If one is looking for a single sentence to sum up the significance of the results of the December 29, 2008, parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, it should read: this is a second liberation. The first one, on December 16, 1971, rid it of Pakistan’s colonial rule and the nightmare of genocide and mass rape unleashed by the Pakistani Army since the night of March 25 that year. The results of the December elections have liberated Bangladesh from an inexorable descent into Talibanesque social medievalism and a reign of terror unleashed by Islamist fundamentalists. The country now has a chance to return to the Liberation War’s legacy of secularism, modernity, gender and social justice, political democracy and cultural pluralism, and friendship with neighbouring countries, particularly India. This is precisely the path the voters wanted their country to take.
The verdict has been overwhelmingly decisive. The Awami League (AL) has won 230 of the 299 seats (out of a total of 300 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad or National Parliament) to which elections were held on December 29, and 49.2 per cent of the votes polled, as against 62 seats and 40.13 per cent, respectively, in the 2001 election. The Grand Alliance it spearheaded has won 262 seats, with the Jatiya Party accounting for 27 (against 14 in 2001) seats, with five going to ‘others’ in the coalition. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia, which won 193 seats in 2001, now has just 29, with its share of votes declining from 40.97 per cent to 32.74 per cent. Its principal ally in the Four-Party Alliance, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JeI-B or Jamaat) has had its seats reduced from 17 to two.
The Jamaat, along with its student’s wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS or Shibir), constitute the matrix within which terrorist organizations like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), and Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh (AHAB), evolved. Leaders like Mufti Abdul Hannan and Bangla Bhai, aka Siddiqul Islam, Operations Commanders of the HuJI-B and JMJB respectively till their arrest and eventual executions, Abdur Rahman of JMB, Muhammad Asadullah al-Galib of AHAB graduated either from the Jamaat or the Shibir or both.
The JeI has suffered major blows in the recent election. Its Amir (chief), Matiur Rahman Nizami, General Secretary, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, and fire-eating stalwart, Delwar Hussain Saydee, have lost. It will, however, be foolish to believe that the party has been wiped out, or that the BNP has been hobbled permanently. Though the Jamaat has won only two seats, its share of votes polled has actually increased from 4.28 per cent in 2001 to 4.55 per cent in 2008. Besides, it has never been a dominant electoral force. Its strength lies in its huge economic empire which, as Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University has shown, yields an annual net profit of Taka 12 billion, at least 10 per cent of which is spent on organizational matters like holding regular party activity, running military training centres and maintaining about 500,000 party workers. As long as this empire, built with funds received from abroad during the 1970s and 1980s, remains intact, the JeI will continue to have the ability to make waves in Bangladesh’s politics as a highly-organised marginal force, which can tilt the balance whenever the AL’s popularity wanes.
Some of the entrepreneurial ventures linked to the Jamaat have also been funding terrorist activity. On April 5, 2006, Bangladesh Bank (the country’s Central Bank) had fined the Islami Bank Bangladesh Ltd., which is joined at the hip with the Jamaat, Taka 100,000 for hiding suspicious transactions by terrorists violating money-laundering laws. According to the report, this was the third time that the Islami Bank had been penalized for covering up terrorist activity. Many in Bangladesh believe that a thorough investigation into its functioning — as also that of other Jamaat enterprises — is bound to reveal the party’s, as well as the Shibir’s, umbilical ties with organizations like the HuJI-B, JMB, JMJB and AHAB, which, though banned, continue to be active.
JeI leaders’ denials of ties with Islamist terrorist outfits have always lacked credibility. Referring to the notorious terrorist, Bangla Bhai aka Siddiqul Islam, Operations Commander of JMJB, Motiur Rahman Nizami, then Bangladesh’s Industries Minister, had said at a Press Conference in Dhaka on July 22, 2004, that Bangla Bhai was "created by some newspapers as the Government has found no existence of him". Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mujahid, on the same occasion, stated that the Government would certainly take legal action against Bangla Bhai ‘if he was traced out’. Among others present at the Press Conference were the Jamaat’s Assistant Secretary General Kamaruzzaman, and leaders like Abdul Kader Mollah, ATM Azharul Islam and Nayeb-e-Ameer Maqbul Ahmed.
That Bangla Bhai was not a media creation was proved beyond doubt after he was arrested and, following a trial, hanged with six others, including Abdur Rahman, on March 29, 2007.
However, it is useful to note, also, that Sheikh Hasina did not take any significant action against the Jamaat during her previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001. In fact, she had even allied with the Jamaat in 1994 and 1995 to launch an agitation against Begum Khaleda Zia’s Government, demanding the establishment of a caretaker Government to hold parliamentary elections.
