ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Bangladesh: Whose 'Unfinished Revolution'?

Subir Bhaumik ( is an author and senior editor at

New radical groups have merged which cannot be checked by the Sheikh Hasina government.

Lawrence Lifschultz’s 1979 classic Bangladesh: Unfinished Revolution predicted a “final confrontation” between the forces of secular, linguistic nationalism and radical Islam. Within four years of independence from Pakistan in 1971, the bloody coup that killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and much of his family was followed by a fresh “Pakistanisation” of Bangladesh under military rulers. Much of the ideology of a liberal, secular state was undone in 21 years of military rule. Sheikh Hasina failed to reverse this process during her brief tenure (1996–2001) and the situation went from bad to worse during Khaleda Zia’s second term (2001–06). Islamist radicals created by the Bengali veterans of the Afghan jihad had a free run with direct patronage from powerful people. The Pakistan-backed Jamaat-e-Islami, whose supporters killed and massacred thousands, was in government for the first time in independent Bangladesh. That helped them advance the cause of an Islamist Bangladesh with reunification with Pakistan not a possibility.

Exasperated with jihadi excesses (serial bombings in 60 districts) and military rule with a civilian caretaker façade, the people voted the Awami League back to power in December 2008 with an overwhelming majority. One of Hasina’s election commitments was to start war crime trials against killers and collaborators of 1971. The executions that followed the trials of senior Jamaat and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders resulted in an existential crisis for the Islamist opposition. Hasina’s return to power was followed by more executions. Having failed to unseat Hasina, the BNP–Jamaat combine launched a six-month street agitation, fire-bombing buses, derailing trains and attacking secular figures resulting in the deaths of at least 86 people. As Hasina crushed her opponents by determined police action and political mobilisation, there was a surge in jihadi activities—attacks on bloggers, writers, publishers and even a professor who sought to popularise Baul music. First-generation jihadis, veterans of the Afghan jihad who returned to form groups like HUJI (Harkat ul-Jihad-i-Islami), attacked poet Shamshur Rahman and writer Humayun Azad. There is a clear continuity in the pattern of violence. The targeting is more political now to unsettle the Delhi–Dhaka relationship. Foreigners have been killed to scare investors and buyers of garments from Bangladesh to cripple the economy, while attacks on minorities aim at creating a Bangladesh without non-Muslims (who are the most loyal to the Awami League).

The new generation of Bangladesh jihadis is smarter and tech-savvy. They prefer to listen to evangelists like Zakir Naik or Islamic State (IS) chief Al Baghdadi instead of Jamaat leader Delawar Hossain Sayadee. Their obvious target is the murtad (apostate) government of Hasina, described as a “lackey of Hindu India.” Dhaka’s relations with Islamabad are at an all-time low. Two Pakistani diplomats and some non-diplomats have been expelled on charges of funding jihadi groups with fake currency. Bangladesh has threatened to review its diplomatic relations with Pakistan after its criticism of executions of war criminals and threats to take the issue to the United Nations. The Bangladesh police recently launched a nationwide crackdown against Islamist radicals. More than 14,000 suspects were nabbed in a week. The opposition claimed that Hasina was trying to decimate her political rivals to create a one-party state. She was compared to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt where ­security forces that had once defended the secular ideals of Nasser and Sadat turned that country into a police state.

Without doubting Hasina’s democratic credentials, the capabilities of her police and intelligence services are clearly found wanting in tackling the latest wave of Islamist radicalism. While one set of radicals had operated with the support or those in the BNP–Jamaat coalition government, a second generation of ­Islamist radicals has emerged. These groups are better trained and equipped with support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). New groups like Ansarullah Bangla Team, Hizb-ur-Tahrir or the Islamic State of Bangladesh (ISB) operate on a decentralised basis run by leaders who do not expose themselves to the footsoldiers. In Bangladesh, the Islamist radical forces are now regrouped and reorganised into two main groups—one connected with the IS and the other to al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Traditional Islamist groups like Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and HUJI have made place to the two new organisations which do not differ from one another ideologically but which are organised on two elongated cell structures, operating with proper “cut-outs” and on a need-to-know basis to avoid major “damage” to the organisations in the event of arrests of particular individuals. This has made it all the more difficult for Sheikh Hasina’s government to check the recent waves of violence in Bangladesh.



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