BANGLADESH ELECTION held under supervision of the interim government and the army has initiated the process of a fresh freedom struggle. Democracy with secular principles was wiped out with the blood of Mujibur Rahman, his family and colleagues. Intermittent democratic experimentation with bouts of army rule had not only severely mutilated the spirit of the freedom struggle and Bengali cultural nationalism. This very foundation of the nation was massacred by the Mujib killers and subsequent pro-Pak Generals and Jamaat-e-Islami. There is no doubt that the junior officers who staged the brutal coup in 1975 were simply not inspired by ‘misrule of the Awami League and the BAKSAL’; they were inspirited by Pakistan and certain clandestine operators of the CIA.
Later, General Zia-ur-Rahman, after his visit to Pakistan in September 1977, and hostile ambience created by Army-insiders and the regimented Jamaat-e-Islami opted for Islamisation, allowed the Jamaat-e-Islami chief to return to Bangladesh. The Jamaat had collaborated with Pakistan army and had committed innumerable atrocities on Hindu and Muslim supporters of the six point autonomy movement that turned to freedom struggle. The same year he initiated the process of creating the DGFI, in the model of the ISI. Between Zia and Ershad the BNP emerged as the party of the ‘real creator of Bangladesh-Zia-ur-Rahman.’ Short of conferring upon the General the honorific of Father of the Nation, the Begum did everything to augment the process of Islamisation and offering space to the resurgent religious congregations and the jihadis, which were seeded by General Zia, nurtured by General Ershad and given political recognition by the BNP.
General Zia’s cooperation with Pakistan and the USA in recruiting mujahids from Bangladesh (15000 odd) and sending to Pakistan for training and taking part in Afghan jihad had suddenly pushed Bangladesh to the path of radical Islamisation. The democratic process was suppressed; huge Ummah and Pakistani funds were allowed to pour in for encouraging the Bengali Muslims to spread the message of jihad in every nook and corner of Bangladesh. The Jamaat-e-Islami, Islamic Chhatra Shibir, Ahle-e-Hadith Movement Bangladesh, Allahar Dal, Hizbut Tehrir and HUJI etc organizations (about 30) rooted in public mind with government support. Innumerable mosques and madrasas were constructed and the message of Jihad was spread with impunity. The same trend continued during General Ershad’s tenure.
That was the period when Indian ethnic insurgent groups were manipulated by Bangladesh and Pakistani forces (the ISI and the DGFI) and secured sanctuaries were created for them with training and arming facilities. The political tussles between Awami League, BNP of Zia-ur-Rahman, Jatiya Party of Ershad and Jamaat-e-Islami created continued ambience of uncertainty, growth of Islamic militancy and internal chaos. Corruption in public life plagued Bangladesh heavily. The 1996 election in which Hasina Wazed’s Awami League and JeI combination returned to power witnessed near-total polarization between the political forces. Policy of political negativism adopted by all the political parties, increase of jihadi activities and greater involvement of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the ethnic insurgencies in India generated serious security implications for India. This was the period when Naga, Tripura, Assam and Bodo militants were given free access, training and supplied with arms both by the DGFI and the ISI. This period coincided with increased bonds between Pakistan based jihadi tanzeems and Bangladeshi jihadi tanzeems like HUJI, JMB, Bangla Bhai, Hijbut Tehrir, Islamic Chhatra Shibir and units of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hijbul Mujahideen and al Qaeda were found greater acceptability amongst the radicalized Muslims. It seemed that political negativism, manipulation by the DGFI and army, Pakistani influence and free flow of Ummah funds had put Bangladesh on the same footing as Pakistan developed after the Afghan jihad. Return of about 10 thousand Bangladeshi Afghan veterans, increased al Qaeda support and blatant interference by the ISI created internal turmoil with higher degree of violence and use of Bangladesh as a launching pad of operations against India in Assam and elsewhere. Several training camps were started for training malcontent Indian Muslims and the northeastern insurgent groups. Bangladesh became a highway for the jihadis and insurgents.
