By Taj Hashmi
The way the US and Indian governments, and some conservative think tanks in the US are appraising the spate of killings in Bangladesh is very unfortunate. Recently (on May 3rd) the Heritage Foundation organized a workshop in Washington D.C. on the present situation in Bangladesh. The bias of the workshop is well reflected in its title, “How Can Bangladesh Stop the Escalating Extremist Violence?”, as if undoubtedly “extremists” (a byword for Islamist terrorists) are responsible for the killings!
It’s noteworthy; the Heritage Foundation is a leading ultra-right conservative think tank in the U.S., which favours hegemonic U.S. foreign policy in the Third World. It recently became controversial for publishing a report on the economic costs of illegal immigration to the US Jason Richwine – a co-author of the report – believes Hispanics and Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites, and have trouble assimilating because of a supposed genetic predisposition to lower IQ.
Three prominent South Asia experts presented papers at the workshop: Samina Ahmed, Ali Reza, and Liza Curtis. The main objective of the workshop was to start off a joint US-Bangladesh counterterrorism (CT) operation to fight and defeat the elusive Islamist terrorists in Bangladesh. As if the U.S. has been successful in containing Islamist terrorism at home or elsewhere in the world!
Samina Ahmed is quite unambiguous in asserting that the terror attacks have been attempts to destabilize the present government. Although the present Government holds similar view, she incisively points out the following: Bangladesh needs the rule of law; the prevalent zero-sum game of politics is bad; the police are fully politicized; there’s no due process and freedom of the judiciary in the country; there prevails a climate of impunity; and the Bangladeshi people, in general, don’t favour either violent extremism or the present regime under the Awami League.
Ali Reaz points out as to how the politics of expediency and the Awami League government’s ambivalence towards political violence are problematic. He points out, while Sheikh Hasina attended the funeral of Ahmed Rajib Haider – the first Islamophobic blogger to be killed – purportedly by Islamist militants in February 2013, and glorified him as a martyr, she now asks freethinkers not to hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.
Reaz legitimately questions why only hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, not followers of other religions, be declared a crime! He believes both the Government and terrorists are intolerant of any dissent or opposition. He raises the question (which I have raised as well) why CT was effective in 2005-2006, and is faltering today. He, however, favours a joint U.S.-Bangladesh CT operation to overpower the terrorists in Bangladesh.
Liza Curtis is disappointing. Instead of imputing the ongoing terror and political violence solely to bad governance, corruption, and the marginalization of people, she wants Bangladesh Government’s wholehearted cooperation with its U.S. counterpart. She, however, blames the lack of democracy, extreme political polarizations, and the ideology of Islamism for the killings. She doesn’t question if the elusive Islamist terrorism or some thing else is responsible for the ongoing killings in Bangladesh.
If lack of democracy and terrorism has a positive correlation, then one doesn’t know how to explain the terror attacks in Western democracies like America, Britain, France, and Belgium! She thinks by promoting Sufism or “liberal/tolerant Islam”, and regulating mosques and madrasas, Bangladesh would neutralize Islamist extremism. Adherents of Sufi Islam could be as violent as Mumtaz Qadri – the assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer – who followed Sufism, not Islamist extremism. Millions of Qadri’s admirers in Pakistan also belong to certain Sufi schools.
While one appreciates the growing concern of the U.S. government, human rights organizations, and think tanks at the ongoing killings of innocent people (36 in the last 14 months) in Bangladesh – purportedly by Islamist extremists – one wonders as to how they had never been that vocal at the killings of hundreds of innocent Bangladeshis in the last ten years, by criminals, political rivals, and law-enforcers –especially the RAB. Various reports reveal the RAB and police killed more than 1,000 suspects and innocent people through extra-judicial killings between 2004 and 2010. Hundreds of civilians die in “poll-violence”. Since February 78 people got killed at the hands of political rivals during local council elections.
Politicians in power fail to explain extrajudicial killings by law enforcers; the killing of 57 army officers at the BDR headquarters; and the killing of pedestrians, bus and car drivers/passengers in 2013–2014. While Bangladesh is fast becoming a safe haven for killing squads and terrorists, rampant corruption, the unaccountability of rulers, their cronies, bureaucrats, and law-enforcers have virtually turned Bangladesh into Satyajit Roy’s Hirak Rajar Desh. Nothing seems immoral, impossible, disorderly, or surprising at all! The “winners take all” is the rule of the game. The opposition – the real ones, not some pseudo-opposition parties – isn’t even entitled to crumbs from the high table.
While innocent people, intellectuals and dissidents get arrested, harassed by law-enforcers, disappear and die, politicians are in a state of denial, and even worse, busy vilifying each other as killers and anti-state elements. Bangladesh isn’t only fast turning into a killing field, but also into a safe haven for politically well-connected bank defaulters, money launderers, and share-market scammers, Money launderers have so far sent more than 30 thousand crores (thirty billion) taka out of Bangladesh; share-scammers defrauded millions to the tune of several billion takas; and “unknown” criminals robbed more than $100 million from the Bangladesh Bank. Interestingly, the Finance Minister often rubbishes all criticisms of financial scams, and considers these crimes as growing pains of growth and development.
It appears from the Information Minister’s recent statement that the Government is contemplating complete media control through a “Media Monitoring Centre” to keep an eye on print and electronic media, including the social media, who are allegedly “trying to create divisions in the society by writing against different religions and beliefs”. Human rights activist Sultana Kamal has aptly assessed the situation: “We can’t deny that people are afraid to speak up”. When people are afraid to speak up, sections of them might resort to anarchy and terrorism.
One may cite the International Crisis Group’s latest Report on Bangladesh in this regard: “The Government’s heavy-handed measures are damaging its own legitimacy and benefitting extremists …. If mainstream dissent remains closed, more and more government opponents may come to view violence and violent groups as their only recourse.” Nothing could be more insensible than undermining the grassroots, the ordinary people’s understandings of what goes on at the top. At the opportune moment, they retaliate against bad governance and tyranny.
I think if Dhaka, Delhi, and Washington can agree to formulate a workable formula to tackle the problem of the ongoing killings in Bangladesh, they need to take the following steps: Firstly, it’s essential to know if the killers are ideology-driven terrorists, or local gangsters, or even members of politically motivated death-squads. Secondly, they must understand terrorism has never been a primeval cause or an “original sin”, it has always been preemptive, retaliatory, avenging, and a weapon of the weak or ideology-driven, marginalized people’s violence against the powerful. Finally, it’s time to find out the motives of the killings, and who could be the actual beneficiary (ies) of the crime.