By Ashis Biswas
India is not alone in worrying about the long term impact of the US troops’ pullout from Afghanistan. Dhaka also shares Delhi’s concern. In Bangladesh, the recent arrest of four youths, who were on their way to Afghanistan to enroll/fight as Islamic jihadists, confirms the abiding appeal of Islamic extremism among the impressionable young in South Asia. Dhaka-based reports say the youths were new recruits to join terrorist camps in Pakistan/Afghanistan, expected to go functional after the US ‘occupation army’ finally leaves.
Their arrest has naturally generated some media analysis, urging upon Bangladesh authorities to go on high alert against a possible resurgence of religious fundamentalism. Only weeks ago, the unusually violent, disruptive demonstrations during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already set alarm bells ringing in Dhaka.
The re-emergence of the extremist trend among sections of Bangladeshi youth causes no surprise among Dhaka-based political analysts. Over several decades, Islamic extremism dormant at times, has remained an enduring factor of Bangladesh politics. It attests to the credit of the ruling Awami League (AL) led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that somehow forces representing secularism and Bengali nationalism as counter to a greater pan Islamist expansionist philosophy, have managed to maintain the upper hand in power politics.
This is not to suggest that as things stand, the average Hindu, Christian and Buddhist citizens always feel very safe in the country. However, despite occasional attacks targeting the numerically minuscule non-Muslim minorities, the Bangladesh administration generally takes action against the communal /criminal offenders in many cases. This is no mean feat in a country with a 90%-plus Sunni Muslim population. Indeed the contrast with Pakistan cannot be sharper in this regard, although of late both the Pak administration and Judiciary have stood up for minority rights on occasion.
It is often suggested that most extremists have joined the relatively new Hefazat-e-Islami (HI) group in Bangladesh, following the banning of the Jamat-e-Islami as a political party and militant organisations like the Hizbul Mujahideen (HUM) and Harkatul Jihad al Islami (HUJI). However, elements owning allegiance to these groups are known to exist in Bangladesh, although authorities deny the presence of the IS or Al Qaeda officially. Hasina had once rejected US media reports claiming the active presence of the IS in Bangladesh. Some observers maintain however, that in a bid to isolate and divide religious extremists, she had initially tolerated and later helped the growth of the HI. A major condition was that the HI would never support the main opposition outfit the Bangladesh Nationalist Party(BNP),known for its hardline Islamist orientation or the HUJI.
Even as the HI stayed away from both BNP or HUJI etc, it crossed the red line as its supporters indulged in destructive violence against the visit of the Indian Prime Minister some weeks ago. This proved embarrassing for both India and Bangladesh but acutely more so for the host country. Not unexpectedly, the AL government later declared a crackdown on HI activists rounding them up in thousands and sending them to jail.
The Pak Intelligence agency ISI always had its base in Bangladesh. Its operatives often carried out their operations and kept up contacts with local militants with help from the Pak embassy in Kathmandu. Now diplomatic ties have been revived between Dhaka and Islamabad. Normally, pro-Pak activities are monitored very closely in Bangladesh. There have already been allegations that Islamic militants have received both financial and other material assistance from Pakistan in recent weeks. In particular the very violent anti/Indian demonstrations in several provinces of Bangladesh during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, has been seen as evidence that pro-Pak elements remain a local force still.
Bangladeshi media concedes that a fresh influx of Bangladeshi youth to Afghanistan or Pakistan to join new Jihadi training camps is inevitable. Pakistan, along with the Haqqani group it controls, and the Afghan-based Taliban forces will certainly try to take control of Afghanistan again, to revive the domination enjoyed by orthodox Islamist forces before the US intervention began . Once that happens, it would be difficult for any government in Pakistan or Bangladesh to control especially their unemployed youth, from volunteering to become Islamic jihadists, as had happened during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 onwards. Scores of Bangladeshi youths had undergone arms training in camps run in Pakistan and later fanned out all over the world — Europe, India and elsewhere to carry out acts of sabotage and destruction. Al Qaeda founder the late Osama bin Laden was personally involved in the recruitment and training in arms given to Bangladeshi youth, whom he often asked to go easy on the Bengali-ness of their culture, according to ‘Jihadis’ who returned and lived to tell their tale.
Bangladesh itself has much to fear from such trends. Those arrested admitted plans to set off explosions and carry out other acts of sabotage in Bangladesh. It is common knowledge again, that Islamic militants, whether recruited from the banned JI, the HUM or currently the HI — all maintain links and coordination with fellow ‘holy warriors’ especially in Assam and West Bengal. This part of their functioning is also reportedly supervised by their mentors based mostly in Pakistan.
Thus, while the situation remains worrying for India especially for the Kashmir area , as far as the US troop withdrawals are concerned, the anxiety currently being expressed by Bangladesh leaders and parties in Dhaka is not very different from views expressed by Indian experts/specialists on the same subject,. This is a positive development. If both Indian and Bangladesh governments are determined to counter the challenge posed by Islamic extremism, the price of resorting to armed militancy would be very high indeed. Islamic extremism has not been allowed a free run in Bangladesh during the tenure of the AL, now or before. As the violence-related stats show, religious extremists have had to pay a heavy price for their disruptive activities. (IPA Service)