BNP’s bonhomie with the Jamaat, other jihadi tanzeems like HUJI, Bangla Bhai, JMB etc received tremendous boost after 2001 general elections to the Jatiya Sangsad, The table of results of 2001 Sansad election indicate the level of increase of influence of the BNP, Jamaat and allied parties and erosion of pro-India forces:
BNP - 193: 41.40%
Awami League + 62: 40.02%
Jatiya Party (E) 14: 7.22 %
JeI BD 17: 4.28.
Other parties not mentioned.
The BNP and Jamaat coalition with intermittent support from Ershad’s Jatiya Party did not succeed in giving a stable government. The Jamaat-e-Islami took advantage of its presence in the government and systematically infiltrated the armed forces, intelligence, police and other vital government department giving fillip to pro-Pakistani and pro-jihadi forces. Politics of negativism, corruption by two sons of the PM, all pervasive siphoning of public wealth by politicians and bureaucrats was compounded by visible increase in jihadi violence inside Bangladesh. Between 2001 and 2006 more than 500 incidents of terrorist violence took place including 49 serial bomb blasts in a single day, attempt on the life of the British High Commissioner and Sheikh Hasina, by forces of HUJI, JMB and Bangla Bhai. The JMB, Ahl-e-Hadith and the Bangla Bhai were used by ruling factions to punish the Awami League, other dissenters and the minorities.
There was furor, violence and political impasse over appointment of the Caretaker Government which finally led to the distinctly visible indirect interference by the army and installation of a non-political Interim Government. The army chief wielded nearly supreme power with a view to restore some semblances of order, restoration of peace, and assurance in public mind that the new government meant business. Anti-corruption drive witnessed prolonged incineration of Begum Zia, her sons and Sheikh Hasina.
That the army chief was not insensitive to the ideals of foredoom struggle, and believed in restoration of democracy and some sanity in public life was proved by acts of banning of certain jihadi organizations, meting out death sentence on Bangla Bhai and JMB leaders and restriction of Hizbut Tehrir, Allahar Dal etc subversive organizations. Combination of various internal and international factors compelled the army chief to opt for elections in December 2008. General Moeen has not shown any personal hunger for power. The results were stunning:
Awami League + 230: 49.0%
BNP + 30: 33.2%
Jatiya Party (E) 16: 07.0 %
JeI 2: 04.6 %
The BNP and the Jamaat fared well in Chattagram (Chittagong) area, with significant performance in Noakhali, Khulna, Comilla. Pabna and Bogra. The Awami League swept almost in all the districts with Jatiya Party dominating areas of North Bangladesh, the usual stronghold of Ershad.
A study of the parties contesting the elections throws out interesting aspects both for Bangladesh and India:
Party : Number of candidates
Islamic Front Bangladesh (Pakistan funded) : 2
Islamic Movement Bangladesh (HUJI) : 266
Islami Oikya Jote (Al Qaeda Affiliate) : 4
United Citizens Movement : 11
Krishak Shramik Janata League : 46
Democratic Party : 5
People’s Front (Pro-JMB) : 14
Gano Forum : 45
Jamaat-e-Ulama Islam Bangladesh : 7
Zaker Party (Pro-Taliban) : 37
National Democratic Party (Ahl-e Hadith faction) : 2
Jatiya Party : 46
Jatiya Party-JP : 7
Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-Jasad : 6
Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-JSD: 44
National People’s Party (Allahar Dal) : 29
Progressive Democratic Party : 21
Freedom Party (Pro Taliban) : 2
Bangladesh Awami League : 259
Bangladesh Islamic Front (Pro-al Qaeda) : 18
Bangladesh Kalayan Party : 39
Bangladesh Khilafat Andolan (Pro Pak) : 32
Bangladesh Khilafat Majlis (pro-Pak) : 8
Bangladesh Jatiya Party : 10
Bangladesh Jatiya Party-BJP : 2
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (Pro Pak) : 256
Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (Pro-Pak) : 39
Bangladesh Tarikat Federation (Pr-Hizbut Tehrir) : 31
Bangladesh National Awami Party : 14
Bangladesh National Awami Party-Bangladesh NAP : 5
Bangladesh Muslim League (Pro-Pak) : 5
Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal : 57
Workers Party of Bangladesh : 5
Communist Party of Bangladesh : 38
Revolutionary Workers Party of Bangladesh : 5
Bangladesher Samayabadi Dal (ML) : 1
Bikalapdhara Bangladesh (Pro-Moscow) : 62
Liberal Democratic Party : 18
Independent (45 belonging to JMB) : 141
This would show that the HUJI after failing to register itself as a political party contested in the name of Islamic Movement Bangladesh. Almost all the jihadi parties fielded good number of candidates but failed to secure more than 02.01 % of votes. However the HUJI affiliated party managed to get nearly 3 % votes. One of the candidates was elected to Jatiya Sangsad as independent.
