Radical Islam is spreading its tentacles in Bangladesh. Whether it is through home grown extremists or the local unit of an Al Qaeda or Islamic State franchise, is irrelevant. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government appears to be on the back foot and is either not able to act or is reluctant to crack down on those who have over the last two years got away with the most primitive and gruesome hacking to death with knives, swords and machetes. The victims were bloggers, atheists and secular thinkers.
In the last couple of weeks this has extended to murder of a gay rights activist, a Hindu tailor and a well respected professor of English. The professor was a practicing Muslim and attended mosque regularly on Friday. He had made no provocative statements. He was funding a mosque as well as a music school in his village. So why him? There are no easy answers.
On Tuesday, Singapore announced that it had repatriated eight Bangladeshis. The authorities allege that the eight were radicalized Muslims, hoping to establish an Islamic State unit in Bangladesh, overthrow the government and establish a caliphate. Documents on bomb-making and weapons were recovered from the group.
What is worrying ordinary Bangladeshis is not Al Qaeda or Islamic State, but the government’s inability to prosecute and send to trial the culprits involved in the recent spate of killings. If the cases were solved, the ordinary citizen would be reassured. “We dont know who these people are, and why they cannot be apprehended? It is frustrating for all of us,” said Shantanu Majumdar, professor in Dhaka university. “Instead of nabbing the culprits the police chief advises writers to be careful. This will only encourage those who are murdering with impunity,” he said.
Majumdar has a point. Though the Awami League’s secular credentials cannot be questioned, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's speech on Bengali New Year in April is worrying moderates and liberals in Bangladesh. She denounced those who criticised religion or expressed their own lack of religious faith. “I don't consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”
Writers have been asked to make sure that religious sentiments are not hurt. What people forget is that Sheikh Hasina is a politician, she cannot go against the wishes of the majority who are devout Muslims. The Awami League is already seen as a pro-India, pro-minority party, and cannot be seen to be on the side of the bloggers. But that does not mean she should let the perpetrators get away.
The international community is equally anxious. Dhaka is under enormous pressure to nab the killers of gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan and his young friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy. Mannan worked with USAID. A Bangaldesh-born US citizen Avijit Roy was hacked to death in February 2014. US Secretary of State John Kerry was on the phone to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, demanding action and providing help if necessary. The EU too has been urging the government to act.
Under pressure, the government has come out with a statement promising to take tough action and arrest those responsible. “Whoever is responsible for these attacks, the Government is determined to hunt them down and put them behind the bar. Regrettably, in recent times we have seen attacks and brutal murders of several individuals, in what may be termed as an attack on the secular outlook of the land where people of all faiths have lived in harmony since long. It seems that vested groups are out to destabilize the country through these planned killings.” Much will depend on whether the government can deliver on its promise.
India also concerned
Unlike the US, India is not making any public noise about the killings. Yet as Bangladeshs' closest neighbour, there is considerable concern. New Delhi trusts Sheikh Hasina and is aware of the fact that she won't ignore India's security interests. But Delhi is also aware that mushrooming of jihadi groups can have an impact on India's sensitive north-eastern states.
The fear of terror groups slipping into India's north-east is very real. In September 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has announced the formation of the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which would concentrate on spreading its branches to India and Myanmar. Zawahiri mentioned the Muslim majority state of Kashmir and Assam, who have a sizeable number of Muslims. Al Qaeda vowed to fight for the rights of the Muslim population in these areas.
India is willing to go along with Dhaka that neither the Al Qaeda nor Islamic State is involved in the recent spate of murders. Most can be traced back to home grown elements. Yet Delhi has also been urging Dhaka to take action. Counter terror expert Ajai Sahni, agrees with the Bangladesh government and dismisses claims of Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
“These are home grown outfits, remnants of the Jamaat and the opposition hitting out at the government. There has to be much more evidence to prove the involvement of Al Qaeda or Islamic State,” he said.
Updated Date: May 05, 2016 18:49 PM