The disappearance of two young men who were interrogated following the terrorist attack on a posh restaurant in Dhaka on July 1 which left 20 dead, is making observers wonder if the Bangladesh government is mishandling the investigations given its tradition of not following universally accepted norms about treating suspects in criminal cases.
Hasnat Karim and Tahmid Khan, who were among the 13 rescued by commandos, were taken in for questioning but only to disappear subsequently. The police said that they were released after interrogation and the army said that they were not its custody. But Amnesty International and local rights groups have demanded that the government reveal their whereabouts. There are also complaints that government is using the tragic massacre to fix its political opponents.
These charges do not come as a surprise to people who have been following events in Bangladesh where the police and the judiciary tend to act with impunity, usually egged on by their political masters. But the unaccountable police and judicial system is only part of the violence and lawlessness that have marked Bangladeshi politics since independence in 1971.
Born after a violent struggle with the Pakistani army and a full-scale Indo-Pakistan war, Bangladesh faced an immediate challenge from ultra-leftist organizations which wanted the new state to be a revolutionary one. Purbo Banglar Communist Party; Biplobi Communist Party; Pubo Banglar Sorbahara Party; Red Flag; Gono Mukti Fauz; and Jono Juddho attracted impatient youth who indulged in violence all over the country.
Besieged, the Father of the Nation and Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, formed a special force named the Jatiya Rakki Bahini, to meet violence with violence. In 1973, within two yearsafter independence, he got the constitution amended to enable the declaration of a State of Emergency. A year later, parliament passed the Special Powers Act to enable warrantless detention and the award of the death penalty for a wide range of offenses.
The Fourth Amendment passed in 1975, turned Bangladesh into a one-party state led by Mujib. The lone party was the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL). Only the state media was allowed to function. The judiciary was brought under state control.
Politics Infused Into Islam
Along with the use of the state machinery to control thought and action, Mujib also revived Pakistani-style Islamist politics to counter revolutionary leftism and social unrest arising from unfulfilled promises, rampant corruption and unwelcome Indian interference.
He stopped using the liberation war time slogan “Joi Bangla” and ended his speeches with the Islamic Khuda Hafiz. He shed his secular credentials and actively sought membership of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). He made peace with his erstwhile foe, Pakistan, by pardoning and sending back Pakistanis who had allegedly committed atrocities against Bangladeshi freedom fighters.
But these steps did not stem his alienation from the people of Bangladesh. A group of young army officers killed Mujib and many members of his family in a massacre which shocked the world. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who took on his mantle as the head of his party, the Awami League, and became Prime Minister many times later, survived only because she was then in New Delhi.
But the assassination of Mujib did not usher in democracy. The 5 th.Constitutional amendment legitimized the military coup and gave indemnity to the army officers who killed Mujib. The amendment also dealt a blow to the ideology of the liberation struggle whose twin underpinnings were secularism and the Bengali identity rather than Islamic identity. The amendment said that Bangladesh will be based on “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah.” The minority Hindus ,who were 9 percent of the population, were immediately alienated, as were Christians and Buddhists.
However, Zia-ur-Rahman, who led the 1975 military coup ,was as intolerant of the opposition as Mujib was. He started extra-judicial killings. But his highhanded rule ended in 1982 with Hussein Mohammad Ershad staging another military coup.
Ershad’s rule through his Bangladesh National Party (BNP) was no different from Zia’s, with the police being used to brutally kill demonstrators led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia (wife of Zia-ur-Rahman) of the BNP. Public anger and demonstrations finally bought down Ershad in 1990.
Contentious Parliamentary System
Bangladeshis heaved a sign of relief when in 1991, the Awami League and the BNP came together to restore parliamentary democracy. The BNP won the 1991 elections. But the 1996 elections results proved to be contentious with the Awami League accusing the BNP of malpractices. The BNP subsequently agreed to amend the constitution to provide for a 90-day Caretaker Government to conduct elections. But faith in the neutrality of the caretaker government got eroded fast because the people appointed to it were chosen on the basis of loyalty to the ruling party.
The BNP, which ruled between 2001 and 2006, was intolerant towards the opposition parties and dissenters, killing opposition leaders. The military intervened and appointed a Caretaker Government in 2007 which lasted till December 2008.