Various analysts have offered scores of reasons for the stunning success of Awami League combination. Most cogent reasons have been offered are:
1. Awami League and BNP are nearly at par with their number of supporters. Awami league’s regular supporters did vote for Awami League as usual and they had no reason to love BNP - so Awami League grabbed the regular devoted votes. The BNP voters were disunited and wilted under army pressure.
2. The Swing Voters wanted to teach BNP a lesson for their corruption and had no other alternative than accepting the Mohajot (grand alliance) as voting for BNP would have justified stinking corruption by two sons of Begum Zia and her colleagues.
3. The BNP supporters or activists were divided as to pro-change and anti-change groups; the dissenters like Badrudozza Chowdhury and Mohammad Oli gave reasons to the anti-BNP lobbies reasons to ponder upon BNP’s lack of coordination and disciplined approach.
4. BNP stalwarts or the pivotal leaders were kept behind the bars until the last few days while Awami League had almost all their pivotal figures out of jail all the time.
5. Awami League had always supported the caretaker Government and had promised to legalise their unconstitutional works if voted to power. It has been insinuated that General Moeen is a pro-Mujib person and he was influenced by India and the US to favour a more democratic group.
6. Hasina had a few anti-Jamaat Islamic groups in her pocket which got the votes of anti-Jamaat pro-Islamic people on their side and Hasina promised not to enact any anti-Islamic laws.
7. Ershad commands a few BNP votes and has comfortable support in northern districts.
8. New generation of voters did not have the experience of seeing Awami League’s rule as adults; rather they saw the corrupt rule of Zia which made them anti-BNP. They were not aware that Awami League always failed to control crime and had displayed ‘winner takes all’ attitude since 1971.
9. Awami League is better in price control. BNP is not good at that and owing to present price hike people could not afford to take chances with any more price hike as that would have meant playing with starvation. BNP has the bad reputation of collaboration with corrupt market manipulators.
10. Women voters were successfully convinced that BNP meant oppression on women and it encourage the Islamists. BNP regime had allowed near total control of the civil society by al Qaeda, Taliban and Pakistani elements. People had become weary of jihadi violence and growing rhetoric on Islamisation of the society.
11. Bangladesh is surrounded by Maoists and Communists and Islam was projected as an oppressive force by JMB and HUJI etc as a threat to generally democratic Bengali society. Communism and Socialism dominated the media who supported Awami League.
12. Awami League banked on the issue of bringing the Jamaat leaders to war-tribunals when BNP owing to failure of its leaders could not successfully defend the issue with a counter challenge. Moreover, the BNP was perceived as a force protecting the killers of Mujib and other Awami League leaders.
13. Hasina lobbied abroad to win international support for Awami League when BNP concentrated on domestic support only. Zia was busy begging for release of her sons and was encumbered with revelations that her sons had stacked away billions in foreign banks by robbing the common people.
14. Finally, it must be added that by purging of the DGFI and some segments of the army brass closer to the Jamaat and BNP General Moeen had good ambience to ensure a smooth election, though there are allegations that Gen Moeen had favoured the Awami League combination. Certain quarters in Dhaka believe that the army chief was afraid of a coup against him by the pro-Jamaat and pro-BNP Generals.
