On April 6, 2013, in the biggest-ever show of force by Islamists in the country in recent times, hundreds of thousands of members of the Chittagong-based radical Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), organized a 'Long March' from Chittagong to Dhaka, and held a massive rally in the Bangladesh capital.
Over two million people are estimated to have participated in the rally. The HeI demanded enactment of blasphemy laws by authorities to punish people who ´insult Islam´. In a written statement, HeI Ameer (Chief) Shah Ahmad Shafi declared, "Our current movement is not political. Government has to agree to our 13-point demand in order to continue in office." HeI gave the Government an April 30, 2013, deadline to meet its demands or face a ´Dhaka Siege´ programme from May 5, 2013.
Earlier, on March 9, 2013, Shafi had put forward a 13-point demand at the Olama-Mashayekh (Islamic Scholars) Convention organized at the Darul Uloom Hathazari Madrassah (Islamic Seminary) Convention Hall in Chittagong District. On the same day, HeI´s "central joint secretary general" Maulana Moinuddin Ruhi, gave the call for the April 6 rally.
The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) Government initially attempted to clamp down on the Long March, with Security Force (SFs) arresting 30 HeI cadres from a bus in Palashbari area of Gaibandha District on April 5, 2013, while they were going towards Dhaka to join the rally. This, however, led to a rise in tensions, culminating in large scale violence. Notably, Junaed Babunagri, HeI ´secretary general´, addressing a Press Conference in Dhaka on April 5, 2013, warned, "(the) Long March towards Dhaka will be spread across the country if the Government resists the HeI cadres on their way to Dhaka." According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, since that incident, at least five AL activists have been killed and 286 others have been injured across the country (all data till April 21, 2013) in incidents involving HeI. Some of the violent incidents include:
April 5: HeI cadres killed AL activist Shahidul Islam (36) at Dhaka´s Kamrangirchar.
April 6: An AL activist identified as Nowsher Ali (25) was killed by HeI cadres at Bhanga Chourasta in Bhanga sub-District of Faridpur District.
April 11: Three AL activists were killed as HeI and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) cadres clashed with AL men in Fatikchhari sub-District of Chittagong District.
The HeI-provoked violence and success of the rally forced the Government to announce that it would "consider the demands" of the fundamentalist formation, and emboldened Shafi, who, on April 11, 2013, declared that the Islamists had united under the HeI banner after a long time, and threatened the AL regime, "If you want to stay in power, you will have to meet our demands. Or else, there will be dire consequences."
Formed some time in 2010 under Shafi´s leadership, the HeI only came to prominence after it raised its 13-point demands and subsequently provoked violence. Reports suggest that some HeI leaders have close links with the Pakistani Army as well as various Islamist terrorist and fundamentalist organizations. HeI´s chief, Shafi, moreover, had allegedly collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the 1971 Liberation War. Maulana Habib ur Rahman, the principal organiser of the April 6, 2013, Long March, was a leader of the terrorist Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and has links with international Islamist terrorist formations, a fact he personally confirmed in an interview in a special bulletin of Islami Biplob (Islamic Revolution), published in Sylhet on August 20, 1998.
More worryingly, HeI maintains close ties with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as well as JeI, which, along with its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), has brought the nation to a standstill since the beginning of 2013, and many of whose top leaders are at the centre of the War Crimes Trials. South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data shows that Bangladesh has recorded 145 fatalities related to Islamist extremism since January 21, 2013, when the first verdict in the War Crimes Trials was delivered against JeI leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar. Razakar was sentenced to death.
Indeed, State Minister for Law Quamrul Islam on April 5, 2013, observed, "There are JeI-BNP men in HeI. They may unleash terrorism and create anarchy under the guise of HeI." He warned, however, "No matter who you are, action will be taken if you are used by JeI-BNP men in creating anarchy." Further, on April 11, Syed Ashraful Islam, AL General Secretary and Local Government and Rural Development Minister, while addressing a Roundtable Conference, stated, "The April 6 grand rally was not HeI´s; BNP-JeI had organized the programme under the banner of HeI, and had hoped that the rally would have continued for four days, and that the Government would have been forced to step down within this period."
On the positive side, however, progressive and pro-Liberation groups have come forward to protest against HeI´s ´demands´. The Bangladesh Islamic Front (BIF), a leading Islamic political party which supported the Liberation War in 1971, condemned HeI and its (BIF) secretary-general M. A. Momen, noted, on April 5, 2013, "HeI has no Islamic ideology, rather they are confusing the innocent Muslims." Likewise, Bangladesh Khedmot-e-Islam, another pro-Liberation religious group, termed the followers of HeI ´atheists´ and declared that the ´non-Muslims´ had called for the Long March.
Later, on April 8, 2013, some 400 Dhaka University teachers demanded punishment of HeI for its stand against the spirit of the Liberation War and core ideals of the country. Urging the Government not to give in to the radical Islamist group, their statement read: "All 13-points of this organization´s demand clash with the core principles and spirit of Bangladesh. This is a blatant attempt to hinder the progress of Bangladesh." Similarly, leaders of Peshajibi Shomonnoy Parishad, a body of professionals, addressing a Press meet at Dhaka Reporters Unity on April 11, 2013, declared that HeI´s 13-point demand was against the progress of women and the nation. They observed, moreover, that HeI cadres barred women from entering its rally in Dhaka city and harassed several female journalists performing their professional duties, on April 6.
Bangladesh is locked in a struggle between those who supported the Liberation war, and those who collaborated with Pakistan in the atrocities of 1971. The latter have sought to protect themselves under the banner of radical Islam, and to manipulate public sentiments, both to escape culpability for their criminal past, and to dominate the fractious politics of the country. This struggle has now come to a decisive point, with many of the worst offenders now arraigned before the War Crimes Tribunals, and three of them already convicted. If this process continues unhindered, the very existence of Pakistan-backed radical Islamist formations in Bangladesh will come under threat. Unsurprisingly, these groupings are fighting back with everything they can harness. For the first time in recent history, however, a popular resistance to these extremist creeds and the violence and disruptions they are engineering, has taken shape in the Shahbagh demonstration, which has continued, uninterrupted, since February 5, 2013, in support of the War Crimes Trials and the Government´s initiatives to bring their perpetrators to justice. The Islamist extremist parties appear willing to lead Bangladesh into anarchy to push their agenda. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown determination, on April 8, 2013, by firmly rejecting the HeI´s demand for a new anti-blasphemy law. It remains to be seen whether her determination will suffice to neutralize the extremist surge and the Opposition´s mischief, as elections approach.
(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)