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BANGLADESH: A BENGALI ABBASI LURKING SOMEWHERE?

 

Paper 232                                      23.04.2001

by B.Raman

In an assessment on Bangladesh disseminated in January, 1997, this writer had observed as follows: " There are individual officers in the Bangladesh intelligence community and in its security forces, who feel positively towards Sheikh Hasina (Prime Minister) and her father, but one cannot say the same thing of these organisations as institutions. Institutionally, they may not share with her the same enthusiasm for closer relations with India and for assisting it in dealing with the insurgency (in the North-East).  It would take her and her party considerable time to understand and assess the intricacies of their working and the labyrinthine relationships which they have built up with their Pakistani counterparts during the last 21 years.  She, therefore, has to move with caution." 

The savage manner in which 15 members of India's Border Security Force (BSF) were reportedly abducted, tortured, killed and their bodies mutilated beyond recognition last week shows that even after almost five years in power, Sheikh Hasina is apparently not in total command of her military and intelligence establishment, which like its counterpart in Pakistan, has been infected by the fundamentalist virus of Afghan vintage and is probably developing an agenda of its own vis-à-vis India.

Last week's savage incident uncomfortably brings to mind three other incidents of the past:

* The brutal massacre of Bengali intellectuals by the Al Badr, the militant wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) of the united Pakistan in 1971.

* The savagery to which some captured Indian soldiers in the Kargil sector in 1999 were subjected by the Al Badr of the present Pakistan and the Al Qaeda ,also known as the Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HUJ), of Osma bin Laden, before their bodies were returned by the Pakistan Army in a similarly mutilated condition.

* The attack on the Indian army in the Siachen sector launched in the early 1990s by Maj-Gen. Zahir-ul-Islam Abbasi, the station chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan in New Delhi in the late 1980s, along with some other fundamentalist officers without the authorisation of the GHQ and the then Government of Mr. Nawaz Sharif. The attack was repulsed by the Indian Army after inflicting heavy casualties on the rogue elements in the Pakistan Army.  The late Gen. Asif Nawaz Janjua, the then Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), removed Abbasi and other officers and punished them.  Subsequently, in 1995, they joined hands with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), which was declared by the US as an international terrorist organisation in October,1997, and plotted to have Mrs. Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister, and Gen. Abdul Wahid Kakkar, the then COAS, assassinated and to proclaim the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan.  Lt.Gen. Jehangir Karamat, the then Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), detected the plot in time and crushed it.  The dramatis personae were court-martialled and jailed.

Ever since Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996, independent analysts and women's rights organisations in Bangladesh (BD) had been drawing attention to her inability or to the difficulties faced by her in reversing the process of Islamisation of the society and the administrative and security infrastructure under the two military dictatorships which followed the assassination of her father in 1975 and to counter the increasing activities of Islamic fundamentalist organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) of the pre-1971 vintage, the Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ- the Islamic United Front)) and the followers of bin Laden's HUJ (Al Qaeda).  They were also drawing attention to the spread of the fundamentalist virus in the BD diaspora, particularly in the UK.

Chakma human rights groups had been highlighting the pre-1996 nexus between the JEI and the Bangladesh Army and documenting instances of their joint attacks on and destruction of Buddhist places of worship and Buddha statues in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which, according to the Chakma groups, had continued till the middle of 1996.

In a paper on the "State of Minorities in Bangladesh: From Secular to Islamic Hegemony", Mr. Saleem Samad, an analyst of the BD scene, points out how the trend towards the Islamisation of the civil society and the State apparatus in Bangladesh started even under the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh.

Shiekh Mujibur Rahman revived the Islamic Academy (which was banned in 1972) and upgraded it to a Foundation in March 1975 and increasingly attended Islamic gatherings. He also banned sale and consumption of liquor, though production of liquor continued and betting in horse-race.  He sought membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in February 1974, attended the OIC conference at Lahore the same year, established diplomatic ties with Pakistan after granting unconditional pardon of the occupational forces of Pakistan involved in war crimes on innocent people, especially women, and allowed their subsequent safe repatriation, and secured the founder membership of the Islamic Development Bank in 1975.

