The sweeping crackdown across Bangladesh is but the latest phase in the battle of attrition between government forces and Islamic radicals. The Sheikh Hasi government has long been at the receiving end of criticism both at home and abroad for its failure to curb a rising tide of jehadi violence. Secular bloggers and writers, teachers, foreign visitors, aid workers, liberal activists, Shiite and smaller Muslim sects, members of minority religious groups, even a homoeopath doctor have been targeted. The modus operandi of the killers has been designed to strike terror with its sheer brutality — a team of assailants catch the victim off guard, hack him or her to death with machetes besides slitting the throat, and then disappear. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for most of the killings, but the Awami League government stoutly denies their presence in Bangladesh. Police blame home-grown Islamist groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, Ansarullah Bangla Team and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but the government accuses opposition parties Bangladesh tiolist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami of hatching a plot to seize power by patronizing jehadi attacks. The last fortnight has been particularly bloody with a Sufi spiritual leader, a Hindu priest, a Buddhist monk and a Christian shopkeeper done to death among others. Death threats have been issued to the head of the Ramakrish Mission in Dhaka, sending officials of the Indian High Commission scrambling. However, the assassition in broad daylight of the wife of a top anti-terrorist police official in a busy Chittagong street recently seems to have forced the government’s hand. The brazen murder shook the law-enforcement establishment to the core while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasi in parliament vowed reprisals against those orchestrating the killings.
In the clampdown that followed, over 11 thousand people were rounded up, around 200 identified as Islamist ultras, at least five militants shot dead, several hideouts busted and weapons seized. This in turn has prompted rights groups to voice concerns over ‘arbitrary arrests’; opposition parties are blaming the Hasi government of using terrorism as a pretext to crush all political opposition. The problem is that the Bangladesh parliament has been without an effective opposition for the last two years, after opposition parties boycotted the 2014 general elections, accusing the government of trying to rig the vote. So BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami activists have been out on the streets, joining hands with hardcore Islamists enraged at the hangings of several of their leaders on charges of genocide during the 1971 Liberation War. The result is a steadily escalating cycle of jehadi killings and police encounter deaths; the more the Sheikh Hasi government tries to blunt the terrorist threat with wholesale arrests, the worse the public alietion that the terror groups can exploit. The gaping political divide and parlous law and order situation is creating a no-win situation for the Sheikh Hasi government, unless it finds a way out with more focused strategy to counter radical Islamist forces while engaging sections of the Opposition. Significantly, more than 1 lakh Islamic scholars and clerics last Saturday issued a fatwa against militancy in the me of Islam. Bangladesh remains secular constitutiolly and largely so in ethos and spirit, but fundamentalist forces there are growing stronger. This is posing a diplomatic challenge to India, with reports from the ground showing even landless poor Hindus being attacked in the neighboring country, when earlier primarily Hindus with land and property were targeted. The NDA government may have tweaked the law to accommodate the earlier Hindu refugees, but a fresh wave of migration from Bangladesh will be another matter altogether. For Assam with its long festering migrants problem, this situation needs careful watching and sound boundary magement.