On February 28, 2013, at least 40 persons, including 17 cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), 18 civilians and five Security Force (SF) personnel died, when JeI-ICS cadres clashed with law enforcers across the country.
Of the 15 Districts in which incidents of killing were reported, Rangpur witnessed 7, followed by Gaibandha (6), Satkhira (5), Thakurgaon and Chittagong (4 each). More than 2,000 people were also injured in the clashes.
Earlier in the day, the International Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT-1), constituted on March 25, 2010, and conducting the War Crimes Trials, in its first verdict, awarded the death sentence to JeI nayeb-e-ameer (deputy chief) Delwar Hossain Sayedee for War Crimes (WC) committed during the course of the 1971 Liberation Struggle. Sayedee (indicted on October 3, 2011) was given the death sentence after eight out of 20 charges, brought against him were held proven. These included murder, abduction, confinement, torture, rape, persecution, abetment of torture, looting, forceful religious conversions and setting homes ablaze. For instance, details of charge number eight indicated that, on May 8, 1971, Sayedee and his accomplices accompanied by a Pakistan Army unit, raided the house of one Manik Posari at Chitholia under Pirojpur Sadar and caught his brother Mofizuddin and one Ibrahim. On the way to the Pakistani Army's camp, Sayedee instigated the members of the occupation force to kill Ibrahim and dump his body near a bridge. On the other hand, Mofiz was taken to the Army camp and tortured. According to charge number 10, on June 2, 1971, Sayedee's armed associates under his leadership and accompanied by a Pakistan Army unit, burnt 25 houses of a Hindu Para (neighbourhood) in Umedpur village under Indurkani Police Station. At one stage, a victim, Bisabali, was tied to a coconut tree and was shot dead by Sayedee's accomplice. In its judgment the Court noted:
In our due consideration, the gravity of the offences as listed in charge Nos. 6, 7, 11, 14, 16 and 19 appear to be lesser than that of as listed in charge Nos.8 and 10. Since we have awarded Capital Punishment to the accused for the offences as listed in charge Nos. 8 and 10, we refrain from passing any separate sentence of imprisonment for the offences as listed in the rest charge Nos.6,7,11,14,16 and 19, though those charges have also been proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Welcoming the verdict, pro-trial protesters termed it a “people’s victory” and marched out in a celebratory procession in Dhaka city. People from all walks of life, who had gathered at Shahbagh for 24 days in what was being described as “Bangladesh’s Tahrir Square”, shouted ‘Joy Bangla’, as soon as they heard that the tribunal had sentenced Sayedee to death. The Shahbag demonstration began on February 5, 2013, in Dhaka city, after JeI leader Abdul Quader Mollah had been awarded what was considered a ‘lenient’ sentence of life imprisonment. The Shahbag demonstrators demanded capital punishment for Mollah and all others charged for War Crimes before the ICT. Again, on February 21, 2013, the protestors issued an ultimatum to the Government to bring war crimes charges against the JeI as a formation, and to initiate legal processes by March 26, 2013, to ban the party.
Similarly, on February 26, 2013, the Democratic Left Alliance (DLA), the alliance of eight Left-leaning political parties, had taken out a procession in Dhaka city, demanding capital punishment for war criminals. DLA coordinator Zonayed Saki noted “JeI is a communal organization and not a political party. JeI and ICS cadres are creating anarchy across the country to foil the ongoing trials of war criminals. They cannot be forgiven for ransacking Shaheed Minar.” The Sylhet Central Shaheed Minar, a memorial to the martyrs of the Bengali Language Movement of 1952, killed by Pakistani Police Forces, had been vandalized on February 22, 2013. DLA leader Saiful Huq also declared that the people would not accept the anarchy of the Islamist parties in the name of religion.
Bangladesh has, in fact, been on the boil since January 21, 2013, when the ICT-2, constituted on March 22, 2012, delivered the first War Crimes verdict against JeI leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar (indicted on November 4, 2012), awarding a sentence of death (in absentia) for genocide and crimes against humanity during the Liberation War of 1971. Again, on February 5, 2013, ICT-2, awarded life imprisonment to JeI leader Abdul Quader Mollah (indicted on May 28, 2012) on WC charges.