Towards the end of his rule, Mujib made frequent references to Islam in his speeches and public utterances by using terms and idioms which were peculiar mainly to the Islam-oriented Bangladeshi - like Allah (the Almighty God),Insha Allah (God willing), Bismillah (in the name of God), Tawaba (Penitence) and Imam (religious leader).  He even dropped his symbolic valedictory expression Joy Bangla (Glory to Bengal) and ended his speeches with Khuda Hafez (May God protect you), the traditional Indo-Islamic phrase for bidding farewell.  In his later day speeches, he also highlighted his efforts to establish cordial relations with the Muslim countries in the Middle East.

According to Mr.Saleem Samad, the process of using Islam for leadership legitimisation purposes gathered momentum during the military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and General H.M. Ershad (1982-1990).  During the regime of Zia, the Constitution was amended to delete secularism as one of the four state principles and insert "Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim" (in the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful).  The principle of secularism was replaced by the words, "Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all action."

"Islamiyat" was introduced as compulsory from classes I to VIII in schools with the option for minority students to take similar religious courses of their own.

Between 1982 and 1990, Ershad made systematic efforts to continue the policy of Zia, rehabilitating anti-liberation elements and the parallel Islamisation culminating in the Eighth amendment to the Constitution declaring "Islam" as a state religion. Earlier, the short-lived government of Mustaque Ahmed (August 1975 - November 1975) brought to power at the behest of young military officers, had declared the People's Republic of Bangladesh as the"Islamic Republic of Bangladesh" over the state radio.

Mr.Samad points out that the subsequent regimes of Khaleda Zia and Shiekh Hasina, which came to power through popular mandate through a free and fair election process under two consecutive neutral governments (in 1991 and 1996), too continued the Islamic policies of the previous governments.  They did not try to reverse the Islamisation measures taken by Ershad. The Constitution of Bangladesh, despite the Awami League being in power today, remains an Islamic one.

In mid -1993, the Khaleda Zia Government, under pressure from Islamic fundamentalist elements, asked the commercial banks to disallow the withdrawal of substantial cash money by Hindu account holders and to stop the disbursement of business loans to Hindus living in the districts adjoining the India-Bangladesh border.

None of these Governments took action to restore to the Hindus their properties seized by the Ayub Government in 1965 under the Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order under the "Defence of Pakistan Rules Ordinance" which has since been replaced by the Vested Property Act.

In a study titled "Resistance to Fundamentalism in Bangladesh and Britain", an organisation called Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) has pointed out as follows:

"In 1971,there was widespread collaboration (with the Pakistani rulers) by government officers at local and national level.  Unable to visualise a Bengali victory, they wished to protect their jobs and sided with the rulers who they expected to be the victors.

"More ideologically based was the enthusiastic collaboration of the Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and its student wing who formed the active service units of the Al-Badr to defend Pakistan and wipe out Bengali intellectuals.  These 'razakars' (collaborators) are held responsible for perpetrating thousands of rapes and massacres in the name of Islam and for guiding the Pakistani army to the resistance bases.

"In the middle of the war, the Pakistani rulers established national and regional 'Peace Committees' whose task, in their own words, was to 'seek out miscreants and Indian agents and to assist the armed forces in destroying them'.  A leading member of the national Peace Committee was Professor Golam Azam who repeatedly exhorted the razakars to rid the country of anti-Pakistani dissidents.

"After the Liberation, there was an expectation of war crimes trials.  A Collaborators' Ordinance was passed but it was used patchily and apparently more as an excuse to pay off old scores than to put on trial the leading collaborators and murderers although their identity was very well known.  The civil servants who had collaborated were very soon rehabilitated to serve the new government and in 1973, in a changing political climate, a General Pardon was declared (for collaborators other than murderers and rapists).  The extent of this politically motivated rehabilitation was demonstrated by the appointment of a former regional Peace Committee chairman as the President of Bangladesh.

"Most of the leading collaborators went abroad to work against Bangladesh in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the West.  A leading figure among them was Golam Azam who along with other former collaborators played a key role in the expansion of Jamaat-e-Islami and its establishment in Britain.  In 1978,Golam Azam returned to Bangladesh, ostensibly to visit his sick mother.  Despite his having no citizenship and being widely held to have been a major collaborator, he has lived there ever since with the protection of successive governments and his own 'Islamic Guards'.

