Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bangladesh: Islamist Siege

Islamist seize Dhaka on May 5, 2013

S. BINODKUMAR SINGH

On May 5, 2013, Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI, 'Protectorate of Islam') enforced their 'Dhaka Siege' programme to mount pressure on the Awami League (AL)-led Government to implement their 13-point demands , including the demand to "pass a law providing for capital punishment for maligning Allah, Islam and Prophet Muhammad. and smear campaigns against Muslims". Four civilians were killed and several others injured as cadres of HeI fought running battles with Police across Dhaka, turning the capital into a city of panic. 70,000 Islamists marched down at least six highways and took position at the entry points of the city, stopping road transport and cutting off Dhaka's road links with rest of the country, while they raised slogans of 'Allahu Akbar' (God is great) and "One point, One demand: Atheists must be hanged."

More than 10,000 personnel drawn from the Police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) jointly launched a drive late on May 5, 2013, to clear demonstrators from Dhaka. As violence moved beyond the capital on May 6, 2013, at least 27 persons, including three Security Force (SF) personnel and a HeI cadre, were killed and several other injured in Narayanganj, Chittagong and Bagerhat Districts. Two of the injured died on May 7 and another one on May 9.

Earlier, on March 9, 2013, HeI Ameer (Chief) Shah Ahmad Shafi had put forward a 13-point demand at the Olama-Mashayekh (Islamic Scholars) Convention organized at the Darul Uloom Hathazari Madrassah Convention Hall in Chittagong District. On the same day, HeI's 'central joint secretary general' Maulana Moinuddin Ruhi, gave the call for theApril 6 rally at the end of a 'Long March' (from Chittagong to Dhaka). During the April 6 rally, the HeI gave the Government an April 30 deadline to meet its demands or face a 'Dhaka Siege' programme, commencing May 5, 2013.

Indeed, in an attempt to clamp down on the HeI cadres on the eve of 'Long March', the SFs arrested 30 HeI cadres from a bus in Palashbari area of Gaibandha District on April 5, 2013, while they were travelling to Dhaka. Subsequently, a clash between HeI and AL cadres at Dhaka city left one person dead and at least another 30 injured. As tension grew, four people were killed between April 6 and May 4, 2013.

Meanwhile, on May 3, 2013, two days prior to the 'Dhaka Siege' deadline, Prime Minister (PM) Sheikh Hasina Wajed addressing a Press Conference in Dhaka, offered a conciliatory response on the 13 demands, observing, "We have already gone through HeI demands. Many of these have already been implemented while some are in the process." Speaking explicitly about the second and 'most important' demand, to "pass a law providing for capital punishment for maligning Allah, Islam and Prophet Muhammad. and smear campaigns against Muslims", the PM stated that the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2009, and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) already contained provisions for punishment for the offence.

The Government's reply to each of the 13 demands asserts that these demands are nothing more than an attempt by the Islamist forces, backed by the main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), to hold the country to ransom, as these formations feel the heat of the War Crimes (WC) Trial. Significantly, on May 9, 2013, JeI Assistant Secretary General Muhammad Kamaruzzaman was awarded the death penalty by the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2). He was found guilty on five out of seven counts of torture and mass murder committed during the 1971 War of Independence. He is the third JeI leader to face the death penalty, while another one has received a life sentence. ICT-2, constituted on March 22, 2012, delivered the first WC verdict against former JeI leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar, on January 21, 2013, awarding a death sentence for killing 14 Hindus, raping two women, torturing two other persons and setting homes ablaze in Faridpur District, his birthplace. A total of nine persons, seven from JeI and two from BNP, have been indicted so far, for War Crimes.

Indeed, Bangladesh has seen a surge in violence since the January 21, 2013, verdict. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, the country has recorded 186 fatalities, including 109 civilians, 64 Islamist cadres and 13 SF personnel, in street violence since then (data till May 12, 2013).

Describing the activities of HeI as 'mysterious', Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu, had noted, on May 2, 2013, "The movement of HeI is not to protect the faith of Muslims. They are working as the shadow of JeI and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), to foil the trials of war criminals." Similarly, Environment and Forest Minister Dr. Hasan Mahmud, on May 7, 2013, asserted that BNP central leaders M.K. Anwar and Sadeque Hossain were behind the May 5 violence in Dhaka. He also blamed central leaders of the BNP-backed students' organizations, the Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) and ICS, for leading the trouble in Paltan, Baitul Mukarram and Motijheel areas of Dhaka during the HeI demonstrations and rally. On May 8, 2013, State Minister for Law, Advocate Quamrul Islam claimed, further, "The BNP-JeI men carried out vandalism, arson and looting during Sunday's violence". He went on to claim that the mayhem in Dhaka city was funded by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. Two left-leaning parties, the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) and the Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal (BSD), at a joint rally in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka city, demanded an immediate ban on HeI, JeI and ICS, for 'creating anarchy' across the country. The leaders of these two parties also blamed the main opposition BNP for extending support to HeI.

The abrupt emergence of HeI as a formidable disruptive force has largely been seen by the BNP-JeI-ICS front as an opportunity to exploit the current situation to harvest some political gains. With the survival of some of their leaders at stake, they appear willing to drive the country to the brink of chaos in their effort to derail the ongoing WC Trials. At the same time, however, a clear groundswell of opinion - albeit without the attendant violence that characterizes the Islamist protests - in favour of the WC Trials has also been dramatic. A direct and escalating confrontation appears inevitable at this juncture, and it remains to be seen whether the Government has the will and sagacity to manage this evolving crisis, even as it pushes the WC Trials process to a logical culmination. And all this will be necessary before the General Elections, which fall due in December 2013 - January 2014.

First appeared in SouthAsia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 11, No. 45, May 13, 2013

S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management