In 1971, Kolkata was gripped by Naxalite terror. The Naxalites’ preferred target was the grassroots policeman, unarmed or poorly armed. The serial murders of sub-inspectors, ASIs and constables angered the police in West Bengal. Those who led the force – the last of the Mohicans of Imperial Police – used that anger to unleash the force on the Naxalites in the manner of bloodthirsty hounds. What followed in West Bengal was a classic case of police taking the law into their own hands. Bengal was the first state in India where fake encounters became the cornerstone of counter-terrorism. Later that happened elsewhere in India – in Punjab, Assam, Kashmir and other Maoist-dominated areas of Eastern and Central India. Bengal had indeed shown the dark way.
The murder of SP Babul Aktar’s wife in Chittagong is a calculated attempt by Islamist radicals to demoralise the police. This is the first time they have gone after the family of a decorated policeman who has played a major role in counter-terrorism operations in Chittagong, especially through going after Bangladesh’s main radical group at this point, the JMB. The radicals surely assume the police will run for cover and officers will feel discouraged about pursuing the radicals with the gusto that Babul Aktar and many like him have displayed. But the throw of the dice could well backfire – an angry police force could get more merciless and desperate to strike back at the ranks of the radicals. That could lead to a multiplication of human rights violations. However, no uniformed force is inclined to consider such allegations (particularly when levelled by foreign groups) with the seriousness they deserve when it feels its existence as a disciplined force is in question.
Much as Mahmuda Aktar’s murder was an attempt to demoralise the police and security agencies, similar attacks on such secular elements as bloggers, writers and publishers and also on religious minorities have claimed nearly 40 lives since the Shahbagh uprising in February 2013. Shahbagh was the point when secular forces demonstrated their strength and mass appeal on the war crimes issue. There is a strong argument made by many that the Shahbagh demonstrations alarmed the Islamist radical forces, both open and in the underground, and made them come together with a grand plan to strike back. Shahbagh pointed to an existential crisis for radical Islam in Bangladesh, for the defeated forces of 1971 which it now manifests and whose linkage is proven beyond doubt.
Ever since February 2013, when blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed within a week of the start of the Shahbagh protests, the militants have killed more than 40 people. Sample the targets. Secular bloggers, writers, artistes and publishers have been the groups most attacked, followed by priests and monks of religious minorities and then foreigners. Mahmuda Aktar is the new category – family member of the police.
The Islamist radical forces are now regrouped and reorganised into two main groups – one connected to the Islamic state and the other to al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The traditional Islamist groups like JMB and HUJI have given way to two new organisations which do not differ ideologically but which are organised on two elongated cell structure organisations, operating with proper cutouts and on a need-to-know basis to avoid major damage in the event of arrests. This pattern has come to the fore during interrogations of arrested militants. That is why police and intelligence tend to lose the links after a few initial successes.
Bangladesh intelligence has now identified the two groups; their leadership is more or less known to counter-terrorism cells and their cadre is also more or less identified. That explains the seven-day nationwide crackdown that started on Friday morning. But its success will depend on specific targeting by police – only those against whom there is prima facie evidence of radical link will have to be picked up.
Despite the best of intelligence, an angry force stung by attacks on family members may well go for an all-out attack. Radicals and insurgents always love the forces to turn into angry elephants trampling everything in sight – that impacts on the innocent and creates better recruitment possibilities in future. Bangladesh Police and RAB will have to check that tendency, though it is by no means an easy task.
While the murder of Mahmuda Aktar is aimed at demoralising the police, so that the radicals can escape the heat of counter-terrorism, the attacks on secular elements are to prevent a mass upsurge against Islamist radicalism, which is often seen as synonymous to the defeated forces of 1971 identified with Pakistan. The attack on minorities, specially Hindus, is to complicate relations with India, where a Hindu revivalist government is in power and where groups like the RSS are active amongst Bangladeshi Hindus with a long term perspective of netting them when they move to India. Discrediting the Hasina government and proving to the Modi administration that she is not capable of protecting Hindus is one purpose these attacks on Hindu priests are clearly meant to achieve.
And these efforts seem to run strangely parallel with a strong effort by the BNP to build links with the BJP and RSS. Recently three Bangladeshi Hindu journalists close to BNP were in Nagpur to meet RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in an effort to drive home the point that only a BNP-Jamaat dispensation is capable of protecting Hindus. So first we have a determined over-ground agitation by the BNP and Jamaat targeting both the man in the street and also the government (railways and buses) and now when that fails, one gets to see a sudden spurt in radical attacks, even on foreigners. Why would they be attacked unless there was a concerted effort to discredit the Hasina government?
Bangladesh is in the throes of an unfinished revolution that Lawrence Lifschultz had predicted in the 1970s. The final battle for Bangladesh’s soul has started. The Islamists who want a Shariah-driven Bangladesh are on the offensive against soft targets as part of a conscious strategy to pulverise the population with systematic and serial terror, for which one does not need popular support. The secular forces are strong and vibrant, but disorganised and somewhat undermined by the corruption and failures of the Awami League government.
Subir Bhaumik is a Senior Editor with bdnews24.com and a well-known author on terrorism and insurgency.