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6 July 2016, Gateway House

Terrorism in Bangladesh

The recent terror attacks in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, turned the spotlight on the country’s increasingly violent and volatile political situation. The interplay of deep political divisions, the rise of radicalised student politics, religious extremism, which the government has failed to rein in, and the spread of trans-national terror networks has created a toxic cocktail in Bangladesh with dangerous implications for India.

Director, Gateway House

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The siege on 1 July of Holey Artistic Café, an upmarket restaurant in Dhaka located in its diplomatic enclave, ended with the deaths of 20 hostages and six terrorists[1]. This was the country’s first major terror incident that involved the taking of hostages. Perhaps one of the most horrific aspects of the attack was the segregation of the hostages by religion and nationality, with reports of Bangladeshi and other Muslim hostages being allowed not only to break their ritual fast in the holy month of Ramzan but also to go free. The remaining hostages — including those from Japan, Italy and India — were tortured and killed.

That terrorism on this scale has now come to Bangladesh should come as no surprise. In addition to Bangladesh’s deep and unbridgeable political divide, the country has become a hotbed of radical student politics with a history of military links with Pakistan. The emergence in Bangladesh of groups such as the Jamaat-ul- Mujahideen that perpetrate organised violence was evident as far back as 2005 in a series of coordinated low-grade bombings, which included over 300 explosions in 63 of the country’s 64 districts[2] intended not to kill but to signal their lethal capabilities.

The terrorists in this latest incident are reported to have been well-educated young men in their twenties, from upper middle class backgrounds. This is not unexpected. Bangladesh has a tradition of radical student politics. The major political parties — the secular-leaning Awami League (AL), the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) – have a history of violence with members of their student wings acting as their storm troopers, especially during elections. In the last general elections in 2014, which the BNP-JEI combine boycotted nation-wide 19 people were killed on polling day alone[3]. This had been preceded by months of sporadic acts of violence and killings spearheaded by the parties’ student wings.

Bangladesh is in a state of constant anxiety due to its continuing and profound political divide. On the one hand there is the ruling AL in power since 2006 led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh who was assassinated in 1975 in a military coup. Currently leading the opposition is Khaleda Zia, widow of the military dictator Ziaur Rahman who was the fourth president of Bangladesh. Although Bangladesh fought its war for liberation on a platform of Bengali culture and secularism, it took the young country only four years to descend to the path of military dictatorships pioneered by Pakistan, its former tormentor.

The fifteen years of military dictatorship fostered the resumption of close relations with the Pakistani military establishment. The not-so-old personal equations between military officers of the Bangladesh and Pakistan armed forces brought back a strain of anti-India sentiment into Bangladeshi politics under the nurturing care of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Pakistan’s infamous intelligence agency However it was in two five-year reigns of the BNP during 1991-1996 and 2001-2006 that the ISI was given full freedom to operate in Bangladesh. One consequence was the stepped-up support extended to separatist elements from India’s north-eastern states, particularly Assam.

Despite the influence of Pakistani elements, the Sheikh Hasina government sought to restore secularism and freedom of religion through the 15th amendment to the Constitution[4]. But it did not delete the reference to “Islamic” which had been injected into the constitution by the dictator, Gen Ershad. Fearing backlash from hardline religious parties like the JEI, which had been barred from the electoral process. But that change along with the trials underway for war crimes committed during the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh and the executions of those found guilty, including the execution of the serving leader the JEI, Motiur Rahman Nizami, have produced a backlash powered by religious ideology.

Over the years, the percentage of Hindus who comprised a substantial minority of 22% in 1951, fell to a mere 8.5% in 2011 according to the Statistical Bureau of Bangladesh[5]. This trend does not support the image of a secular country that Bangladesh proudly projects. While the citizenry may be broadly secular, what the shrinking minority populations does indicate is that the state deliberately looks away as both Hindu and Buddhist are squeezed out through acts of localised violence triggered by professed religious sentiments and supplemented by a greed for scarce land. From these sporadic and local acts of violence it was only a short step to the more systematic and rampant attacks in more recent times on other Hindus, atheists, secular bloggers, and even liberal Muslim academics. Afraid to condemn the killing of rationalists and atheist bloggers, the Prime Minister has instead called for them to “respect religious sensitivities”. When Hindus are killed, the government in Dhaka equivocates, with the repeated assertion that Bangladesh is secular. It is most pernicious that Dhaka also adamantly denies the presence of ISIS, or Al Qaeda in Bangladesh. While addressing the nation after the Dhaka terror attack, PM Sheikh Hasina asserted that certain groups “embraced terrorism having failed to win the people’s hearts in a democratic manner.”[6]

Despite the recent carnage, the fact remains that Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina, unlike Pakistan, is not a state sponsor of terrorist groups. The government has taken action to deport numerous insurgents, especially from Assam, to India in the last few years.

