The nearly secret Maobadi War

Red radicals of Bangladesh have been at it for five decades, but more than a law and order issue their presence points to a systemic failure of the state.

The man who stood before the television cameras in bare feet and handcuffs was described as a top leader of a Maoist terrorist group. He had already been sentenced in absentia for the murder of a politician from the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) party. Now in the mainstream, JSD too had once warred against the state. The arrested man belonged to the Purbo-Bangla Communist Party (PBCP), one of the oldest armed Maoist clusters in the country reaching back to times of East Bengal. On camera, he explained without much emotion that in a country where 90 percent of the people had nothing and ten percent had everything, his group's activities were justified. Media, political figures, the widow of the politician he was accused of killing, and the general public all hailed his capture.

The next day, newspapers reported the captured man's death. The authorities said that his supporters had engaged the police in a shootout while the latter was on a hunt for his arms cache and that the man was killed in the crossfire. His corpse made it on television the next night.

The number of such "crossfire" deaths has reached nearly 300 in the last six months and many if not most of the victims have been members of underground Maoist parties. They are dubbed choromponthi (extremist) or shontrashi (terrorist) and these terms are muddled together in the public mind. The campaign afoot seems to be part of an official pacification effort that various successive governments have implemented against the Maoists, who proliferate in the rural areas, especially in several south-western districts bordering India. There is little protest from within Bangladesh when it comes to the Maoist deaths, though human rights groups and several Western governments have condemned the "crossfire" killings as extra-judicial. "It's even possible that criminals are killed and then dubbed 'choromponthi shontrashi' because people seem to be more willing to tolerate actions against them," says Prof Abrar Chowdhury of Dhaka University.

Maoists have no base among the middle class or support in the media, whose members have been their targets at the regional level. People living in areas where the Maoists operate tell of extortion rackets, killings, smuggling and other unlawful activities. Though Bangladesh is reported to be a den of armed Islamic insurgents, it is the Maoists who kill or are killed every day. Disorganized, with no power base, almost pre-ideological, and armed with crude weapons, they seem simply to be hitting out at all institutions and systems within reach. Yet in spite of their high casualties, they have no difficulty in finding recruits to fight and to die. As they have done for the past 35 years.

Where do they come from?

The radical rebel tradition in the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta began soon after the British conquest of Bangladesh/Bengal. The colonial administration produced clerks and school-teachers, but with the babus came the bombers, the rebels of the disaffected middle class. Terrorism became synonymous with patriotism. Neither hanging nor exile to the Andaman Islands 1200 km to the south of the Sundarban coast could get these agitators to simmer down. Songs extolling anti-British militant acts are still popular in Bengal, and even today it isn't Gandhi the pacifist but Subhas Chandra Bose the warrior who captures the romantic-patriotic imagination of the Bengalis.

While ambivalent about its ideals, the British too were appreciative of communism's opposition to violence at an individual level. But in the end "patriotic violence" was simply replaced by violence of the ideological variety, as peasant rebellions in Telengana in Andhra and Tebhagha in the Rajshahi division of Bangladesh displayed.

The Communist Party was banned in newborn Pakistan, but the peasant movements continued. It was never a stigma to be a communist in East Pakistan and, indeed, the leftist ideology added a significant element to the persona of the 'idealistic youth'. When the Soviet and the Chinese communist parties parted ways at the international level in 1962, the pro-Peking factions — Maoists — mostly went underground and focused on peasant uprisings, or "anti-feudalism". The Naxal movement, with its belief in revolutionary terrorism, entered Bangladesh from India. It had its origins in the area of Naxalbari, very close to the Bangladesh border near Siliguri. But the rise of the Awami League as a centrist nationalist option swept others away and the marginalisation of the Left began. For most people, the main enemy was Pakistan and not the feudal landlord as the communists would have it, and the Naxal movement never found a place in the mainstream.

The Left played a major role in the movement in 1969 to oust the military-backed Pakistani President Gen Ayub Khan. This movement laid the foundation for the 1971 war, but the Left did not emerge as major players then. The 1971 liberation war found most Maoists caught in the middle: The popular war was being led by the Awami League and supported by the Indo-Soviet alliance, the Maoists' archenemy. China, the Maoists' ideological mother country, was backing Pakistan's murderous agenda. Clashes between armed Awami League supporters and various Maoist factions were common at that time. After the birth of Bangladesh, the Maoist groups went underground and their activities became limited to remote districts in the form of warlordism.

The Left as a whole saw better days in the early 1970s. It was then that leftist members of the Awami League formed the JSD, which leaned towards Maoist dogma even though most Maoist parties called them "Indian agents". The JSD soon became the largest-ever leftist group in Bangladesh's history, but after a coup attempt in 1975 failed, its armed cadre was wiped out in a harsh military campaign. The older Maoists in the party ranks mostly joined Gen Zia-ur Rahman's political front so as to support the enemy of their enemy, the pro-Soviet Awami League. The decline of the Left had begun in earnest.

Shiraj Shikder, the most charismatic leader the Left had to offer, had established the independent Maoist cluster called the Shorbohara Party in 1970. It was the strength of the Shorbohara Party that caused Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then Bangladesh's first prime minister, to unleash repressive action to control the Maoists. Shikder was caught and killed in 1973, according to police sources, as he tried to flee on an armed cache-finding mission. Before long, very few old guard Maoists were left. They were killed in 'encounters', died in internecine clashes, or went 'respectable'. By the early 1980s, the middle class Leftist movement had come to an end.

While the Maoists disappeared from the cities and campuses, they never faded far from the villages. There, there never was peace.

