Interview: ‘Dhaka café terror attack is a wake-up call for Bangladesh, India’

Written by: Maitreyee Boruah
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The recent terror attack on a café in a posh Dhaka locality in neighbouring Bangladesh has raised several questions, especially for countries in the sub-continent.

OneIndia spoke to Subir Bhaumik, senior editor, (a popular Bangladesh-based news website) to understand what the attack means to Bangladesh and India. Excerpts...

Bangla terror attack

OneIndia: In recent times, Bangladesh has witnessed several killings and attacks on secular bloggers, liberals and minorities. Were these mindless killings a precursor to the horrific terror attack at a cafe in Dhaka on Friday?

Subir Bhaumik: Yes, it has been building up to that. After the huge Shahbag movement in 2013 that reinforced the grip of linguistic secular nationalism on popular imagination, the jihadis as well as the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party)- an ally of Jamaat-e-Islami--faced a crisis of existence.

When the Awami League returned to power in January 2014 parliament polls, despite massive street violence, that feeling of survival at stake dawned on the Islamists in Bangladesh. First, such forces tried to discredit Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina by serial fire bombings of buses and derailing of trains. It led to the death of 86 innocent people in six months. When (PM Sheikh) Hasina crushed that through some determined police action, the Islamist politicians turned to the jihadis.

[Read: Dhaka attack: Autopsy report reveals Italian victims were tortured ]

While secular bloggers, publishers, writers and artists were killed to demoralise the spirit of 1971 that created Bangladesh, Hindu priests were killed to complicate India-Bangladesh relations. In the recent attack, foreigners were killed to chase away investors and traders to cripple Bangladesh's economy, which has done so well under Hasina. They needed such an attack to shake up Bangladesh and global opinion about the country.

OneIndia: There is still no clarity behind which group/groups is/are behind the terror attack? Can we rule out the involvement of ISIS, as suggested by the Bangladesh government?

Subir Bhaumik: These are homegrown jihadis, who are inspired by ISIS and seek to acquire ISIS trappings (adopting Arab names, using Arab headgear, photographing victims for Internet upload with the ISIS flag in backdrop), but they don't operate under ISIS command and control.

On the other hand, ISIS is happy to upload their pictures and claim them as their own because it needs to project itself as a global terror network by showing they can hit anywhere anytime from Paris to Jakarta and from Istanbul to Dhaka.

The ISIS is not like al-Qaeda-- it believes in adopting local groups across the world who believe in their Caliphate and who can strike at a given signal-- a very decentralised loose coalition but one capable of making a global impact -- and these local Bangladeshi jihadis need an ISIS tag to internationalise the Bangladesh issue, especially the execution of the Jamaat leaders in the 1971 war crimes trials.

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Let us get this clear -- there was no Arab or Afghan in the Dhaka attack, they were all radicalised Bengali Muslim boys, but the fact that they can kill as brutally as the ISIS should give the Hasina government a hard wake-up call.

The government should not remain in any delusion because they are homegrown jihadis. If they can do what they did then they pose a much greater danger than a one-off attack by an Arab or an Afghan or a Pakistani group. 

The jihadis are as brutal and kill as frequently for the "cause of Islam" as the Jamaat-sponsored Al Badr or Al Shams in 1971. Look at the continuity of politics of this brutal Islamist fringe in former East Pakistan and now Bangladesh -- while the Al Badr -Al Shams massacred Bengali intellectuals two days before the fall of Dhaka, their 21st century grand-cousins kill secular bloggers, publishers, writers and artists.

They bomb Bengali New Year functions and Udichi cultural programme -- meaning they target the thought leaders of Bengali nationalism whose manifestation are so strongly linguistic and cultural. These jihadis have a political agenda -- bring down Hasina, decimate the secularists and Talibanise Bangladesh. But they will fail as their predecessors. Bangladesh is a Bengali nation and it will not surrender its political or cultural sovereignty and identity to any medieval Caliph-like Al Baghdadi. Yes, most Bengali Muslims are devout and pray, but they don't bring religion into their public life.

OneIndia: Tell us about Bangladesh's current socio-political scenario, especially of Dhaka. How secular and liberal is Bangladesh as a country?

Subir Bhaumik: Bangladesh is a secular and a liberal country, which has undergone phenomenal female empowerment. But there is a dangerous and violent Islamist fringe which is getting more violent because it is facing a crisis of existence. And the global sponsors of this Islamist fringe are putting in resources, financial and otherwise, to boost Islamist schools, mosques and madrassas.

Bangladesh is a threat to hardline Salafist Arabised Islam because it reposes its faith in a secular polity based on Bengali linguistic nationalism-- and so these petro-dollar driven Middle-eastern foundations and those based in Pakistan and backed by the ISI are financing jihadi activities and boosting radicalisation through a host of means.

Bangladesh is also suffering the distortions caused to its constitution by two military regimes of Khaleda Zia and Hussain Muhammad Ershad, when the fifth and eighth amendment undid the country's secular super structure and made Islam a state religion.

Hasina has not been able to change that so far for fear of a backlash -- she does not want to give the BNP-Jamaat a ready issue for fomenting political unrest, but my understanding is that she plans to bring about necessary amendments to restore the 1972 Constitution towards the end of her present regime. The Jammat and its foundations and Islami Bank are well-funded and in a poor country, you do get people to follow you if you throw money.

OneIndia: What does the terror attack mean to India?

Subir Bhaumik: When I met Hasina recently during the launch of my book 'Agartala Doctrine', in Dhaka, she said that she has complained to Delhi against the "shelter and sanctuary" that many Islamist radicals fleeing the crackdown of Bangladesh security forces were finding in West Bengal and Assam.

These states must realise they are in the line of fire. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal must be told by Delhi in no uncertain terms to initiate a proactive crackdown on any Bangladeshi jihadis.

Sonowal must realise demonising Bangladesh serves no purpose because the present government there is a friend of India and determined to crush jihadis and northeastern rebels. In short, India needs to pull up its socks and help Hasina in fighting Islamic radicalism by proactive measures in its own border states.

OneIndia: Reports suggest that northeast India might also witness similar attacks orchestrated by ISIS, as the international terror network has built a strong foothold in Bangladesh. What do you have to say about it?

Subir Bhaumik: I don't think Northeast India figures in ISIS plan of action. If you have a jihadi strike in Assam, it will surely be JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh) or some Bangladeshi group seeking to reinforce its fallback bases in a contiguous territory. To say this was done by ISIS or that was done by ISIS is to sex-up a drab local story but missing out on ground realities and the local dynamics that spawns homegrown jihadi culture.

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