REAL NAME: SIDDIQUL ISLAM Guilty of torturing, killing eight Left activists ; Member of the Jamaat-e-Islami till ’98; quit courtesy its decision to accept women leaders; Joined Jagroto Muslim Janata Bangladesh, which wants to establish a Taliban-type state ; He is its operations chief and member of its highest policymaking body
He is Bangladesh’s Mullah Omar, intolerant, fanatical and, yes, charismatic. Like the erstwhile Taliban supremo, his avowed goal is to establish a society based on the Islamic model laid out in the Quran and the Hadith (tradition) of Prophet Mohammad. Quite worryingly, he isn’t averse to killing his opponents in cold blood. That’s Siddiqul Islam aka Bangla Bhai, leader of the Jagroto Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), who thrust himself into the country’s popular consciousness—and in media headlines—through the grisly torture and killing of eight members of the banned Leftist group, Sarbahara (Have-Nots) Party, over the past few months.
The emergence of Bangla Bhai underlines the concerted challenge a clutch of Islamic militant groups pose to Bangladesh’s reputation as a "moderate Muslim country". Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was alarmed enough to issue orders of arrest against the Mullah Omar clone. But the nation’s woes have continued to mount. A bomb explosion at the holy shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalai in Sylhet in May killed four people and injured Bangladesh-born British high commissioner Anwar Choudhury and 80 others. In April, a huge cache of sophisticated arms was seized in raids on two militant hideouts at Satikthhari village, Chittagong district. Add to these the intermittent threats the militant outfits have been issuing against the minority Ahmadiya sect countrywide and the picture you have is of impoverished Bangladesh struggling to keep at bay the radical Islamism nibbling at its soul.
No wonder, Christina Rocca, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, flew into Dhaka last month, much to the chagrin of the Zia government. Rocca met the leaders of the beleaguered 1,00,000-strong Ahmadiya community and told reporters, "This country (Bangladesh) has a long tradition as a moderate and tolerant place.... The problems faced by the Ahmadiya sect have made us concerned because it looks like if things might be getting off tract a little."
About her visit, a western diplomat said, "Rocca’s visit was different from her earlier visits, as things are changing in Bangladesh. It is the first alert buzz of that fact." Dhaka, however, reiterated that these were stray incidents, and that it would tackle such militant groups with a tough hand. But Rocca’s statement did embarrass the four-party alliance government, which includes religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikkya Jote.
And now it is the turn of the Indian government to ring alarm bells. Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina raised the issue of Islamic militancy with Veena Sikri, the Indian high commissioner in Dhaka. Sikri did not express her own views but a source in the Indian high commission told Outlook, "Obviously, security matters in Bangladesh concern India as a neighbouring country." Especially the cache of sophisticated weapons found in Chittagong. Says the source, "We have asked during border talks and at other levels about the origins of weapons and their destination. Such cache of weapons could land in the hands of separatist elements in India. We are constantly monitoring these developments."
The growing strength of militant groups and their attempts to push Bangladesh to rightwing extremism is a worry for India because of its recent history. Islamic radicals and their slogans of jehad have created havoc on India’s northern borders. New Delhi wouldn’t want a new flank to open in the east, already riven by secessionism.
The disquiet in foreign missions is also because of the general perception, often articulated in the media here, about the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami’s links to the militants groups, some of which are in turn purportedly linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Jamaat secretary-general and social welfare minister Ali Ahsan Mujaheed has a tame defence: "It is unfair to implicate Jamaat in the activities of Bangla Bhai, Mujahideen, Harkatul Jehad or other groups.Our party preaches Islam to rear honest people."
As foreign missions anxiously keep an eye on bloody militant activities, the nation is in thrall of Bangla Bhai. Who is he? What’s his organisation, JMJB, all about? In his mid-40s, black-bearded and turbaned, he hails from the northwestern Bogra district and was initially a member of the Jamaat. "My actual name is Siddiqul Islam, and I do not have any other names which appear in the media. It’s my journalist-friends who created the confusion," he once said in response to queries as to why he was called Bangla Bhai. Siddiqul apparently earned that sobriquet because he used to teach Bengali in a Dhaka school. He also claims to have studied in Dhaka University.
In 1998, Bangla Bhai quit the Jamaat in protest against its decision to accept the woman leadership of Bangladesh. "We don’t believe in the present political trend," he had then fumed. "We want to build a society based on the Islamic model laid out in the Holy Quran and the Hadith." He then joined the JMJB, which could have been operating under a different nomenclature till then. Bangla Bhai worked underground for six years and rose to become a member of its highest policy-making body, the Majlis-e-Shura, as also its operations chief.
JMJB’s principal goal is to turn Bangladesh into a Taliban-like state. But its spiritual leader Maulana Abdur Rahman claims the JMJB is involved in social welfare activities. Maulana Rahman, like Bangla Bhai, was also a member of the Jamaat and, incidentally, collaborated with the Pakistani army during Bangladesh’s 1971 India-backed liberation war.
The JMJB is believed to have 10,000 militants operating in at least 17 Bangladeshi districts. The organisation is well structured: its top tier is called Ehsar which comprises full-time members working on orders of the leadership; its second tier is Gayeri Ehsar, which consists of 1,00,000 part-time activists; at the bottom are those who work for the organisation indirectly. Its principal sources of funding are disguised business including cold storage and shrimp cultivation.
Last month, Dhaka-based newspaper The Daily Star claimed it had obtained video discs, including one chillingly titled, The Solution, The Preparation. These videos shown to JMJB recruits contained visuals of training imparted at the erstwhile al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan. The newspaper quoted JMJB sources as saying that 20 of their comrades who had worked with bin Laden were now assisting Bangla Bhai.
Bangla Bhai shot into notoriety because of killings and tortures allegedly carried out at his behest. The most grisly of these occurred in Bamongram village, Naogaon district, last month. JMJB activists nabbed three Sarbahara Party activists and tortured them, their chilling screams transmitted over the microphone across the village. The following morning the villagers woke up to find the body of a man, labelled as a Sarbahara Party member, hanging upside down from a tree. Another mutilated body was found at a temporary camp of the JMJB.
JMJB men deny their role in the grisly killings, claiming the villagers acted against the Sarbahara Party because of its propensity to extort money from people. But there are no takers for these explanations. The police, in fact, claim the victims were innocent villagers and not associated with the banned Leftist outfits.
Wherever Bangla Bhai and his men go, the people live in complete terror.Like in Vittigram village in Naogaon, for instance. Here the JMJB members would pick up pretty girls and confine them in Siddiqia Fazil Madrassa, where they would be allegedly raped. Normalcy returned to the village only after JMJB moved out to other pastures to preach their own version of Islamic society.
That Bangla Bhai earned his spurs in the Jamaat has embarrassed the government deeply.But Jamaat chief has his own spin, "There may be a move nationally or internationally to rear some adventurers or splinter groups to check Islamic uprising." Or, the Jamaat cadres are deliberately being groomed to give Islamic ideology a bad name. Either way, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh too may have to pay a heavy price for flirting with the fundamentalists.