Bangladesh reinventing itself
(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.