"In 1991, Golam Azam was declared the Amir (leader) of the Jamaat, now an active and increasingly successful political party working to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh. Their argument in Bangladesh, as in Egypt and Algeria, is that democracy is un-Islamic because laws can only come from Islam.  Nationalism is also regarded as un-Islamic and Bangladesh 's whole existence and secession from Pakistan is therefore disapproved of. Jamaat is believed to have political links with Iran and financial support from Saudi Arabia.  The student wing of Jamaat has gained control of the campus of the Chittagong University, through a combination of ideology and guns, and has near control over other campuses.  Fights and shootings take place very frequently in the universities, many students and teachers have been killed and teaching and examinations disrupted or suspended.

"The Jamaat's activities have been tolerated and encouraged to a greater or lesser extent by successive ruling regimes and governments in Bangladesh who have relied on their support.  Islamisation has come a long way in Bangladesh with Islam now the official religion and agitation led by the Jamaat for an Islamic Republic.

"The Islamic movement has prospered for a number of reasons.  Many people have a nostalgic attachment to Pakistan and a mistrust of India.  In the depth of the economic and social problems of Bangladesh, and disillusionment with both the capitalist and communist nations which are seen as having failed to support the country, the promise of a renaissance through internationalist Islam seems attractive not only to the very religious rural poor but also to educated young people who can see no other positive future.  The extent of corruption and the general lack of confidence in the government and bureaucracy makes the concept of a 'pure' corruption-free society ruled by Islam an appealing option to many people."

Alarmed by the return and rehabilitation of Golam Azam, the secular forces in Bangladesh started a number of movements to identify the collaborators of Pakistan and the Al Badr in the 1971 massacres and to have them tried.  In a report released in March, 1994, a People's Enquiry Commission, consisting of prominent personalities,identified, in addition to Golam Azam, eight others as the collaborators of the Al Badr in the massacres--Abbas Ali Khan, Maulana Matiur Rehman Nizami, Mohammed Kamruzzaman, Maulana Dilawar Hussain Sayeedi, Maulana Abdul Mannan, Abdul Kader Molla and Abdul Alim.

Abbas Ali Khan held the No.2 position in the Jamaat and members of the Razakar force (who were given short courses in military training) were, under his leadership, given powers equal to those of the regular armed forces, and they allegedly carried out widespread killings, rapes and looting in villages.

Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, who was the Secretary- General of the JEI, used to exhort them to "carry out [their] national duty to eliminate those who are engaged in war against Pakistan and Islam," and to finish off Awami League supporters.  After one such meeting, Al-Badr forces, in cooperation with the Razakars, surrounded the village of Brishlika and burnt it to the ground.  He has since taken over as the Amir of the JEI in December last and has not suffered any penal consequences.  On the contrary, he is now an important political ally of Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, the Assistant Secretary-General of the JEI, was in charge of recruiting members for and organising the Al-Badr in Mymensingh.

A member of the Jamaat-e-Islami's Majlis-e -Shoora, Maulana Dilawar Hussain Sayeedi took active part in the organisation of the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams forces.  He was also accused of involvement along with Pakistani army troops in the killing of sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) Faizur Rahman,father of Humayun Ahmad, a renowned writer and professor of chemistry at the University of Dacca.

Maulana Abdul Mannan, the president of the Jamiat-e-Mudarresin, an organisation of teachers of madrassas and the owner of the daily "Dainik Inquilab," the country's second-highest circulated newspaper, was one of the key collaborators of the Yahya regime during 1971.  A Minister under General Ziaur Rahman after 1976 and subsequently in President H M Ershad's cabinet, Mannan was also associated with the killing of intellectuals, specifically eminent physician Alim Chowdhury.

Abdul Kader Molla, the publicity secretary of the JEI, was known as a 'butcher' in the Dacca suburb of Mirpur, mainly populated by non-Bengali Muslim migrants in 1971.  An eyewitness to Molla's criminal activities in 1971 told the commission that Razakar men, under the command of Kader Molla, brutally murdered the poet Meherunnessa .

According to the commission's report, Abdul Alim himself carried out executions of Bengalis by lining them up and shooting them dead.

Despite their involvement in the massacres carried out by the JEI of united Pakistan and its Al Badr, many of these personalities of the JEI are today in the forefront of the fundamentalist, pro-Pakistan and anti-India forces in BD and privileged allies of the BNP. 

