little has been done about the swarming of the Indian cities by Bangladeshi migrants and about Bangladeshi support to the militants operating in India's northeast. Karlekar cites official statements to back his argument. For example, Shivraj Patil, in response to the illegal migrants from Bangladesh said on 26 May 2004, "You cannot compare the illegal influx from Bangladesh with the infiltration happening across the LOC/international border in J&K. Bangladeshis come here mostly to seek employment and thus, their deportation should be done with a human face, without causing them unnecessary harassment." Karlekar rightly notes that "Mr Patil overlooked the fact that what could once have been viewed purely as people crossing over to India in search of jobs cannot now be seen as such because of the rise of the Islamist fundamentalist political parties like the Jamaat and the IOJ and terrorist militia like the HUJI-B in Bangladesh, and the promotion of cross-border terrorism in India by them as well as by the Bangladesh government through its intelligence agencies." The growing number of recent cases in which HUJI-B cadres have been involved in terrorist attacks in various Indian cities is a clear pointer towards this direction.

Indian desire to 'reform' Bangladesh through benign policies overlooks the danger of the impact of an Islamist Bangladesh on India's security. "Clearly, the border areas of West Bengal and Assam are in danger of becoming, in the parlance of guerrilla warfare, safer rear areas for Bangladesh's fundamentalist Islamist militants." He strikes a note of caution. "It is this that gives to the continued influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, who constitute support bases for fundamentalist Islamist terrorists, into the border districts of India a dangerous dimension and precludes regarding it as an economic migration in search of jobs and livelihood."

Is the Islamist thrust in Bangladesh irreversible? Karlekar locates the dynamics of the thrust in two parallel processes. The BNP's attempt to stay in power by winning the 2006 elections and second, the efforts of forces like the Jamaat and the IOJ to use their participation in the government to push their Islamist agenda and capture power. Political rivalry between the BNP and the Awami League (AL) has been the bane of national politics and has visibly affected the state response to the growth of radical Islam.

The book's problems, however, is its inclination to side with the AL. It overlooks the hobnobbing of the AL with the Jamaat in the early 1990s, which was a significant milestone in the process of Islamist consolidation in Bangladesh. Similarly, Indian militants had secured safe haven in Bangladesh, when the 'pro-India'-AL was in power. In spite of the odd references to the AL regime's corruption and partisan politics, Karlekar's description, carries the inherent burden of downplaying such actions.

The Book visibly is a product of rigorous research and fills up the void of quality literature on Bangladeshi politics. For those who remain convinced of the BNP regime's sincerity in reining in the Islamists, the book is a reminder that unless the fundamentals that led to the growth of such forces are targeted, Bangladesh's return to a chaotic past would always remain a possibility.