4 JANAURAY 2016
Bangladesh’s Islamist challenge
The death sentence handed out to two students last week for the murder of a secular blogger in Bangladesh marks the first major verdict in a string of cases related to the killings of writers in the South Asian nation. Ahmed RajibHaider, 35, was hacked to death by machete-wielding attackers in February 2013. The judge at a fast-track court found that the two students and another man were guilty of murder and convicted another five people on lesser charges. Haider’s murder had opened a new phase of violence in Bangladesh’s contemporary history. A number of secular writers have been targeted by Islamists ever since. In 2015 alone, five writers were killed in the country. Bloggers are victims of an ongoing conflict between the country’s secular establishment and Islamist factions. The Awami League government’s decision to open a trial of the war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 liberation war did not go down well with Islamists. The conviction of some of the leaders of the opposition parties such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami made matters more complicated. Extremist sections are steadfastly opposed to the trial, but they lack the political capital to build a popular resistance against it. Therefore, they turned towards violent protests against the war crimes trial, which created serious law and order problems in the country.
It was against this background that right-wing fringe groups such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team started targeting writers. The bloggers, who consistently campaigned against the war criminals and demanded their executions, invited the wrath of Islamists. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had initially faced criticism for not doing enough to stop violence against writers. Now, with a relatively fast conclusion of the trial of Haider’s murder case and the passing of the highest possible punishment to the convicts, the government appears to be upping the ante against the Islamists. The government’s resolve to bring the attackers to book is timely. But at the same time there are questions over the worsening security situation which allows the extremists to carry out attacks and, more important, the government’s increased reliance on the death penalty to address the Islamist threat. Dhaka’s primary challenge is to prevent any such incidents taking place again. Islamists have apparently issued a “hit list” of bloggers, threatening to kill them all. Given the recent cycle of violence, Thursday’s verdict could trigger more attacks by extremist groups. The government should not lower its guard. As regards the death penalty, it is worth noting that the hanging of war criminals has done little in weakening Islamist politics in the country. Even in the case of bloggers murders, long prison terms would be ideal which would not only strengthen the government’s moral position in this conflict with Islamist radicals, but will also weaken the latter’s narrative that the state is waging a war against them. Bangladesh needs a comprehensive strategy to fight Islamists, because the latter’s target is not merely writers, but the country’s secular polity itself.
Stay the course after Pathankot
Within the short space of a month, Prime Minister NarendraModi and his government have gone through the entire cycle of India-Pakistan ties, as they have played for the past two decades ever since the two countries agreed to a composite, structured dialogue between them. There has been talks about talks, talks about terror, a brief moment of euphoria with gestures of renewing ties from the leaders, followed by an attack. While Mr. Modi’s Lahore landing was certainly bold, it has not yet proven to be the game-changer that perhaps he too hoped it would be. Instead, the same kind of terrorist attack that has always accompanied India-Pakistan engagement hit Pathankot in the early hours of Saturday. As with similar attacks in the past, it should not surprise anyone if the terrorists came from Pakistan, and belonged to an anti-India group the Pakistani army has neatly sidestepped in its otherwise fairly successful crackdown on terrorists in the past year. Frustrated by their inability to hurt India, the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and others have tried to retain their relevance by instead targeting the India-Pakistan dialogue process time and again. By not calling off talks immediately after the attack, the Modi government seems to have indicated it will not allow these groups the satisfaction of achieving those aims. A sustained dialogue is the only fitting answer to terrorist groups and to their handlers inside the Pakistan establishment who wish to destabilise the peace process. In fact, External Affairs Minister SushmaSwaraj told Parliament last month that India would not “be provoked by saboteurs who want to stop the dialogue process in one way or another”.
Going forward, the talks process must be further insulated from the ‘veto’ of these forces. First, the foreign secretaries must move quickly to set up a timetable of meetings of all the secretaries in the two countries involved in the comprehensive dialogue. The process will receive momentum if India and Pakistan agree to a resolution on what are often called the “low-hanging fruit” of issues such as visas, confidence building measures on the Line of Control, water issues and the Sir Creek dispute. The more issues they are able to agree on, the greater their chances of addressing the single largest issue that holds back ties today, that of terrorism. On this, it is for Pakistan to show its good intentions, by acting against the JeM and LeT, both in court and on the ground in Punjab where they run extensive militias. India must stay the course it has set in the past month, including during the National Security Adviser talks, where it has delivered its message firmly, but quietly, with no hint of the one-upmanship that can hamper engagement. These actions will pave the road that was opened by the two Prime Ministers on Christmas day, allowing them to slice through the proverbial Gordian knot on India-Pakistan ties, rather than having to disentangle the ends that constantly threaten to strangle peace in the subcontinent.