An attempt on the life of a poet lays bare sinister links and madrassah skeletons.
While most people were preparing to celebrate Eid in Dhaka on 18 January, members of an Islamic extremist group called Harkatul Jihad were attempting to axe to death Shamshur Rahman, Bangladesh’s leading poet and avowed opponent of communalism. Rahman survived, and so did his wife, who took an axe blow in the scuffle while shielding her husband. The 18 January incident at Rahman’s home shook Bangla-deshis, not only because no one had really expected the poet to be marked for such an attack, but because the organisation behind it, as admitted by the police, is patronised by none else than the Afghanistan-based Saudi Arabian mafioso Osama bin Laden. The group is apparently awash with men and money and has a well-planned agenda on hand to foment violence.
Harkatul Jihad suddenly became what many political parties dream becoming-a household name. It was reported that the extremists had set up an extensive network across the country and training centres were operating in several districts to churn out various types of cadres, including of the armed variety. The thousands of religious seminaries or madrassahs (many run with government funds) were identified in the ongoing investigation as where the ‘holy warriors’ were springing from.
That bin Laden had a foot in the mushy soil of Bangladesh had been rumoured for months, the daily Prothom Alo reported that a number of Islamic activists had been arrested on charges of reprinting and distributing bin Laden’s agitprop. A printing press was raided and ‘holy war’ materials, such as manuals on conducting “terrorist activities”, were seized.
Newspapers have published the book covers of ‘training manuals’ which have been linked to the Tali-ban, and it appears that the Islamists have connections in Pakistan. Books and training guides, and Pakistani currency, to be used for propaganda as well as armed activities, have been recovered by the police. Many of those arrested are said to have been trained at Sadekabad in Pakistan, while at least one said he was trained in Afghanistan.
Alo’s report was interesting, but was neither taken seriously nor with alarm. The assassination attempt on the poet changed all that. The fact that a network reportedly having 15,000-25,000 active members could have been raised without the authorities knowing anything, only heightened the fear.
The investigations into the attack on Rahman are unravelling Harkatul Jihad’s foreign connections. Large amount of funds in bank accounts held by one Maulana Bakhtiyar of the Jihad and an organisation called the Servant of Suffering Humanity International have been found and frozen by government order. The arrests that followed the attack included that of a South African passport-holder of Gujarati origin and a Pakistani, while one of the alleged masterminds behind the plot has reportedly fled to Dubai.
Reports say the largest training centre was a major madrassah in Chittagong and armed insurrection camps were run in the hilly areas of Cox’s Bazar (falling in the Chittagong Division) on the coast bordering Burma. The armed presence of Islamic extremists in the area, a traditional stronghold of Islamist parties, is nothing new. A large number of West Asia-based or -funded NGOs were allowed to operate after the Rohingya refugees settled there in the early 1990s, and at least two raids in the past hauled in a large supply of sophisticated weapons. Indian and local intelligence sources have it that the Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI, has a hand in the matter.
The size and scale of Harkatul Jihad has, however, been questioned by a section of the media, especially by the anti-Awami League (AL) and the pro-Islamist press. They argue that if the charges are true and the arrested people are actually trained militants in the Taliban mould, they would surely have done better than be overcome by two non-militant housewives (Rahman’s wife and daughter-in-law). And if they were part of a well-trained terrorist outfit, their arsenal would have been more sophisticated than axes and crude pipe guns. What seems implausible, and not only to the anti-AL and pro-Islamist press, is that the police should have been unaware of the existence of what by its own accounts is a huge organisation.
Such a situation then readily presents itself for political mudslinging. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters and its press went to town saying that the attackers were actually members of Students League (SL), the student wing of the Awami League. They hinted that it was a “set up” to find an excuse to take action against the Islamic groups who, under BNP leadership, are gearing up for agitations against the ruling Awami League. The opposition weekly Holiday published a report quoting police sources apparently confirming that the attackers were SL members.
Be all that as it may, the attack has caught the nation’s attention. Practically every socio-cultural organisation has issued statements of condemnation and protest rallies have been held across the country. While committees to counter the extremists have been formed, the government has set up an investigation cell as proof of how seriously it has taken the incident.
The madrassah education system, with millions enrolled and supervised by a separate education board of the government, has come under fire and scrutiny. The alleged involvement of the seminaries in criminal actions has meant a cloud hanging over the livelihood of many people generally from the rural areas, which both supply and consume the seminarist “propaganda”.
The spotlight now is on the Harkatul hit-list, which is said to name Bangladesh’s leading intellectuals. In a country that observes 14 December every year as Martyred Intellectuals Day in the memory of the intellectuals killed by Islamic extremists on that day in 1971, the incident has struck a heavy chord of apprehension. Shamsur Rahman himself has said that anybody who takes a position against communal extremism will have to face such attacks. He has vowed to continue his struggle. All the others named in the hit-list, both men and women, including Maulana Awaal (director general of the Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh) and octogenarian Begum Sufia Kamal, who is the symbol for all deeply religious Bangladeshi women who oppose extremism, have not budged from their stand or departed for safer shores. The only one who has left the country is Taslima Nasreen, who declared that she felt too unsafe in Bangladesh and has again sought refuge in Europe. The rest are staying back to fight back.