Friday, December 19, 2008

Crucial poll in Bangladesh

Hiranmay Karlekar

The general election in Bangladesh, scheduled for December 29, will be most critical for that country’s future. Referring to it, American Ambassador to Bangladesh, Mr James F Moriarty, told the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington on December 11, “The country could achieve a peaceful transition and become a model of a relatively prosperous Muslim majority democracy… Or it could return to the winner-take-all obstructionist politics of previous years.” According to a recent report in Bangladesh’s leading English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, he further told the commission, a Government-funded advisory body created in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world and make policy recommendations to the US Administration, that if “Bangladesh stumbles within the coming months, it could become a breeding ground for terrorists and groups wishing to operate in South and South-East Asia”.

It is not difficult to recognise the validity of Mr Moriarty’s observations and identify the forces that could make Bangladesh a breeding ground of terrorist groups. His observation that Bangladesh could “return to the winner-take-all obstructionist politics of previous years” clearly points in the direction of the four- party alliance, of which the two principal constituents are Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, that ruled the country from 2001 to 2006. The BNP was by far the senior partner with 193 seats in the 300-strong Jatiya Sansad or National Parliament, and having polled 41.4 per cent of the votes cast. The Jamaat came a distant third with 17 seats and 4.28 per cent of the votes polled, way behind the Awami League, the main Opposition party, which won 62 seats and secured 40.02 per cent of the votes.

Yet the Jamaat called much of the shots in the coalition Government, stalling action against fundamentalist terrorist organisations like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh. Though international pressure forced the coalition Government to ban these terrorist outfits and arrest their leaders, the organisations remained active. This, it was widely alleged, was made possible by the Jamaat’s support.

In fact, the Jamaat’s Amir, Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, and general secretary, Mr Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mojahid, had for a long time even denied the existence of the Operations Commander of the JMJB, Siddiqul Islam, or Bangla Bhai. Understandably, its relations with these organisations have been like those of Pakistan’s Jamaat-ud-Dawah with the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba.

Besides, the Jamaat used its participation in the Government to increase its massive business empire which funds its welfare and other activities aimed at expanding its support base and maintain its organisational infrastructure. It had its followers placed in universities, the armed forces, security agencies, the administration and the judiciary, often having the rules bent for the purpose. Also, thanks to generous help from Mr Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mojahid, who was Minister of State for Social Welfare, there was a vast increase in the number of fundamentalist Islamist NGOs while secular NGOs were subjected to crippling harassment and persecution.

Not surprisingly, Bangladesh became a seething pit of murderous Islamist violence — directed against the secular civil society, the intelligentsia and the Opposition parties like the Awami League — during the rule of the four-party coalition. The horror of the situation was dramatically underlined on April 21, 2004, when a murderous grenade attack was launched at an Awami League rally in Dhaka. Though Sheikh Hasina, the prime target, survived, 22 Awami League leaders perished.

It was symptomatic of the BNP’s visceral hatred for India that some of its leaders insinuated that New Delhi was behind the attack and an inquiry by a former judge with links with the party blamed a neighbouring country without mentioning India. Not so long after the incident, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, Mr Mohammad Morshed Khan, publicly warned India that if Bangladesh was India-locked, the seven States of north-eastern India were Bangladesh-locked and that he could wipe out India’s $ 3 billion annual trade with Bangladesh by just issuing one statutory order!

Needless to say, insurgent outfits like the United Liberation Front of Asom, active in north-eastern India, who had earlier been described by Begum Khaleda Zia as “freedom fighters”, received full support from Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, which has close links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Simultaneously, there was a sharp increase in the incidence of terrorist attacks on India emanating from Bangladesh. That the trend continues, particularly in the North-East, during the current caretaker Government’s regime, was underlined by Home Minister P Chidambaram’s statement in the Lok Sabha on December 15, “The Government of Bangladesh has a responsibility to control the HuJI. In the long run, Bangladesh is hurting itself (by not containing terrorism).

The incidence of terrorist strikes against India from Bangladesh will increase sharply if the election brings the four-party coalition to power. Given the groundswell of support for the Awami League, this will happen only if the election is rigged. Many fear the election will be rigged because both the BNP and the Jamaat managed to install their supporters in the election machinery when they were in power. They have not been weeded out.

Also, attempts at intimidating Hindus, who traditionally support the Awami League, from voting have been reported form districts like Jessore, Khulna, Satkhira, Faridpur, Madaripur, Gopalganj, Jhalakathi, Pirojpur, Chandpur, Noakhali, Pabna, Bagerhat, Narail and Barisal where pockets of Hindu population exist. Hindus are being quietly told not to vote if they want to avoid the kind of communal carnage and gang-rape of their women that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 general election. Intimidation has also been reported from districts like Sherpur, Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, and Sylhet, which have sizeable pockets of indigenous ethnic minority communities who also traditionally support the Awami League.

New Delhi must mount pressure through the international community to prevent rigging. Poll observers being sent from various countries must be very alert. In any event, India must further step up its fight against terrorism. An important first step will be halting cattle smuggling to Bangladesh which is paid for through hawala transactions, much of the proceeds from which goes to funding terrorist activity here. Do we have the political will for it?

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