The goodness of the cake can only be proved by eating it. Her crown is full of thorns. She has excluded several veterans from ministerial berths. They wield influence in their own pocket-Burroughs. They are watchful of the internal groupings and may not hesitate to gang up with destabilizing forces. Begum Zia is most likely to again take the parliamentary politics to the streets and adopt the old policy of ‘either I or none.” Though her vote percentage has reduced she has maintained the steady grassroots elements on her side and her core vote percentage has not diminished. Tactically she is distancing her party from the Jamaat for a while but once the opposition to the war-criminal trials involving the Jamaat leaders starts Zia’s forces is likely to rally behind them along with the jihadi organizations. Hasina has a poor record of controlling law and order and often buckles down under pressure of the Islamic forces.
All the senior army officers are not with General Moeen. Several pro-BNP and pro-Jamaat military top brass are watching the developments. Once Hasina and party tries to prosecute some of the former army officers for war crimes they are likely to rebel and topple her. They have a better friend in Begum Zia. Hasina would require purging the DGFI and the administration of pro-Jamaat elements with helps from friendly army Generals. General Moeen may agree to help her for some costs; indirect army presence in the administration. Hopefully Hasina and allies would accommodate them for better stability and longer survival.
As far as India is concerned the situation appears to be favourable. “With terrorism in the region a pressing concern, especially after the Mumbai attacks, Hasina’s victory will bring some comfort to New Delhi as she took tough steps against the anti-India militant groups when she was in power in the mid-1990s. In contrast, there was a sharp spike in militancy and Islamic fundamentalism during Zia’s tenure.” (Times of India December 30, 2008).
What are the ground realities?
Bangladesh reeks with Islamist and jihadi organizations numbering nearly 40. The main groups are: Jamaat-e-Islami, Islamic Chhatra Shibir, Islami Oikya Jote, HUJI, JMB, Jagrata Muslim Janata, Sahadat-e-Alam-al-Hiqma, Ahl-e-Hadith, Hizbut Tawhid, Hizbut Tehrir, Allahar Dal, Islamic Jubo Sangha, Al-Falah A’am Unnayan Sangstha, Islami Biplobi Parishad, Biswa Islami Front, Al Jamaitul Islamiya, Al Khidmat Bahini, Al Mujahid, Al Harqat-al-Islamia, Al Mahfuz-al-Islami, Joish-e-Mustafa (affiliated to Jais-e-Mohammad of Pakistan), Muslim Guerrilla Bahini etc.
These organisations are spread all over Bangladesh. Most of the rural areas are influenced by them and they receive liberal funding from Arabian countries and other NGOs.
The Interim Government had banned Ahl-e-Hadith, HUJI and Hizbut Tehrir. The JMB came under heavy hammers and three of its top leaders were sentenced to death. But, like Pakistan, the jihadi organizations keep on changing names and function with impunity at the grassroots level. This, however, should not give an impression that Bangladesh is a Taliban country like Pakistan. The conflict situation between pro-Pakistani forces, believers in democracy and secularism and Bengali cultural nationalists is palpably perceptible. After General Zia’s collaboration with the USA and Pakistan during Afghan jihad and return of over 7000 Bengali Afghan veterans, infiltration by al Qaeda and Taliban had changed the social and political ambience in Bangladesh. By allowing rerouting of the Jamaat and by converting the country to Islamic principles Zia had helped creation of a force that thrived on Arab money, jihadi ideology and religious resurgence and fundamentalism.
By encouraging anti-India and anti-Hindu sentiments Zia, Ershad and Begum Zia had given direct and indirect support to the Islamicised jihadi forces. Between 1991 and 2000 Bangladesh created safe niche for the jihadis and forces antagonistic to India.
Pakistan’s policy of encouraging, sheltering and arming the Indian rebel groups was pursued by Zia-created DGFI, BDR and the jihadi elements that came to root in the country. Faded secular elements and cultural Bengali nationalists were pushed aside and hate-India sentiments were generated by Bangladeshi and Pakistani elements operating in political parties, bureaucracy, armed forces and segments of people Islamicised drastically. The former Muslim League elements who had taken shelter under other parties activated their anti-minority and anti-India campaign. Pakistan and China encouraged these developments.