Old Maoists, New Maoists

Are today's Maoists motivated by ideology? Khaliqullah of Jessore District does not doubt that he has the answer. He says, "These Maobaadis are not of the earlier kind. They have no education, learning or ideology. They are just simple robbers who use Maobaad." Khaliqullah belongs to a family that has traditionally engaged in inter-district trade, and is considered wealthy by rural standards. His views are also understandable in that his family was forced to flee Jessore for the safety of Dhaka after refusing to pay extortion money demanded by the Maoists.

The earlier Maobaadi was a communist idealist, driven by a vision of "justice and class struggle". The present Maobaadi is more of an armed rebel who has emerged from among the rural poor and is without the middle class exposure to ideology. He has no stake in the system because the national politics that sustains the establishment has nothing to offer him. The problem of the rural poor lies in economics and the politics that prevails in the country has not yet come up with an answer to the crisis of extreme rural poverty. Dhaka policymakers seek to explain Maoist violence as a law and order issue, but its staying power indicates deeper roots in endemic poverty.

Middle class commentators cite the Maoists' criminal links in order to denigrate them. Research shows, however, that crime is often viewed as a form of livelihood. Their lack of ideology is one reason why today's rebels do not fit into the traditional imagination of the last generation of Maoists. One such old-school Maoist was Abdul Huq of PBCP, who graduated as a top student from Kolkata University and who never even accepted Bangladesh but was nevertheless admired by many in the Bangladeshi middle class and whose passing was mourned in Dhaka.

Another would be Mufakkar Chowdhury, killed in Dhaka last December in another "crossfire" incident. The Prothom Alo daily reported that the 65-year old had been warned of the raid and that when it came, he had remarked, "A communist is not afraid of death". Allegedly instructed by the guru of the Naxalite movement, Charu Mazumdar himself, to introduce his brand of violent Maoism to East Pakistan in the late 1960s, Chowdhury had never been caught. Before his death, he was reportedly working to unite the various Maoist factions in Bangladesh.

When the police raided Mufakkar Chowdhury's house, they had found hundreds of books. The Maoists of today are not book readers who spout theoretical arguments. Maoism to them is a dogma of violent resistance, protest and the ultimate rejection of the status quo in every form. The enemies they confront include the police and anyone who has money, but they also often include each other. Today, the middle class is absent from the Maoist rank and file; it is filled entirely by the rural proletariat. Maoism has thus become the political recourse of the disengaged, angry rural poor of Bangladesh. It is not part of any 'national liberation struggle'. The 'us versus them' mentality of Maobaadi gangs does not allow them to engage with the rest of the world.

Violent end

Extremist Islamic activists with links to the Al-Qaeda organisation have been termed by many international commentators as the major threat confronting Bangladesh today. Many within the country, including the main opposition, the Awami League, share this view. Indeed, there have been a number of bomb attacks recently that have made international headlines. These include a grenade attack on 21 May 2004 that left the UK High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury injured while killing three others. The most recent high profile victim was Shah A M S Kibria, ex-Finance Minister, leader of the Awami League and before that, a senior functionary of the United Nations, who died in a bomb blast during a party rally, on 27 January 2005. While Sheikh Hasina was wounded in an attack on top Awami League leaders on 21 August 2004, the leader of the party's women's wing was killed along with several others.

There have also been isolated cases of bombings of cinema halls and circus tents in district towns, and many argue that these point to bombers of the Islamist variety, who target secular sources of entertainment such as rural melas and circuses where there are dancing shows. Whatever be their identity, their weapons of choice are sophisticated. A few individuals have been charged, but most cases are still being investigated.

These types of grenade attacks on political gatherings or cinema halls do not occur every day, and they are the ones that attract the headlines. But encounters with Maoists are almost a daily affair in the country today, with no other political organisation incurring such a high number of casualties in almost a decade. It is obvious that the authorities take the Maoists seriously enough to chase them in remote areas, and that there is a take-no-prisoners policy in place. The public apathy with regard to these deaths in the rural regions is therefore a matter of interest. "Media does report on encounters with Maoists because they have killed a number of journalists, but there is some narcotic dysfunction about such reports. They don't arouse much interest," says Enayetullah Khan, Chief Editor of the United News of Bangladesh (UNB) news agency in Dhaka.

In the neighbouring city of Khulna, where shrimp cultivation and smuggling have led to a volatile mix of money and violence, many Maoists are reportedly on hire. But they also have their own agenda and in order to enhance their clout, maintain an active hit list of those to be eliminated, many of them journalists. This is the main reason why the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City considers Bangladesh – and Khulna in particular – one of the most dangerous places in the world for mediapersons.

Proximity to the border with India allows the Maoists a refuge when hunted by the police, another reason why this place seems to be the favoured haunt of the extremists. Several Bangladeshi Maoist leaders have also died in India – either felled by the Indian security forces or killed in internecine fights across the border.

The common enemy

There is no record of how many Maoist groups there are in Bangladesh, but the main ones are the Purbo-Bangla Communist party (Marxist-Leninist), the Biplobi Communist Party Jonojuddho, the Gono Mukti Fouj – plus their many splinters and factions. The Shorbohara Party and the Gono Bahini have several shards still left, but they are all collectively known as Shorbohara – the proletariat – and almost all newspaper readers see them as rural criminals.

Authorities have sought to stamp out the Maoists since 1972 and their actions, including extra-judicial killings, are not contested vociferously by anyone. All major parties have tacitly condoned the authorities' action when it comes to dealing with the Maoists, so they are certainly a common enemy. But the fact is that these groups of rural poor, armed with their crude weapons, have survived all attempts at suppression, including mass amnesty offers, arrests and killings. Their leadership largely comes from the ranks of the rural poor itself. They flourish in the border regions and in remote areas of the delta. For a country without an official insurgency afoot, they have drawn the attention of the state and its armed agencies as a serious and continuous threat. Says Khan of UNB, "What they have missing is a cause."

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