Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Bangladesh, an Islamic Movement With Al-Qaeda Ties Is on the Rise

A New Hub for Terrorism?In Bangladesh, an Islamic Movement With Al-Qaeda Ties Is on the Rise

By Selig S. Harrison
Wednesday, August 2, 2006; A15

While the United States dithers, a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement linked to al-Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence agencies is steadily converting the strategically located nation of Bangladesh into a new regional hub for terrorist operations that reach into India and Southeast Asia.With 147 million people, largely Muslim Bangladesh has substantial Hindu and Christian minorities and is nominally a secular democracy. But the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) struck a Faustian bargain with the fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami five years ago in order to win power.In return for the votes in Parliament needed to form a coalition government, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has looked the other way as the Jamaat has systematically filled sensitive civil service, police, intelligence and military posts with its sympathizers, who have in turn looked the other way as Jamaat-sponsored guerrilla squads patterned after the Taliban have operated with increasing impunity in many rural and urban areas.To the dismay of her business supporters, the prime minister gave the coveted post of industries minister to Matiur Rahman Nizami, a high-ranking Jamaat official who has helped promote the growth of a Jamaat economic empire that embraces banking, insurance, trucking, pharmaceutical manufacturing, department stores, newspapers and TV stations. A study last year by a leading Bangladeshi economist showed that the "fundamentalist sector of the economy" earns annual profits of some $1.2 billion.Now the BNP-Jamaat alliance is rigging the next national elections, scheduled for January, to prevent the return of the opposition Awami League to power. Voter lists are being manipulated, and the supposedly neutral caretaker government and the commission that will run the election are being turned into puppets.The BNP argues that coalition rule helps moderates in the Jamaat to combat Islamic extremist factions. But the reality is that Jamaat inroads in the government security machinery at all levels, starting with Home Secretary Muhammad Omar Farooq, widely regarded as close to the Jamaat, have opened the way for suicide bombings, political assassinations, harassment of the Hindu minority, and an unchecked influx of funds from Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf to Jamaat-oriented madrassas (religious schools) that in some cases are fronts for terrorist activity.With some 15,000 hard-core fighters operating out of 19 known base camps, guerrilla groups sponsored by the Jamaat and its allies were able to paralyze the country last Aug. 17 by staging 459 closely synchronized explosions in all but one of the country's administrative districts. When the key leaders of these groups were captured, they were kept by the police in a comfortable apartment, where they were free to receive visitors. A cartoon in the Daily Star of Dhaka on July 24 showed them lounging on a rug, conducting classes in bombmaking. Their fate and present place of confinement is uncertain, and all of the major guerrilla groups are back to business as usual.The bitterness of Bangladeshi politics is often attributed to a personal vendetta between two strong women, Prime Minister Zia and the Awami League leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed. But the roots of the current struggle go back to 1971, when Bengali East Pakistan, led by the Awami League, broke away from Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan to form the nation of Bangladesh. The Jamaat, which originated in the western wing, opposed the independence movement and fought side by side with Pakistani forces against both fellow Bengalis and the Indian troops who intervened in the decisive final phase of the conflict.For Pakistan's intelligence agencies, especially Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the legacy of the independence war has been a built-in network of agents within the Jamaat and its affiliates who can be utilized to harass India along its 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh. In addition to supporting tribal separatist groups in northeast India, the ISI uses Bangladesh as a base for helping Islamic extremists inside India. After the July 11 train bombings in Bombay, a top Indian police official, K.P. Raghuvanshi, said that his key suspects "have connections with groups in Nepal and Bangladesh, which are directly or indirectly connected to Pakistan."A State Department report cited evidence that one of the Jamaat's main allies, the Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami, also headquartered in Pakistan, "maintains contact with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan." Bangladesh Harakat leader Fazlul Rahman was one of the six signatories of Osama bin Laden's first declaration of holy war against the United States, on Feb. 23, 1998. Since the October 2002 Bali bombings led to repression of al-Qaeda, some of its Indonesian and Malaysian cells have shifted their operations to Bangladesh.What makes future prospects in Bangladesh especially alarming is that the Jamaat and its allies appear to be penetrating the higher ranks of the armed forces. Among many examples, informed journalists in Dhaka attribute Jamaat sympathies to Maj. Gen. Mohammed Aminul Karim, recently appointed as military secretary to President Iajuddin Ahmed, and to Brig. Gen. A.T.M. Amin, director of the Armed Forces Intelligence anti-terrorism bureau.The respected journalists in question cannot write freely about the Jamaat without facing death threats or assassination attempts. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists has published extensive dossiers documenting 68 death threats and dozens of bombing attacks that have injured at least eight journalists. "We are alarmed by the growing pattern of intimidation of journalists by Islamic groups in Bangladesh," the committee said recently. "As a result of its alliance with the Jamaat-Islamiyah, the government appears to lack the ability or will to protect journalists from this new and grave threat."The Bush administration has yet to speak with comparable candor. The latest State Department annual report on terrorism mentioned only one of the three Jamaat militias as a terrorist group and avoided direct criticism of the BNP for its coalition with the Jamaat, referring only to the "serious political constraints" that explain the government's "limited success" in countering "escalating" terrorist violence. On July 13 the U.S. ambassador called Bangladesh "an exceptional moderate Muslim state."The United States and other donors gave Bangladesh $1.4 billion in aid last year. There is still time for the administration to use aid leverage and trade concessions to promote a fair election by calling openly and forcefully for nonpartisan control of the Election Commission and the caretaker government. In addition to implicitly threatening an aid cutoff if it is rebuffed, the administration should offer the powerful incentive of duty-free textile imports from Bangladesh if Prime Minister Zia cooperates.In Pakistan, the United States has been gingerly pushing Gen. Pervez Musharraf for democratic elections because it needs the limited but significant support he is giving against al-Qaeda and fears what might come after him. But what is the excuse for inaction in Bangladesh, where the incumbent government coddles Islamic extremists and a strong secular party is ready to govern?