In short, though India had liberally helped Bangladesh during the liberation war, pre-partition anti-Hindu and anti-India hate campaign created by the Muslim League pervaded even after creation of Pakistan. This was encouraged by Zia, Ershad and BNP. Pro-Pakistan and Islamist elements nearly overshadowed the secular forces. The Left forces were cruelly suppressed. Bangla involvement in Afghan jihad and Pakistan aggravated the situation. Hate Hindu and hate India sentiments still remain at the top layer of most of the people. The Awami League leaders have not been able to restore trust in India. Several irritants between the countries are exploited by pro-Pakistan and pro-Chinese forces in the army, bureaucracy and religious parties. India has to tread cautiously.
The other issues that keep haunting India’s security concerns are use of Bangladesh by northeastern insurgents groups like the NSCN (I), ULFA, NDFB, KLO, Manipuri Meitei groups and Tripura in connivance with the DGFI, ISI operatives and their jihadi spawns. This problem runs through Indo-Pak relations in East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, for over 60 years, starting from Phizo’s escape to Pakistan in 1948. There has been no waning in the situation except for a brief period between 1971 and 1975.
If we are to believe the security agencies, Indian insurgent groups are sheltered in at least 32 camps in Bangladesh, with some of the top leaders hosted by the ISI. The game of denial had improved somewhat during General Moeen’s hold on the interim government. Besides clamping down on jihadi activities inside the country he had minimized anti-India involvement of the government agencies and intelligence agencies.
Pointing out that the arms market in India is extremely lucrative; JIR said that a Chinese automatic rifle that is available for $500 in eastern Myanmar can command a price of $2,500 by the time it reaches the Northeast. Referring to an arms seizure by Myanmar authorities in 2001 that first brought out the trend, JIR said that “a consignment of several hundred Chinese assault rifles” were recovered while being transported to the Indian border at Tamu and were meant for “Manipuri UNLF and possibly other factions”. Officials in the Indian security establishment say that Chinese origin weapons are increasingly being seized from northeast insurgent groups and have even reached the illegal arms market in West Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh.
Besides Chinese and Myanmar smugglers the Rohingya and Bangladesh smugglers still use the Thailand route to pump in weapons for use by the Indian insurgent groups. It is a different aspect of intelligence input as to how Pakistan and Bangladesh facilitate this arms traffic.
Having had the opportunity of serving in the northeast for considerable period I have a feeling that political and administrative handling of the situation during last 60 years has been unsatisfactory and half hearted. Vast military presence in the northeast for prolonged period has cost the nation immensely; much more than what is being spent in Kashmir. Mere military solution is a chimera but the armed forces, besides having geostrategic concerns from China, have to keep eyes on the jihadi groups and silent incursion by inimical countries with surreptitious arms supplies.
The other concern areas are: Dispute with Bangladesh over offshore oil exploitation, supply of gas to India, direct train transit route from Tripura to the rest of the country, trade balance and Indo-Myanmar agreement to open Kaladan-route to sea via Sittwe port are viewed as a potential hostile act by Pakistan, China and Bangladesh. While this route would open up trade from the northeast India, it is likely to acquire strategic-presence in the area. Not far from Cox’s Bazar and Dakhinpara in Bangladesh, Sittwe is likely to provide an additional platform for keeping an eye on coastal Bangladesh and the vital Straits of Malacca. In any future battle zone in the Bay of Bengal Indian presence in the area is also viewed adversely by the USA and the UK from their bases in the Indian Ocean.
Bangladesh as a friendly democratic and secular country can provide a mutual security shield in this part of the country. The future cannot be gazed in the crystal ball. It would require astute diplomatic, political and economic manipulations to revive the faded hopes of 1971. It is almost a new freedom struggle for Bangladesh.
The tendency of Bangladesh political parties to peddle the practice of ‘the winners take all’, severe corruption, Islamic fundamentalism and pro-Pakistan sentiments may not make the things easy for the new government. It would require bilateral and international efforts to put the restored democracy on correct rails.
First published in MaloyKrishnaDhardotCom, February 15, 2009