Democracy was again restored in 2009. But in 2011, the ruling Awami League abolished the Caretaker Government system by amending the constitution. The result: the 2014 elections were the most violent in the history of the country. According to the April 2016 report of the International Crisis Group (ICG), in four months of unrest, 112 people were killed and thousands were arrested.
The Awami League which had won the elections, continued repression even after the polls, suspending 500 BNP-backed officials in the local bodies and replacing them with Awami Leaguers. It slapped corruption cases against BNP chief Khaleda Zia, her son, and the Vice Chair of the BNP, Tarique Rahman.
According to the ICG, between 2002 and 2013, there were 369 hartals, resulting in 2400 deaths. Between 2005 and 2013, 154 were awarded death sentence. Over 126,000 were injured in internecine clashes and fights with the police. While all political parties indulged in violence, the country’s two largest parties, the Awami League and the BNP, accounted for 40 percent of the violent incidents. Both encouraged violent student politics which became synonymous with “thuggery”. When the Awami League or the BNP came to power, student thugs affiliated to them got jobs in the police and other departments ,corrupting the system.
Radical Islamic Politics
If the nation’s founder Mujib took the first steps to revive political Islam to fight radical leftist groups,. Zia-ur-Rahman kept up the Islamisation of politics to fight internal and external enemies. In 1978, he lifted the ban on the Jamaat I-Islami (JII) which had opposed the liberation struggle and separation from Islamic Pakistan. This was to counter the revival of the Awami League which had fought for independence. Under Zia and his successor Ershad, the JII grew rapidly to become a partner in the BNP government of 2001.
The JII’s links with BNP alienated it from the Awami League. Putting the JII and other such groups in the dock, the Awami League government led by Hasina set up an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in 2008 to punish those who had collaborated with the Pakistan army committing atrocities during the liberation struggle. .
But it became clear soon enough that the judicial process in the ICT was highly flawed and that the aim was to pick up and neutralize JII and BNP activists. Not surprisingly, when the JII Vice President Dilwar Hossein Sayadee was sentenced to death in 2013, the JII’s student wing Islamic Chatra Shibir killed 60 people in an orgy of violence.
The Ifazat e-Islam movement arose directly as a result of the ICT trials. Led by clerics, the Ifazat-e-Islam operates through 14,000 Quami Madrasas which propagate a radical form Islam. They seek strict implementation of the Shariah including a ban on women working outside their homes.
The now dreaded Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) also came into being in 2013. It has identified 84 “atheists” and “secularists” for slaughter, and has so far killed nine including the Bangladesho-American blogger Avijit Roy, Nazimudeen Samad, an Italian priest and a Japanese national.
The Hindu minority has also become a target because of its identification with the “secular” Awami League and also India. According to the ICG, during the 2001 elections, there were 330 attacks on Hindus in 57 districts. The ICT trials triggered more violence against the Hindus with 280 Hindu homes, 200 Hindu businesses and 500 Hindu temples being attacked, injuring 190 people.
Even before the flawed ICT trials, radical Islamic political groups with transnational links have been mushrooming in Bangladesh. This is attributed to internal political repression, the high degree of corruption, economic exploitation and external developments in which the non-Muslim West has been brutally crushing Islamic countries using the latest armaments. The atrocities committed by Western forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and by the Indian forces in Kashmir, have inflamed Muslims in Bangladesh.
The iniquitous and harsh laws applied by a politicized and corrupt police and judiciary are motivating many Bangladeshis to support or join radical Islamic groups which promise a clean, corruption free life, as sanctioned by Islam.
While in the 1960s and 1970s, the far left groups were thought to be selfless and a model to follow, in the 1990s and 2000s, puritanical and radical Islamic groups acquired the mantle of selflessness and purity. The popular support for these groups is so much that even their brutality and intolerance have come to be accepted as legitimate. Partisan governments, incompetent and politicized police and judiciary have only resulted in anarchic Islamic movements gaining ground.
Support for them cut across class barriers as the restaurant massacre showed. The killers were youth from well heeled families who were educated in elite institutions in Bangladesh and the West.