July 03, 2016

Bangladesh: The terror, the horror and our collective shame (on the murders in the Gulshan café in Dhaka)


The terror, the horror and our collective shame

Afsan Chowdhury

3rd July 2016

What unfolded at the Gulshan café leading to the killing of at least 20 foreign nationals and several others including policemen may not have been fully avoidable but it certainly could have been contained. We would not have to stand in front of the world with a guilty face and admit that our omissions and commissions have led to the point where this gruesome event could take place. The present government took scant notice when bloggers were felled one by one and the security regime turned a blind eye to the long series of killings that had been taking place since Shahbagh began. We have come to accept killings of people from the lesser classes as “normal” in some ways. Now that 20 foreigners have been killed and it has become world news, we are noticing that there is a Jongi threat on a scary scale and terrorists that are efficient enough to put our police and RAB to shame.

But the killings happened because we ignored the threats for long due to political convenience and administrative inefficiency. People have been saying for a while that extremists are operating in Bangladesh. Despite constant evidence, the threat was discarded. Now a group has mounted a major assault successfully. Killing the killers means little as they were ready to die anyway. In the end, we have confirmed what the critics elsewhere already think – that we are not only unable to manage our state security but also unable to protect our own people, not to mention our guests. And that is why we hang our heads in shame in front of the whole world.

We offer our humblest apologies to all concerned.

There were several major reasons that led to the murderous event. But the most important one was ignoring the Islamist threat, fearing majoritarian displeasure. There is a strange idea in some official and political minds that anything done against any Islamic extremists will cause unhappiness among Bangladeshi Muslims and lead to political costs, even losing political control.

Yet this absurd assumption has no concrete basis. But such appears to be the hesitation of the political government, that no steps have been taken in order to avoid any threat to its popularity. When bloggers were killed, one after another, the government advised against writing anything that would hurt the sentiments of Muslims. But words and actions at a massive scale particularly against Hindus are stated everyday from mosques and waz mahfils, and nothing is done against them. In this twisted logic, the murdered became the guilty and the signal was given to all concerned, that this government was ready to indulge the Islamists. It’s in this massive social and political space that the Islamists found fresh air to breathe and grow.

As the identity of the killers are slowly emerging, it doesn’t look like they are hardcore BNP-JI cadres or from the madrassahs. If anything, they are from Dhaka’s fanciest schools and colleges. Their parents were very well off. It means the Jongi movement, though miniscule, has spread across classes. But whenever a Jongi attacks the immediate reaction is to blame it on the BNP-JI combo.

The objective of forcing the blame on the BNP-JI may suit politics and no doubt many of them could be involved, but people are a bit fatigued by the failure to find the culprits and hearing BNP-JI blamed without any action taken.
But a terrorist is not about BNP-JI and once the message spreads that the government is always going to look for BNP-JI as culprits, additional safety is given to the terrorists because the pressure is off the police. Even the police talk like politicians, blaming it on BNP-JI but almost no Jongis have been caught, a few of those caught are immediately killed, and no terror outfit has been infiltrated. Is the police saying they can’t control terrorists because they are from BNP-JI or what? It was the responsibility of the security regime to ensure safety to all. They have failed to do so. Our shame is collective but the failure belongs directly to the entire government. We warned but such voices were ignored by the government till it was too late.

But it’s just not the political part of the Government that failed. The security apparatus also failed. Our police and RAB are more famous for crossfire than for law and order enforcement. Even the latest “sharanshi obhijan “fell flat on its face with accusations of police extortion. If this campaign was such a success with over 15,000 arrests and nearly 200 terrorists, going by police claims, what and how did this happen at Gulshan? It also means that the police may not know who the terrorists are.

Bangladesh came out looking like a nation of fools who are unable to handle the jongi crisis. The police and RAB in particular are caught in a cycle of unaccountability and inefficiency. The blame for the situation is always on media for saying and showing what they do but when it comes to work, no one is answerable.

Such is the credibility level of the law enforcers that stories of their short sightedness are floating in the net. This includes the speculation that the police were informed by security agencies of the possibility of a joint Ansarullah- JMB operation supported by India-based terrorist groups, but this warning was ignored.

The Babul Akhter-Mitu episode shows how murky the situation has become and how capable they are in dealing with the enemy. They are much better at handling political enemies but nowhere as competent when it comes to neutralizing the enemies of the people.

The opposition has done no better either politically. BNP’s refusal to part ways with JI even when it’s such a massive stigma shows that the political thinking of such parties are at a level not really understandable. JI became part of the BNP even after fighting against the birth of Bangladesh, a classic example of the “anything for power” disease. Politicians within the parties are more concerned for personal gain or are proxies of money-making lobbies, making politics just the tools for wealth-making. The slavish mentality of the party or pro-party intellectuals and beneficiaries are just as bad, making the terrible mess we have stepped into so deep.

This is not the time for false optimism. Bangladesh will survive for sure, but in what shape or form, one is no longer sure.
Afsan ChowdhuryAfsan Chowdhury is a bdnews24.com columnist.