Sadly, violence is no stranger to our eastern neighbour Bangladesh. But what happened on the terrible night of 1-2 July 2016 was unprecedented
Terrorism, complete with its bloody fury, guns and machetes, and smiling young men who posed for camera before unleashing their havoc, arrived Dhaka with deadly impact. Atmosphere was friendly and convivial at the upscale Holey Artisan Bakery in the capital’s posh diplomatic area - Gulshan - on that Friday evening. Armed terrorists stormed it and laid their siege with precision. Their targets were foreigners and the goal was to secure maximum international attention.
The brutality was evident as most of those who lost their lives were hacked to death with machetes. The terrorists meant business, ready even to sacrifice themselves for whatever cause that drove them. Before killing their captives, they would ask their victims to recite verses from the Koran. Those who failed the test were tortured and put to gory death.
By the time the siege was brought to an end by the security forces, the toll was heavy. Twenty hostages were dead, mostly foreigners including an Indian – Tarishi Jain, aged 19. Two police officers lost their lives. Six terrorists were killed in the operation while one was captured alive. Thirty persons were injured, and 30 civilians were rescued. Dhaka was shocked. Neighbouring India was worried.
Authorities confirmed quickly that all terrorists were Bangladeshis, young and radicalised. Three of them had attended Dhaka’s elite schools such as Scholastica and Turkish Hope. It was a case of unusual scholars and shattered hopes.
One of the terrorists, Rohan Imtiaz was the son of a senior figure in the ruling party Awami League. The father revealed that his son had gone “missing” six months back. According to the latest reports, the Government of Bangladesh has ordered schools, colleges and universities to notify the authorities about all truant students.
The tragic drama touched the hearts of everyone, especially as Indians learnt about young Tarishi, a student in the US, whose fate took her to the deadly venue. Trapped inside the café, she used her mobile to inform her father about the siege. As the father kept vigil outside the bakery, Tarishi conveyed to him: “I am hiding in a toilet with friends. I think we will be killed one by one.” His night-long prayers failed, and he lost his daughter forever.
That the brutal killings took place during the Ramadan month was particularly regrettable. This was followed by another terrorist attack on 7 July near Sholakia Eidgah in Kishoreganj, about 150 km from Dhaka. This strike resulted in the killing of four persons and injuries to at least 13 people. It took place on the day of Eid itself.
Who was responsible?
Tears, wailings, funerals and condemnations followed a familiar and predictable pattern. To many in India, Mumbai’s 26/11 was on a re-visit, albeit on a lower scale. Those who lost their dear ones were face to face with a new, ugly world. The question on everybody’s mind was: who and what forces are behind this carnage?
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political advisor, Hossain Taufique Imam, lost little time in blaming Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its local partners, particularly Jamaeytul Mujahdeen Bangladesh (JMB). The link between the two was “well known”, he said stressing that they wanted “to derail” the current government. “All victims were hacked to death like Jamat and local terror groups (do)”, he pointed out.
Even as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Islamic State (IS), claimed responsibility for the act. Asaduzzaman Khan, the home minister of Bangladesh, stated, “Let me make it clear again; there was no ISIS or Al Qaeda in existence in Bangladesh. The hostage takers were all home-grown terrorists, not members of ISIS or any other international Islamist outfits.” Shahidul Hoque, the national police chief, informed journalists that investigators would explore the possibility of “an international link”, but he added that “primarily, we suspect that they are JMB members.”
Although no terrorist organisation claimed responsibility for the second attack, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu blamed domestic militants; theirs was, he said, a “political move” aimed at toppling the Begum Hasina government.
A different interpretation has been offered by Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence experts who, according to media reports, are convinced that the first strike was the handiwork of ISIS. Apparently the hostage-takers claimed allegiance to the dreaded outfit in their pictures and tweets. Experts point out that ISIS-linked outfits have claimed authorship of the act in the backdrop of earlier threats and propaganda to wreak havoc in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries. This school of thought portrays the Bangladesh Government in a state of denial. Syed Badrul Ahsan, a leading journalist, observed that the Islamist attack “raised fears of similar tragedy in future.”
A related development was a set of serious complaints received by the Bangladesh Government that some of the attackers may have been inspired by the speeches of an Indian preacher, Zakir Naik. He strongly rejected such allegations. However, in view of the complaints made to the Indian authorities too, the Maharashtra Government ordered an investigation into Naik’s speeches and writings. India’s Information Minister Venkaiah Naidu indicated that action could be taken against Naik if his preachings were found to be objectionable. Meanwhile, Bangladesh decided on 10 July to impose a ban on broadcasts by Naik’s Peace TV for their provocative nature.
The third view
Even as the question whether ISI - backed JMB or ISIS was the architect of recent terrorist attacks has been under discussion, a third narrative has emerged from the commentaries of long-term experts on Bangladesh affairs. They see a link between the manifestation of new violence and the vexed and highly polarised political situation in the country. Under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership since 2009, the polity stands divided between her party the Awami League on the one hand, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its chief ally Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) on the other. The Opposition did not participate in the last elections in 2014.
Consequently, they seem to feel they have no stakes in the nation’s stability and success. They view the government as part of the problem, not solution.
On the other hand, the Government views the Opposition in hostile terms. This alienation has been further deepened by various factors, particularly the genocide trials that have resulted in death verdicts for several Opposition figures. Since early 2015, the extremist Islamist elements have been targeting minorities, liberals and secularists, carrying out violent attacks on many of them. The culture of violence and impunity seems to have become a part and parcel of the country’s political life.
These terrorist attacks represent a new phase of heightened Islamic extremism as well as the denial of dreams and hopes of the founder of Bangladesh – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The relentless struggle for the soul of Bangladesh between the liberal, secular, pro-India camp, and the Islamist camp friendly to Pakistan has been tearing the basic fabric of the nation. “If Bangladesh has to be spared”, wrote Wasbir Hussain, a respected Indian columnist, “the possibility of being totally engulfed by the jihadi terror, the two main parties - Awami League and BNP - must see reason.” Everyone will need to pause and step back to enable moderation, maturity and responsible governance to prevail. The question is: will they or even can they?
Recent developments have enormously significant implications not only for Bangladesh, but also for its largest and friendly neighbour – India. Veena Sikri, a former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, observed in a recent interview: “The sensitivity and implications are unbelievably huge for India, more so for Assam and West Bengal.” What hurts a neighbour today may hurt the other neighbour tomorrow.
Besides, India-Bangladesh relations have never been as good as at present. This imposes an obligation on New Delhi. A partnership to counter terrorism and extremism as also to launch a sustained de-radicalisation programme will need to be forged. New Delhi had promptly dispatched a team of NSG officials to consult Bangladesh authorities and discuss further action.
Some scholars believe that India should also offer candid advice to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to consider seriously as to how the internal political situation could be improved and normalised. Others opine that the Hasina Government has no option but to fight the JEI and JMB with all its resources and that India should unhesitatingly support and help it in facing and overcoming this complex challenge.
Beyond the issues of politics and conflict, terrorism touches the lives of people. The human dimension of the victims of terrorism in Dhaka came through in a poignant way. Imtiaz Khan Babul, the father of one of the terrorists killed, conveyed, through a leading Indian daily, his condolences to the family of Tarishi Jain. “I am shamed and shocked”, he said.
-The author, a former diplomat deeply familiar with India’s eastern neighbours, is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House