It is, perhaps, different now. Under relentless and often murderous attack, during the regime of the BNP-led coalition Government, of which Jamaat was a assertive partner, the AL now has reason to demand stringent action. Sheikh Hasina too is likely to listen.
She will also be under pressure to act against Jamaat leaders like Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, on another count — the promise in the Awami League’s manifesto for the parliamentary election to bring Bangladesh’s war criminals to justice. Both have been accused of war crimes along with several other leaders of the party. It will not be easy to bring them to book. Supporters of war criminals have become firmly entrenched in Bangladesh’s premier intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces’ Intelligence (DGFI), which has close links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. They, as well as their fellow travelers, who have infiltrated into the armed forces and civilian administration, will fight bitterly to frustrate the new Government’s efforts.
On her part, Sheikh Hasina will not be without support. The Sector Commanders’ Forum, an organization spearheaded by the sector commanders of the Mukti Bahini, during the 1971 Liberation War, has sustained an intense campaign for the trial and punishment of war criminals over the last two years. Thanks to them and efforts by the Muktijuddher Chetana Bastabayan O Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Jatiya Samanyay Committee (National Coordination Committee for the Realisation of the Consciousness of the Liberation War and the Eradication of the Killers and Agents of ‘Seventy One’), popularly known as Nirmul Committee, evidence will not be difficult to come by. Besides, Ian Martin, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy, has promised Sheikh Hasina, whom he met on January 1, 2009, to congratulate her on her victory, all help in bringing the war criminals to justice.
The question is of political will. Sheikh Hasina’s and the AL’s credibility will be severely dented if they are seen to be unable and/or unwilling to act firmly. Besides, war criminals, left alone, will try to stage a comeback and resume the campaign of murder and terror they had unleashed in Bangladesh between 2001 and 2006. Sheikh Hasina, who has survived several attempts on her life, including the grenade attack on a rally she was addressing in Dhaka on August 21, 2004, which left 24 persons dead, should have no illusion on the score. Besides acting against war criminals, she will also have to dismantle the Jamaat’s economic empire, which sustains the party’s activities and openly promotes a jihadi mindset.
The Sector Commander’s Forum has urged the incoming Government to begin the trial of the war criminals as soon as possible. In a statement on January 2, congratulating the AL-led Grand Alliance on their landslide victory, it said that the soul of the martyrs would remain unsatisfied and the sovereignty of the country insecure until the war criminals were tried.
The issue of the trial of war criminals has a significance that goes far beyond bringing to book people who have been involved in genocidal violence that cost the lives of three million people and involved the rape of 425,000 women, though that is monstrous enough. Those designated war criminals are also leaders of the Jamaat, the spawning ground and ideological fountainhead of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh. Their trial and punishment will, consequently, help to neutralize the threat of a regression into near-anarchical violence and medievalism that still hangs over Bangladesh.
It will also, perhaps, help relations with India, which the Jamaat leaders have designated as Bangladesh’s enemy. This is clear from the Jamaat’s view on Bangladesh’s defence articulated by Abbas Ali Khan, who became its officiating Amir after it was revived in May 1979, after being banned in the wake of the country’s liberation. Khan writes in the party’s official website:
The very word defence raises the pertinent question, ‘defence against whom?’ Had there been several states around Bangladesh, the answer to this question might not be permanently the same. But as she is almost surrounded by one state, the answer can’t be but one. Whenever any kind of aggression comes it shall come from India alone. Consequently the psychology of the defence forces of Bangladesh must be anti-Indian. But only a negative feeling is not sufficient for developing this psychology to the spirit of highest sacrifice for the country. Nobody can deny that the Muslim sentiment or the Islamic spirit is the only positive element necessary for building up the correct and effective psychology of the defence forces. It is the spirit of jihad which can inspire them to sacrifice their life with the hope that they will be amply rewarded after death.
Understandably, relations between India and Bangladesh were tense during the entire period of the four-party coalition Government headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who is also bitterly hostile toward India and has never been averse to resorting to communal politics. A week before the elections, she had urged voters campaigning in Sylhet, to vote for her alliance to "save Islam and the country", adding, further, "You will have to decide whether to cast your vote for setting up a puppet government for serving certain quarters at home and abroad, who had been conspiring against Bangladesh."
During Begum Zia’s second innings as Prime Minister, Bangladesh continued to provide sanctuary, training, and assistance to terrorist outfits of northeastern India, prominently including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the All-Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). Her Government had arbitrarily rejected lists of terrorist camps provided by India, stating that the latter did not exist, and had allowed wanted terrorists like Anup Chetia, Arabinda Rajkhowa and Paresh Baruah of the ULFA to move about freely and acquire massive business interests in Bangladesh. The country had also emerged, during her second tenure as Prime Minister, as a major staging ground for cross-border terrorist strikes in India, with the HuJI-B having a hand in most attacks since 2002.