To what extent does it matter whether it is ISIS or Al Qaeda or a local affiliate that is responsible for the latest incident of terrorism? It is well known that the IS has released audio propaganda in Bangladesh while Al Qaeda has set up an affiliate, also called Al Qaeda in the subcontinent. Given the average age, affluence, educational background and membership of Shibir, the student wing of the JEI, it is possible that the Dhaka terrorists had sought the ’glamour’ associated with the affiliation with international terrorists groups. Even more damningly, Bangladeshis who knew some of the terrorists personally have told the press that they had in fact disappeared for the last few months, fueling speculation that they had been in training at a location or locations as yet unknown.

What are the implications for India? Apart from the urgent concern of militants sneaking into the country along with illegal Bangladeshi migrants, the siege of the café in Dhaka recalls the case in Burdwan in West Bengal last year, where it was alleged that explosives were fabricated there for deployment in Bangladesh. This implied a seamless cross-border terrorist connection. However, there has been no further official information about Rejaul Karim, a member of the Jamait-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh cadre who had been arrested by the authorities in West Bengal at the time. Perhaps that is because it is becoming increasingly difficult in India to separate religion from politics, especially during elections. Tellingly the Burdwan revelations were made public by the state government shortly after the state legislative elections in West Bengal in April 2016 raising questions about whether they apprehended any impact on voting patterns.

It is also true that the victory of the BJP in the state elections in Assam in the north-east had much to do with the angst of local people over the continuing illegal Muslim immigration from Bangladesh. After all it was not so long ago that Bangladesh provided a safe haven and support to separatist outfits in Assam. The BJP has promised to complete the fencing between the two countries to seal the border, send back the illegal immigrants and fast-track citizenship for Hindu refugees from both Pakistan and Bangladesh. The BJP will certainly try to fulfill these assurances, to the extent that finances permit, as it is seeking to oust the Congress from the remaining north-eastern states of Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya where the party still forms the government.

The Opposition Congress’ unbridled accusation is that the BJP is deepening religious divisions. Could the BJP’s political agenda, coupled with the growing boldness of Islamist terrorists in Bangladesh as exemplified in the Dhaka café siege, lead to an increase in the infiltration of terrorists from Bangladesh and provoke clashes between the border guarding forces of the two countries? Both countries must guard against any threat to Indo-Bangladesh relations which are on an upward trajectory with the exemplary completion of the exchange of adverse possessions and enclaves last year, the commencement of coastal shipping last week and the numerous connectivity projects that are underway backed by the extension of another $2 billion EXIM bank credit[7].

One way to safeguard these encouraging trends would be for both countries to urgently address the radicalisation of their domestic youth. In addition, there is a pressing need to step up intelligence-sharing between the two countries. An encouraging sign of bilateral cooperation that emerged from the horrific event in Dhaka was the news that Indian intelligence had, in fact, forewarned its Bangladeshi counterpart of an impending attack. That the Bangladeshi authorities failed to convert the intelligence into preventive action is a separate matter, which only highlights the urgency of continued cooperation.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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[1] Tribune desk, ‘20 killed execution-style’, The Dhaka Tribune, 1 July 2016, <>

[2] Star online report, ‘Aug 17 serial blasts’, The Daily Star, 14 October 2014, <>

[3] Star online report, ‘19 killed in Bangladesh election violence’, The Daily Star, 5 January 2014, <>

[4] Laws of Bangladesh, Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division, Government of Bangladesh, Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, <>

[5] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Statistics and Information Division, Ministry of Planning, Government of Bangladesh, Population & Housing Census – 2011, March 2014, <>

[6] Tribune desk, ‘Hide and Seek with IS’, The Dhaka Tribune, 4 July 2016, <>

[7] News, EXIM Bank India, ‘EXIM Bank extends a line of credit of USD 2 Billion to the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh’, 10 March 2016, <>