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Bangladesh is caught between Bengali and Muslim identities: Veena Sikri

Published : Jul 10, 2016, 1:34 am IST
Updated : Jul 10, 2016, 1:34 am IST

Veena Sikri, a former Indian high commissioner in Dhaka well-known for her expertise and body of work on Bangladeshi affairs, is shocked at the Dhaka carnage. She spoke to Sanjib KR Baruah on the recent terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.

Veena Sikri (Photo: G.N. Jha)
 Veena Sikri (Photo: G.N. Jha)

Veena Sikri

, a former Indian high commissioner in Dhaka well-known for her expertise and body of work on Bangladeshi affairs, is shocked at the Dhaka carnage. She spoke to

Sanjib KR Baruah

on the recent terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.

For a country that was born on the edifice of nationalistic democracy, the grip of radical Islam seems to be growing. What has gone wrong

There are three dimensions to this — the Bangladesh dimension, the regional dimension and the global dimension. To understand the situation in Bangladesh, one has to see each dimension separately and also keep in mind how much of it is due to an amalgamation of these three dimensions. You are absolutely right that Bangladesh was born in the cauldron of democratic secularism, but forces of radical Islam were always there in Bangladesh, even before 1947. Just after India’s Independence in 1947 there was a lot of imposition of West Pakistan on East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was known. Then in 1971 too, there were parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), which was fighting against the liberation of Bangladesh, there were the Razakars, all sorts of people; so it was a cruel birth for the nation. Then from 1975 to 1991, there was military rule even as radical forces were chipping away. There was always this see-saw battle between a Bengali identity and a Muslim one. But amid all these, the demand for a secular democratic government was very strong. This was also a time when Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina fought together for democracy. But it was from 2000 onwards that one saw the rise of Islam as a factor in politics and JeI ministers holding crucial posts.

Again in the regional context, many of the Wahhabi priests trained in Saudi Arabia come from and through Pakistan. This is a germaine factor which is of very big concern to India.

Radicalisation of the youth in Bangladesh is a very big development in the last two years. How are they getting radicalised, where are the funds coming from, no one is joining the dots. But with the Dhaka attack, there has been a quantum jump of what is happening locally. In the Dhaka attack, there was total coordination. The youth disappeared together and then appeared together, uploading of images, phone-calling, ISIS putting up video tapes, etc., all these indicate international linkages.

Also global terror groups like ISIS want to use the domestic political situation for their own aim. So the effort is much bigger than just dislodging the government now. The political feud is a catalyst.

The attack in Dhaka has revealed severe fractures within Bangladeshi society. Was this phenomenon pre-existent since the days of liberation or it is a new one Bangladeshi nationalistic identity has always been a strong one. There always has been this struggle between the Bengali identity and the Muslim one. Till the time the balance is there things are fine. But now what is happening is that the political opposition like the JeI is trying to exploit the international connections to suit their domestic aims although the country is doing well, including in terms of economy and growth rates. These interests as a result are destroying the balance of the country, which will only take it to chaos. So, it is a big wake-up call.

Yet there have been many popular upsurges in recent times in Bangladesh like the Shahbag Square demonstration. Young people who were not born during the Liberation War came forward to stand for values espoused by the Liberation War. They say that people who had opposed liberation have no rights to remain in Bangladesh. This had rattled many.

At this point in time 9/11 happened and in the aftermath the Taliban was pushed away from Afghanistan. It resulted in thousands of Bangladeshi jihadists well trained in the art of war coming back home with radical ideas. It was this group which set up the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). This was totally ignored by the government of the day. This was also a time that the relationship between the Pakistan governmental establishment and the Bangladeshi one grew immensely. But there was a lot of anger among the people over these developments so much so that the government was forced to acknowledge the presence of the JMB. Nationalism was up again, in the Army and in the people.

Then started the attacks on bloggers, Hindu priests, Buddhist monks, foreigners, etc., all done in an extremely brutal manner. Also one thing needs to be remembered here: the relationship between the JeI and the Pakistani establishment, especially its secret agencies, have never stopped even after 1971 and continues to be close.

What do you make of the new breed of young, affluent and well-educated youth of Bangladesh taken in by Salafist ideology Bangladeshi society is shocked and shattered, they never believed this could happen there. These are children of people everyone knew. Nor are these solely madrasa youth. They are from affluent and educated families enjoying all comforts at home. As ISIS is under a lot of pressure, they were giving out calls to stage terror attacks during Ramzan. One must recognise a lot of the influence comes from different sources. Take the unskilled workers going to the Gulf. For decades, they have been saving money and many come back home radicalised. This has spread in the rural areas. From the rural areas, the ideas spread to urban areas where urban youth caught on.

Isn’t the Bangladeshi state in denial mode in the aftermath of the Dhaka attack How far is it true and why Don’t you think the government by denying the presence of ISIS and pointing fingers at Pakistan is adopting a stand that is lacking in foresight When Ms Hasina is saying these attacks are by homegrown elements, she is right. But there is a question of international linkages too. The terrorist are mostly locals. In 2014, the year ISIS was formed, huge chunks of territories were conquered. But after that ISIS has been losing territories because of international coalition interference. Now a lot of Bangladeshi jihadists were fighting along with ISIS and so they had started coming back home in big numbers. They have added their might to domestic Islamist and non-secular constituents with the prime effort being to tear apart the secular fabric of Bangladeshi society. Now in this, social media has played a big role. This whipping up of frenzy, internationalising the situation using modern technology, all have played big roles. Also, ISIS trying to cash in on local developments is nothing new.

There is a school of thought that after the 2014 parliamentary elections, which the Islamists boycotted, Islamic radicalism has increased by leaps and bounds. What is your view In 2014 when the elections were boycotted by the JeI and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the physical violence they resorted to in order to prevent holding of the polls has continued ever since. The present culture of violent atmosphere is a remnant of that.

What are the implications of growing radicalism for India More specifically for West Bengal and Assam The sensitivity and implications are unbelievably huge for India more so for Assam and West Bengal. Already when Ms Hasina acted strongly against Islamists in the recent past and also when the JeI could not contest elections after differences with the Election Commission, the after effects spilled over to India. There were people who crossed over to India and set up bomb manufacturing centres, raised illegal poppy cultivations, etc. Look at what happened in the Kaluchak incident when mobs burnt down a police station in a vastly underplayed but very serious incident.

Don’t you find the silence of liberal sections of Bangladeshi society confounding Terrorism has no religion. Even Ms Hasina is saying that the Dhaka restaurant terrorists are not Muslims. Bangladesh liberals have to speak up. As of now everyone is keeping quiet.