A Special Rapporteur (SR) of the UN Human Rights Commission, Geneva, who visited Bangladesh from May 15 to 24,2000, reported to the Commission as follows: "The 1972 Constitution (articles 39 and 41) guarantees freedom of religion and conscience and their manifestations, while defining certain limits e.g. in the interest of the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.  The principle of non-discrimination is also guaranteed.  The Constitution accords a special role to Islam, which is defined as the state religion; the Amendment of 1977 defines the Muslim faith as one of the nation's guiding principles.  The sharia does not constitute the basis of the country's legislation.

"Most of the officials with whom the SR met stated that the government was in favour of secularism.  Non-governmental representatives and independent experts said that state policies generally respected freedom of religion and belief, in the strictest sense of those terms, and also respected their manifestations, within the framework of the limitations provided by the law.  However, religious communities - more particularly minorities and ethnic groups, but also Muslims - encounter serious problems.  These problems arise in two main contexts: (a) relations between the state and religious communities (e.g. restricted access for non-Muslims to public-sector employment) and between the state and ethnic communities (e.g. the delays in the implementation of the peace accord concerning the CHT); and (b) relations between the state and non-ethnic communities, particularly extremist religious parties.

"There is a real and effective threat of religious extremism, stemming largely from such religious parties as Jamat-e-Islami, which are very active in their efforts to train Muslims by infiltrating mosques and madrasas and engaging in political action.  This extremism is notably responsible for the climate of insecurity among non-Muslim minorities, as well as among the Ahmadi Muslim minority community, among ethnic groups and among women, regardless of their religious confession.

"There have been looting and destruction of (Buddhist) temples, as well as harassment of Buddhist monks and other Buddhists by Muslim extremist groups; Buddhists have suffered discrimination with respect to public sector jobs.

"There is discrimination against Christians with respect to access to public sector employment, including access to police and army jobs; there are stereotypes representing Christians as anti-Muslim (because of the Crusades); there is an absence of any real interchange between the Christian and Muslim communities, especially in urban environments.  The authorities do not, in practice, recruit Christian teachers, even though there are enough Christian students to justify such recruitment; extremist Muslim groups often oppose the use of bells and loudspeakers for hymns in places of worship; there is a strong current of anti-Christian activism and the police largely remain passive when incidents occur; legal decisions in favour of the Catholic Church, concerning the use of their property, have not been applied because extremist Muslims have opposed their application on a variety of grounds.

"There is no interference by the authorities in the religious activities of Hindus; there is a feeling of insecurity, however, due partly to the Vested Property Act; Hindu women are often victims of harassment and rape carried out by criminal elements of society. "

The electoral support enjoyed by the JEI in BD is more than that of its counterpart in Pakistan, but still not substantial.  It won only 18 seats in the 1996 elections, but it has built up considerable street power and has important allies in the IOJ and the HUJ. They have carefully retained and nursed the nexus which the JEI had built up in the military and intelligence establishment before 1991, but available evidence does not permit a quantification of the support enjoyed by them in the establishment .

During the 1980s, many cadres of the JEI had participated in the fight against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and, in the process, established a networking relationship with different Afghan Mujahideen groups, with Pakistani jehadi organisations and with the HUJ (Al Qaeda) of bin Laden.  They had also played an active role in assisting and training the Rohingya Muslims of the Arakan State of Myanmar.  The BD military-intelligence establishment had allowed the HUM of Pakistan to run training camps for Rohingya Muslims in BD territory.

In recent months, a Bangladeshi version of the HUJ has made its appearance and has been operating independently.  Though the BD authorities claim that the HUJ came into being in 1992 when Begum Khaleda Zia was the Prime Minister, reports of its activities have come to the fore only during the last two years.  It has been projected as an organisation owing its inspiration to bin Laden and the Taliban of Afghanistan.  Their slogan reportedly is: "Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban. Bangla Hobe Afghanistan'(We all will become Taliban and Bangla will become Afghanistan).

After the arrest and interrogation of a South African citizen of Indian origin Ahmed Sadeq Ahmed,a Pakistani citizen Mohammad Sajed and two Bangladeshis- Maulana Nazrul Islam and Sardar Bokhtiar-- in 1999, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the BD Police projected them as members of bin Laden's organisation and gave the following details of the HUJ as gathered by them during the interrogation:

* Bin Laden had sanctioned taka 20 million (US $ 0.40 million) for recruiting and training cadres and organising terrorist and subversive activities in Bangladesh.  He had handed over the money to Mohammad Sajed, who is the coordinator of the pro-bin Laden militants working in Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh.

