Bangladesh reinventing itself

By S K Chatterji
February 19, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

When Bangladesh’s neighbours woke up to the news of another aborted coup last month, the fragility of its democracy was vividly evident. In 1971, erstwhile East Pakistan had emerged as an independent, secular, democratic nation — Bangladesh. The transition had cost between 300,000 to 5 million Bangladeshi lives, by various estimates. Bangladeshi radicals had collaborated with the Pakistani army to enact a genocide that barely found adequate coverage in the West’s humanitarian reporting.

Military coups, thereafter, have been routine — the first one in 1975 killing its founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The drift away from secular culture started in 1977, when General Ziaur Rehman, then president, substituted the word “secularity” in the constitution with “Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah …”.

Later, another President, General Ershad made Islam the state religion. When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power from 2001 to 2007 with the Jamaat-e-Islami as its partner, the jihadi establishment flourished and displayed its organisational strength by conducting 500 synchronised blasts in less than an hour’s span in all but one district of Bangladesh.

The radicalisation spiral was stalled when a civilian caretaker government came to power in 2007. Maulana Abdur Rahman, Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) supremo and six top leaders of the jihadi establishment were hanged in accordance with a Supreme Court verdict.

The greater turning point was when Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power in the 2008 elections and moved against the jihadi establishment. The riposte to destabilise democracy came in the form of a revolt on February 25-26, 2009, by Bangladesh Rifles personnel, killing 56 army officers.

Evidence of strengthening those institutions that are democracy’s pillars followed, with the Bangladesh Supreme Court rejecting the appeals of five army officers convicted of the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Lately, the International Crimes Tribunal set up by Bangladesh has started hearing the cases of crimes against humanity during the independence struggle. The tribunal has already summoned known radical leaders.

Hopefully, the trials will be fair, transparent and also lead to pursuing evidence gathered about the roles of non-Bangladeshi nationals in the 1971 genocide, political costs notwithstanding.

Today, as Bangladesh tries to revive its traditional secular and tolerant culture, there is hope and faith re-emerging in a country that was already being cast as a failing state; another potential sanctuary for global jihad. However, Sheikh Hasina’s effort to subdue terror requires assistance from the global community. In addition to intelligence sharing, training and equipment, rapid economic development to address abject poverty is essential. Bigotry spreads much faster in filthy bylanes buzzing with young men sans hopes.

The U.S. and European nations have definitely not been as sensitive to Bangladesh’s needs as a lot of them have been to Pakistan. India, of all nations, has the greatest responsibility and stakes and needs to invest a lot more in Bangladesh to build its counter-insurgency capabilities and economy. Failing to do so could not only lead to having another entrenched jihadi establishment on one more flank, but also the enhancement of Chinese influence in that country.

Should Prime Minister Hasina be able to steer her country out of the morass, developing countries, where Islamist terror groups are spreading their influence, will have a model to learn lessons from.

2 comments

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Not true picture of Bangladesh. Shib Shena in India but BD Islamist group are not even like Shib Shena and also Gijrat killing not even any similar event in BD. This is politically motivated written. Reuter loosing its credibility.

Posted by Ashrafhaque | Report as abusive

The author of this article presents the present Awami League government as a bastion of enlightened secularism which promotes equality and justice for all, pitted against the dark forces of Islamic radicalism. Unfortunately, this is rather far from the truth, and the article is riddled with misrepresentations, inaccuracies and fallacies. I summarise some of these below.

- ‘The tribunal has already summoned known radical leaders.’ – the ‘radical leaders’ in question are leaders of the second
largest opposition party, Jamaat-i-Islami. They assert that the trials are politically motivated and aimed at discrediting and weakening the opposition; their detention has recently been declared as arbitrary by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (http://www.internationallawbureau.com/b log/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/UN-Workin g-Group-ICT-Opinion.pdf)
Why the word ‘radical’ necessarily applies to these people, the author does not explain (perhaps all Islamic political particles are radical, from his point of view?).

- ‘Hopefully, the trials will be fair, transparent and also lead to pursuing evidence gathered about the roles of non-Bangladeshi nationals in the 1971 genocide, political costs notwithstanding.’
Shafique Ahmed, the Bangladeshi Minister of Law, has already stated that no Pakistanis would be tried at the International Crimes Tribunal, and that the relevant law would only apply to Bangladeshi nationals (despite the fact that the law explicitly states it applies irrespective on nationality, see Section 3 of the 1973 International Crimes Act).

- Furthermore, internatonal jurists and human rights groups have expressed serious concerns regarding the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), including Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/11/02/bang ladesh-stop-harassment-defense-war-tribu nal-GI). The chairman of the Tribunal participated in a ‘people’s court’ which prejudged the cases currently on trial, and moreover, the Tribunal has failed to take into account
recommendations by the US War Crimes Ambassador, or amend parts of the War Crimes Act which have been strongly criticised (http://www.internationallawbureau.com/b log/?p=3073).

- ‘However, Sheikh Hasina’s effort to subdue terror requires assistance from the global community.’ Sheikh Hasina’s government seems unwilling to accept assistance with improving the legal provisions of the ICT, but is happy to receive assistance and training for the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Assistance for the RAB, which is known to engage in torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, has been provided by the US, and until recently, the UK.

- There are widespread reports of human rights violations under the present Awami League government, which the government persistently denies (http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/wo rld-report-2012-bangladesh). Is this ‘evidence of strengthening those institutions that are democracy’s pillars’ which the author praises?

- Crimes were committed by Bangladeshi liberation forces in 1971, notably by Kader Siddique, presently an MP of the Bangladeshi parliament, who on December 19, 1971, bayonetted to death a number of alleged ‘collaborators’ in front of a group of foreign journalists. Why has he not been tried for this well-documented crime?

- Lastly, which genocide is the author repeatedly referring to? The Pakistani Army and its paramilitary arms were certainly not the only ones doing the killing in 1971. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) found in 1972 that instances of mass murder of members of the Urdu-speaking Bihari minority may also have constituted acts of genocide. Has the present Awami League government taken steps to investigate these? Is anyone going to be tried for them?

Perhaps the bias evident in the article is unsurprising, given that the author is an ex-brigadier of the Indian Army, who is thus likely to turn a blind eye towards the failings of the present Bangladeshi government, as long as Indian interests are protected (India and Bangladesh signed trade and security agreements in 2011).

It is unclear, however, why Reuters would want to associate its name which such a poorly writen column.

Posted by Lamakani | Report as abusive