According to partial data collected by theSouth Asia Terrorism Portal(SATP), the country has recorded 103 fatalities in street violence since January 21, 2013, including 46 JeI-ICS cadres, 50 civilians and seven SF personnel (all data till March 3). As many as 4,214 persons, including JeI-ICS cadres, SF personnel and civilians, have also been injured in at least 74 incidents; and 1,554 JeI-ICS cadres have been arrested for their involvement in 53 incidents of violence, while observing hartals (general shut down) across the country.
Some of the major acts of violence since January 21 include:
March 3: In Bogra District, at least 10 civilians, including three women, were killed in fierce fighting between law enforcers and villagers led by JeI-ICS cadres.
February 24: Four civilians were killed and at least 50 persons were injured in clashes between JeI-ICS cadres and the Police in Singair sub-District, Manikganj District, during a dawn-to-duskhartal.
February 15: Three JeI-ICS cadres were killed and another 50 were injured during a gun battle between JeI-ICS cadres and Police in Cox's Bazar town.
February 5: In Chittagong District, three persons, including two ICS cadres, were killed during a clash with Police. Police arrested 15 ICS cadres from the District.
January 31: In Bogra town of Bogra District, four JeI-ICS cadres were killed in a clash with the Police.
As SAIR noted earlier, the Tribunals have indicted 10 high-profile political figures, including eight JeI leaders and two Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) lawmakers.
The rising cycle of protests and counter-protests, compounded by escalating violence and threats of greater violence, have created apprehensions that the situation in Bangladesh, which had improved on a wide range of parameters over the past years, may once again hurtle towards instability. The business community – including the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) – on February 23, 2013, expressed their deep concern over frequent hartal calls and requested the political parties concerned to call off countrywide daylong hartals for the greater interest of the national economy. The fear of JeI-ICS as well as other radical Islamist groupings provoking wider destabilization and armed violence, has already triggered a stream of refugees into India through the border District of Malda in West Bengal. Border Security Force (BSF) officials at the Mahadipur (Malda District) Check Post have stated that they had not seen such an exodus in years. Even Awami League (AL) members were among those seeking refuge in India.
Evidently, the Islamist extremist forces under the leadership of the JeI-ICS, have no intention to give up without a fight. With election due in December 2013, or at the latest, by mid-January 2014, it is inevitable that a last ditch confrontation will be sought. Another term for Sheikh Hasina Wajed would leave little possibility of the survival of the top Islamist extremist leadership in Bangladesh, most of whom were collaborators and perpetrators in the War Crimes of 1971, and at least ten among whom are currently arraigned before the ICT. It is significant that groups such as the Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) virtually collapsed after their top leaders were sent to the gallows. The JeI-ICS combine has flourished because of significant state protection under past regimes, and was, in fact, a coalition partner in the BNP-led Government that preceded the current AL led administration. The Islamist right in Bangladesh has flourished, essentially, under an umbrella of impunity, and it seeks to restore a regime that would, once again, provide such impunity, recognizing clearly that this is a race against time.
It is equally evident that the Sheikh Hasina regime has recognized the imperatives of swift and determined action. On February 17, 2013, Parliament amended the ICT Act of 1973, allowing the Government to prosecute organizations along with individuals for wartime atrocities, thus paving the way for prosecution of political parties such as JeI. On February 19, 2013, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu reiterated, "JeI has no right to carry out their politics as they are opponents of democracy", and urged the Government to ban JeI-ICS politics and ensures the trial of war criminals.
The Government’s efforts to de-radicalize Bangladesh, and to consolidate its secular commitments have already won significant success, reining in Islamist extremist groups such as JeI, ICS, JMB, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), and Hizb-ut-Towhid (HT). The residual capacities of some of these groups – demonstrated in the street violence of the past weeks – are clearly significant. There is a danger, moreover, of armed escalation, potentially backed by foreign terrorist formations. On February 27, 2013, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, thus noted, “Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is active in Bangladesh and law enforcement agencies tracked down their network and kept them under sharp security vigil. It is the moral and legal obligation of the Government to uproot them totally."
‘Totally uprooting’ Islamist extremist and terrorist formations in Bangladesh cannot be an easy task. These groupings and the ideologies of violence and hatred that they propagate, have been entrenched over decades of implicit or explicit state complicity – or, minimally, in some phases, tolerance. As the AL led Government gears up for a final confrontation, it is natural to expect these formations to rally their fullest forces in a fight that may well be for their very survival. There are many uncertainties in the present confrontation, but the one certainty is that there will be a further escalation of violence in Bangladesh over the coming months, certainly till the next General Elections are accomplished.
(The writer S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)