The writer, a former South Asia bureau chief of The Post and the author of five books on South Asia, has covered Bangladesh since 1951. He is the director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

October 16, 1905: A Forgotten Date of Indian/Bengali History

October 16, 1905: A Forgotten Date of Indian/Bengali History [1]

Sachi G. Dastidar

October 16 is a very important date in the Indian calendar but very few people in the Subcontinent — India, Bangladesh or Pakistan — will remember this day as mythology- and ancient tradition-influenced Hindu culture is not readily influenced by date-specific historic events. On that day one hundred years ago in 1905 the Colonial British Administration mandated a Muslim-Hindu (non-Muslim) partition of mixed, tolerant Bengal Province in eastern India when there was no such demand from either community. In Indian history this date is possibly more profound than 9/11 for America, but very few in the Subcontinent talk about that. This is may also be the beginning of the modern Islamist movement of the world. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Calcutta, the British Colonial capital, and Bengal of which Calcutta was also the capital, was leading an intense struggle for Indian independence joined by India’s diverse religious and linguistic groups — Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Brahmo. Bengal was then evenly divided between Muslim and non-Muslim. Colonial ruler Lord Curzon devised a divide-and-rule policy to create a cleavage among Indians, starting with the Bengalis first. He proposed the creation of a majority-Muslim East Bengal Province with extra privileges for ‘backward Muslims,’ and a Hindu-majority (West) Bengal. The British Raj sanctioned huge sums of money to a non-native Urdu-speaking Muslim landlord, Nawab Salimullah, of Dhaka of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, to promote an anti-independence Muslim League Party to counter the more numerous Hindus and other non-Muslims in the independence struggle. After an intense effort by mostly-non-Muslim Indians of the entire Subcontinent the province was reunited in 1912 but that communal impetus gave rise to intolerant, separatist Islamism. Muslim-non-Muslim killings became ‘a part of life’ in Bengal and Indian Subcontinent. Success of the first ever use of divide-and-rule policy would make Britain use that tool later in Ireland, Cyprus, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Other European colonial powers would use similar policies elsewhere. The Islamism that the British Raj nurtured in Indian soil eventually partitioned Bengal in 1947, almost along the same geographical line that Curzon devised in 1905, along with partitioning of India, Punjab, Assam and Kashmir and creation of Islamic Pakistan and Bangladesh. One could easily argue that this was the beginning of the making of the minds of extremism. Ironically for the creation of these Islamic states another October 16 in 1946, is intimately associated with. To galvanize public opinion for Muslim-non-Muslim partition of India a ghastly anti-Hindu pogrom was initiated on a Hindu holy day in its remote eastern Noakhali district when Bengal’s Muslim League Premier Surahwardy was in charge of the province. British Army and Police watched as thousands of Hindus were killed and tens of thousands of girls and wives were converted which is known as Noakhali Danga pogrom. Gandhiji went to Noakhali to stop that carnage. This killing followed the August 16 Hindu-Muslim killing also in 1946, known as Great Calcutta Killing, as the British Police, Premier Surahwardy and Calcutta Mayor Osman (Usman) remained in the sidelines. Yet in the typical Indian, Bengali or Hindu psyche there in neither any memorial to those carnages nor to the millions of people killed in the 1947 pre- and post-partition-related violence. Today in Bengal there won’t be any commemoration for that British-invented event that has had untold human sufferings and enormous geo-political impact as Bangladesh is run by a coalition of pro-Islam, pro-Taliban parties and West Bengal by hard-line communists. Since the second British partition of Bengal in 1947 Bangladeshi Hindus have come down from a third of the population to below 10% now, a loss of over 48 million people from Bangladeshi Census! Minority Muslim populations in both Hindu-majority West Bengal and India have risen since 1947; yet feels vulnerable by that partition. On this important day let us take a moment to pray for the innocent victims of that Colonial 9/11. Let us hope that such divisiveness would never be used for national governance.