In response to a question from an Indian journalist, Sheikh Hasina stated, at a Press Conference on December 31, that Bangladesh would not allow any terrorist outfit to use its soil (for attacks) against any country, including India. She also proposed the establishment of a joint task force by South Asian countries for combined action against terrorism. While nobody will question her intentions, her ability to deliver remains to be seen. She had closed down some camps of North-East Indian insurgent groups in Bangladesh after taking over as Prime Minister in 1996. But these had reopened not long thereafter, while she remained in power. Sources close to her had told this writer at that time that her hand was forced by a section of the Army and the DGFI – which may well have been the case. Both had acquired a very sizeable component of pro-Pakistan fundamentalist Islamist elements during the 15 years of thinly-disguised military rule in Bangladesh, from the end of 1975 to the beginning of 1991, when Khaleda Zia became Prime Minister for the first time. The latter’s tenure as Prime Minister, from 1991 to 1996, had seen a further consolidation of these elements, which Sheikh Hasina could only contain up to a point, and not fully curb, when she was Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001.
A part of the reason lay in the fact that the ISI was riding high. Having coordinated the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union on behalf of the United States, it had, in cooperation with the CIA and the transport mafia of Quetta, set up the Taliban in 1994. Given the background of the murder of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and her entire family in 1975, barring her and her sister Rehana, who were not then in Bangladesh, Shiekh Hasina might well have hesitated to take on Pakistani elements in the Army and the DGFI, which were closely linked to Pakistan.
The regional and international canvas is different now. Post 9/11, the United States has declared war on al Qaeda and the Taliban. The ISI, which has spawned Islamist terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and which has close links with al Qaeda and Taliban, is no longer the CIA’s blue-eyed boy. Sheikh Hasina will have extensive global support if she takes on Islamist terrorist organizations in Bangladesh linked to al Qaeda and Taliban. Indeed, it was pressure from the United States and the European Union countries which had forced Begum Zia to act against the JMJB, JMB and AHAB in February 2005 and the HuJI-B several months later. Also, but for international pressure the Army-backed Caretaker Government would not have come into being on January 11, 2007; nor would it, perhaps, have held the elections on December 29.
Sheikh Hasina is now clearly in a position not only to act against Islamist terrorists but even to cleanse the Army and the DGFI of elements favouring the Taliban, al Qaeda and their local franchise holders, and who are linked with the ISI. Many in Bangladesh have lauded Sheikh Hasina’s holding out the proverbial olive branch to the BNP by offering it the post of Deputy Speaker and a share in ministerial appointments; others advocate, albeit sotto voce, caution, recalling the general amnesty Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had proclaimed on November 30, 1973, which had enabled war criminals, including those convicted and sentenced, to come out from jails and the woodwork, to work surreptitiously for a revival of pro-Pakistan and fundamentalist politics. History rarely forgives those who fail to be firm when they need to.
A stern approach toward jihadi groups that use Bangladesh’s territory to mount terrorist attacks against India, and send agents and arms across the porous India-Bangladesh border, will go a long way in creating a climate in which all outstanding issues between the two countries can be sorted out; so will the withdrawal of sanctuary and assistance so long given to Indian insurgent groups. This applies particularly to the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh which has acquired a sharp and bitter edge because of the cover it provides to infiltration by terrorists and smuggling of arms and money, and because of the ISI’s known plan to carve out a Muslim-majority state comprising parts of north-eastern India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Of course, it will not be easy to resolve these issues. But a beginning can be made with Bangladesh’s recognition of the existence of the problems, which it has been denying so far. This will require extraordinary political will. But so will effectively dealing with the terrorist groups and their patrons, cleansing the administration of corruption and worse, coping with continuing price rise, and the global meltdown that can hit the country particularly hard because of its dependence on the export of ready-made garments to the West and remittances from non-resident Bangladeshis. Accelerated economic cooperation with India, which is likely to be hurt far less, can provide Bangladesh with a much-needed cushion.
There is no reason why this should not come about, given the huge reservoir of goodwill that exists for Sheikh Hasina in India. But she must address New Delhi’s concerns as well, particularly since most of these affect her own and Bangladesh’s well-being as well. The stage is now set for scripting a new scenario of friendship and cooperation between India and Bangladesh. It will be great pity if the play turns into a tragedy.
Hiranmay Karlekar is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal