The frequent killings of intellectuals and prominent seculariists in Bangladesh rekindles the old memories of liberation struggle….writes Samuel Baid
Those who remember the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation Struggle may be able to recall how Jamaat-e-Islami workers, in collaboration with the Pak Army, picked up Bengali liberals and intellectuals to be butchered. The idea behind these killings, as Pakistan’s last Commander in East Pakistan Lt. Gen A.A.K. Niazi later wrote in his memoirs, was to leave the Bengali community without any leader to rule.
However, the frequent killings of intellectuals in last few months shows that the 1971 mindset and conspiracy against Bengali intellectuals are very much alive even today. At the outset, let us look at these recent ghastly incidents. On April 23, a professor of English language AFM Rezaul Karim Siddiquee of Rajshahi University was hacked to death by two young men whom the police described as Jamaat activists. Prof. Siddiquee was accused of writing against Islam but his colleagues said he never wrote against any religion or against any person.
On April 30, a Hindu tailor was hacked to death in his shop for, what the police suspect, his remarks about Islam. On 7th of May, a 65-year-old Sufi practitioner, Mohammad Shahibullah was hacked to death again in Rajshahi. The boldness of militant Islamists can be gauged from one organisation which calls itself “Islamic liberation front”. This so-called outfit issued a hit list against ten people who included politicians and teachers. Though already chronicled in media, latest killings are evident that intellectuals, minorities and atheists are the targets.
The Islamic State (IS) and the AQIS, which calls itself Ansar-ul-Islam in Bangladesh, have claimed the responsibility for the recent killings. Media reports created an impression as if the IS has arrived in Bangladesh. As mentioned above, the Bangladesh government denies it. In Pakistan, too, Interior Minister Choudhary Nisar Ali says there is no existence of the IS in the country. This is his reply to persistent media reports about the IS’ activities in the country. He also says the acts of terrorism are committed by local lawless elements.
In 1971, so many Bengalis made supreme scarifies to free themselves from militant Islamism which Pakistani Army uses as a tool to thwart democracy and control groups and individuals who work to promote liberalism and human rights to strengthen it. Therefore, on Liberation, Bangladesh leadership chose democracy and secularism as two pillars of the state. However, things began changing after the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, alongwith his family. His two daughters, Hasina and Rehana, were abroad that is why they escaped. The killers were from the Bangladesh Army.
After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur, Lt. Gen Ziaur Rahman ruled Bangladesh. Although he said he was the first in protecting the independence of Bangladesh, but as the military ruler he demolished one pillar of the state structure by amending the country’s Constitution. He would not help betraying the mindset he had acquired during his days in the Pakistani Army. Before his assassination in 1980, Gen Ziaur Rahman was trying to make Bangladesh an Islamic state perhaps, to keep genuine democracy away from the country like it has been happening in Pakistan for decades.
It is to be noted that both in Pakistan and Bangladesh, this has been an undeclared cleansing of liberals, secularists, minorities including Shias, secular politicians, social workers, human rights activists, writers, journalists and students. The difference is: in Pakistan its Army, intelligence agencies and para-military forces are suspected to be behind most of such cases while in Bangladesh, there is no accusation of this kind against the government or its agencies. The second difference concerns the use of weapon. In Pakistan the weapons of crime are either country-made guns or crude bombs. In Bangladesh it is machete with which a victim is hacked grisly.
One common phenomenon is that the moment a crime takes place, two or three terrorist organisations separately claim the responsibility, thus confusing the identity of the real killer or killers. For example, the latest killing of the Pak civil society, Khurram Zaki, is claimed by the Hakimullah Mehsud faction of the Taliban. This is considered doubtful by experts on terrorism in Pakistan.
In Bangladesh, the killings are owned by Islamic State (IS) or Al-Qaeda’s Indian subcontinent branch (AQIS). But Sheikh Hasina’s government vehemently deny these claims made by AQIS or IS. The government claims that there is no existence of either the IS or Al-Qaeda in the country. The killings are done by home-grown terrorists, who, according to the current government, belong to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of Gen Ziaur Rahman, and its associate Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders are facing trials for war crimes they committed during the War of Independence in 1971 as collaborators of the Pakistan Army.
The Jamaat enjoyed a free hand as a coalition partner in Begum Khaleda Zia’s government. It was during this period that the Jamaat spread and strengthened militant Islamism, that was Jamaat-centric in ideology. In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami ideology is not shared by fundamentalist parties to that extent it is in minority among Muslim parties. But its terrorist activities in Kashmir and its street power in Pakistan is an acknowledged fact. In Bangladesh, Jamaat’s utility for BNP lies in this reputation. Having boycotted the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BNP finds itself in wilderness. Moreover, being practically a one-person party, the BNP sees a black future for itself now that the sole party leader Begum Khaleda Zia does not have the age on her side.
As it appears at present, Islamists will certainly try to take advantage of any kind of political vacuum or unrest in Bangladesh which would not only pose a grave threat to regional security as well as Bangladesh’s relations with its neighbours. At this juncture, Bangladesh requires assistance from international community to combat the challenge of religious extremism which has been manifested in this latest cleansing of intellectuals, civil society activists and members from the minority community.