* Mohammad Sajed told the investigators that he had handed over the money to Sardar Bokhtiar.

* Bokhtiar confessed to having received this amount and said that he had distributed it to 421 madrasas which were helping the HUJ in recruiting and training its cadres.

* Maulana Nazrul Islam, who was arrested in Sirajganj district, is said to be the Amir of the HUJ in BD.

These claims of the CID were strongly refuted by the JEI of BD and its counterpart in South Africa.  Despite this, the US Secret Service took them seriously enough to advise President Clinton to cancel a visit to a village outside Dacca during his visit to BD in March,2000.

The BD authorities also blamed the HUJ for two alleged attempts to kill Sheikh Hasina in July 2000, when explosive devices were recovered at or near the places to be visited by her during a routine security check.

Since the beginning of this year, there has been a number of violent incidents in which the involvement of the Islamic extremist elements was suspected by the BD Police.  The more important of these incidents were:

* On January 20, 2001, six persons were killed and 50 others injured in two separate bomb blasts in Dhaka.  Home Minister Mohammad Nasism held the JEI and its affiliates responsible for the attack.  Water Resources Minister Abdur Razzak accused Pakistan's ISI of having instigated the incidents.

* On February 6, seven persons were killed and 100 injured in a clash between Islamic fundamentalists and the security forces at Brahanbaria, bordering the Indian State of Tripura.  These incidents were a sequel to the arrests of two top leaders of the IOJ for having threatened two judges who had banned the issue of fatwas by clerics and killed a police constable.

* On April 14,a bomb exploded at an open-air concert in Dacca, killing at least nine people and wounding nearly 50. The concert was part of celebrations marking the Bengali new year.  Sheikh Hasina blamed the blasts on "forces who opposed Bangladesh's independence (from Pakistan) and want to destroy Bengali culture".  The JEI had been campaigning against the celebration of the Bengali new year on the ground that it was unIslamic.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also been targeted by these groups as 'un-Islamic'.  The hundreds of NGOs working to raise living standards and the lot of women in one of the world's poorest nations, have been accused of destroying Islamic culture.

With reference to the attack on the BSF personnel, the BD Press has quoted the BD Foreign Secretary, Syed Muazzem Ali, as telling journalists at Dacca on April 20,2001, as follows: "The border force has standing responsibility of protecting the frontier from any external attacks.  BDR are there to repulse any attack on the country’s frontier. There are some situations when decisions are taken instantly.  It does not require to send file to Dhaka, get order and then start firing.  It is the charter duty of BDR to protect our frontier from any attack on our border.  If question of war comes, then the orders from top level may come."

He thus tried to justify any action by the BDR without the orders of Dacca. 

Sheikh Hasina's election victory in 1996 was greeted in India with lots of hope and expectation that her tenure would mark more cordial and closer relations between the two countries.  The atmosphere has since then definitely improved.  There are warmer vibrations between the political leaderships of the two countries than before 1996.  Her words and gestures have been more sensitive to the concerns of India than those of her predecessors, but what has been wanting is meaningful action on the ground.

She has been unable to order or persuade the military-intelligence establishment to stop its involvement with Indian insurgent groups operating from BD territory and to expel them.  Even if she has done so, they have disregarded her orders.  She has not been able to rid sections of her security bureaucracy of their hostile mindset towards India as seen from the recent incidents.  She has resisted requests from India and pressure from the US to sell the BD's surplus gas to India, lest there be protests from the anti-India elements.

This gap between words and actions does not appear to be due to any insincerity on her part.  It is more due to her failure, even after five years in power, to get a true measure of her military and intelligence establishment and to put herself in the driving position in relation to them.  It would take her or even Begum Khaleda Zia, if she comes back to power in the elections due shortly, considerable political skills and time to tame the security bureaucracy and make it carry out the bidding of the political leadership.

At present, India has no other option but to be patient and watchful. It is in India's national interest that the democratic experiment succeeds in BD, that the political leadership there, of whatever persuasion, establishes effective control over the security bureaucracy, that lurking/budding Abbassis and Musharrafs in the BD security forces are detected and removed in time and that the creeping fundamentalisation of the society and the State structure is halted and reversed . 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: corde@vsnl.com )

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