Less than three weeks after Kazi Arif, deputy chief of the leftist Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) party, was gunned down along with five others while addressing a peace rally in the south-western district of Kushtia, on the night of 7 March 1999, powerful military-issue grenades rolled into a crowd watching a cultural show in the nearby city of Jessore. The explosions killed six people and sent over 150 to hospital.
The show in Jessore had been organised by Udichi, an organisation which has done much to keep cultural activities running during the country’s hard times. Udichi began as the cultural wing of the erstwhile pro-Moscow Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), but over the years had evolved a distinct identity serving as a platform for budding artistes. It had never been thought of as a threat by anyone, and thus the sense of shock was more pronounced.
Initially, the attacks were blamed on local Maoists who are active in southwestern Bangladesh and who have been involved in violent attacks. Kazi Arif and CPB had an anti-Maoist stance and could be considered logical targets of Maoist wrath. But this was soon discounted in the Jessore case.
Within a week, more than 50 people belonging to various Islamist parties were arrested. The newly cast terrorist shadow of Osama bin Laden and his alleged Bangladeshi front, Harkatul Jihad, sprang up as prime suspects. And unlike the bungled attempt on poet Shamshur Rahman’s life (see Himal March 1999) in which axe-wielding alleged Jihadis were held back by the poet’s wife and daughter-in-law, the tactics used at the Udichi show testified that the masterminds behind the attack were experts at mass killing, and trained to vanish without trace.
As far as the ruling Awami League (AL) and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were concerned, the lack of evidence did not prevent them from going for each other’s jugulars. While cultural activists carried out protest meetings seeking exemplary punishment for the guilty, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina openly hinted that the BNP or at least some of its leaders were linked to the blast. The AL party went even further by trumpeting the fact that several BNP leaders hailed from Jessore, and had Maoist pasts.
For their part, the BNP and the religious parties alleged that the government had stage managed the blast, and asked for its resignation (which responded by replacing home minister Rafiqul Islam with Mohammed Nasim, the powerful AL chieftain who has already held several ministries in the past).
Even as the BNP and AL pummelled each other, the media quoted police investigations pointing the blame at one Monirul Hasan Modina, a 28-year-old Harkatul Jihad activist who runs a cloth shop in Jessore, as the prime hand behind the blast. When Modina was arrested, apart from propaganda materials, a revolver, and a photo album apparently showing him participating in bomber training sessions in Afghanistan, were recovered from his premises.
Reports said Modina was a student at an ultra-conser-vative Deobandh seminary in India. The Deobandhis are staunch Islamists who even opposed the creation of Pakistan on the ground that a Muslim could not be part of one particular nation-state as all Muslims belonged to one nation and therefore the whole world was their home.
Modina has said the pictures were not of him, but of someone killed in the Afghan war. He denied that he was ever trained as a bomber, but admitted that he had been recruited into the Harkatul Jihad in 1991 while he was in India
Amidst such unsavoury happenings, what is disturbingly obvious is that for the first time in its 28-year history, the faceless image of mindless militancy—or terrorism—has begun to haunt Bangladesh. Every time the government presents evidence in such cases, Taliban and Afghan connections seem to be the common links. And as the law-enforcement authorities grope to fashion a containment strategy, more violent news may be lurking around the corner.