[1] From a Calcutta, India newspaper

Centenary of Colonial Religious Bengal Partition: 2005

Centenary of Colonial Religious Partition [1]

Sachi G. Dastidar

A century ago today, October 16, 1905, the Colonial British Administration in India partitioned a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, tolerant Bengal into a ‘Muslim’ East Bengal and ‘Hindu’ West Bengal: sort of bureaucratic 9/11 in India with devastating long-term consequences. Its polarizing result was the rise of intolerant Islam and religious politics that the British Administration promoted till it resulted in the partition of India and Bengal in 1947. (Indian provinces of Assam, Punjab and Kashmir were also partitioned.) In 1905 Bengal was not much different from the rest of Colonial India in terms of her Muslim-non-Muslim relation — which was rather amicable — but for its intense pro-Indian independence activism. Bengal of eastern India was the first to be colonized by the British, and she was the first to rebel against colonial slavery. In Bengal, Muslims and Hindus, with their small Buddhist and Christian cousins, shared not only the language but also religious festivals, dress, music, food and social bond. A large number of Bengali Hindus, Brahmos, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists — scholars, social reformers, spiritualists, nationalists, poets, musicians — from early 1800s to mid-1900s championed Mother India’s freedom. Among them were Raja Ram Mohon, Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath Tagore, W.C. Bonerjea, Vivekananda, Michael Madhusudan, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Sri Aurobindo, Begum Rokeya and Pritilata Waddedar. Lord Curzon witnessing the rise of Indian nationalism devised the first Colonial divide-and-rule policy by enticing a non-native Urdu-speaking Muslim feudal lord, Nawab Salimullah, of Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, to promote a Muslim party against Indian independence movement with huge funds — 300,000 rupees — from the treasury. He argued that Bengal was too large to govern from its capital Calcutta, also India’s capital then, but no explanation was given why a geographical separation was not proposed instead of communal division when every village was inhabited by Muslims and Hindus. Curzon also proposed to give some favors to ‘backward Muslims’ instead of proposing a one-man one-vote democracy which could have brought Muslim-majority to power through ballot box. Moreover, there were other large provinces which were not partitioned. After much agitation by mostly non-Muslim poets, writers and activists Bengal was reunited in 1912 but that partition would energize a separatist, intolerant Islamist movement and a separatist Muslim identity that would take millions of lives and displace tens of millions from East Bengal, now called Bangladesh, alone. By 1947 the East Bengali Muslim majority would became a champion of partition of India. At India’s independence in 1947 Bengal was partitioned following the same 1905 British-invented line. Later Britain would use divide-and-rule from North Ireland to South Africa, from Ceylon to Cyprus. That tolerant Muslim East Bengal of 1905 is now Bangladesh where ‘Islam is the Official Religion’ with pro-Taliban parties as ruling partners, and West Bengal is a state of India run by hard-line Bangladeshi Hindu privileged-caste bhadralok refugee communists. Since that fateful day in 1905 Muslim-non-Muslim conflict became routine in the Subcontinent. On the eve of India’s independence in 1946, also on October 16, on the auspicious Hindu Lakhsmi Puja day a ghastly anti-Hindu pogrom began in the eastern Noakhali district under the watchful eyes of British Raj, Colonial Army, Bengal’s Muslim League Premier Suhrawady and it’s capital Calcutta’s (Muslim) Mayor Osman to polarize the nation. The pogrom was led by a Muslim Legislator Golam Sarwar that took life of thousands of Hindus and tens of thousands of Hindu girls and wives were abducted and converted. The pogrom followed a Muslim-Hindu riot in Calcutta two months earlier. Both these killings were to convince the British Raj and Indian public that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live together. Successive anti-Hindu pogroms in East Pakistan/ Bangladesh have dwindled her Hindu minority from a third of the population in 1947 to less than 10% now resulting in over 48 million ‘missing from the Census.’ Minority Muslim population in Hindu-majority West Bengal has risen from 18% to 26% in spite of massive influx of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. With the steady rise of intolerant Saudi Islamism in Bangladesh (Pakistan and Afghanistan) for the past 100 years common tradition of festivities, literature, food and dress have been changing with serious repercussion for non-Muslims and secularist Muslims. Ironically in 1971 the same Islamically-charged East Bengal/East Pakistan, then the majority of Pakistan, rebelled for a secular state — first ever by a Muslim-majority nation — opposed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, other Muslim nations, China and the Administration of President Nixon-Kissinger. In 1975 Islamists took revenge by brutally murdering the pro-secular Founding Father Mujibur Rahman with 25 others of his family and friends, many there believe, with our support. In a twist of fate from that British-created event, tragedies hit British soil exactly 100 years later in July of this year through the children of Britain’s former intolerant allies. Spirit of Curzon must be wondering if Britain would have been better off with ethnically cleansed, religiously pure society or with pluralism and tolerance.

[1] News-India Times (a New York weekly), October 14, 2005; 2-3