Wednesday 30 September 2015

ISIS in Bangladesh

Today, I read that ISIS just killed an Italian aid worker in Bangladesh.

To be honest, this was not entirely unexpected. I have been anticipating for a while that ISIS would set up shop in that nation; in fact I was mildly surprised that they hadn’t already done so.

The reasons aren’t that difficult to see.

The nation of Bangladesh was always an artificial one. Back in 1947, when British India was vivisected into Pakistan and the new independent India, the Indian province of Bengal was messily cut up, broadly but far from entirely along religious lines, into the Indian state of West Bengal and East Pakistan. This, of course, wouldn’t have happened if the Muslim Bengali-speaking people of what became East Pakistan hadn’t demanded it. In the new Pakistan, they thought, they would be free. But, as they very soon found, all they did was exchange an equal status with Hindu Bengalis in undivided India with subservience to the Urdu-speaking Punjabis and Sindhis of West Pakistan, which, despite its smaller population, was the dominant partner in the relationship. By 1970, East Pakistan had developed little if at all, the people were poor, and they blamed all their problems on West Pakistan’s tyranny.

Actually, this was inevitable. East Pakistan was almost entirely agricultural, as all the industrial and commercial centres, as well as the most important transport links, were in the part of Bengal that went to India. But in the 24 years after East Pakistan’s independence from India the new half-nation seemed to have been neglected so much that it developed not at all.

To what extent this is true is debatable. The Indian writer Sarmila Bose, in her book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, suggests that the West Pakistanis tried at least to a certain extent to develop East Pakistan, but it was simply too poor, too isolated, and the difficulties in communication and logistics too great to allow rapid development.

As usual in these cases, the development that did occur helped only the educated urban elite. The poor in the villages remained where they had been a hundred years earlier. Then, in 1970, the new military dictator of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, announced what was definitely the first free and fair election in Pakistan’s history. Predictably, given the demographics, the majority of seats were won by the East Pakistani Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – an ethnic Bengali party. This roused the ire of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s prime minister, who refused to cede power. Mujibur Rahman began to make bellicose public speeches threatening secession. Armed Bengali mobs attacked and massacred ethnic Biharis – who were not even West Pakistani, but migrants from India – and any West Pakistani they could find. Yahya Khan responded by launching a savage military crackdown in March 1971. Tens of thousands of Bengalis fled to India, where the Indian government at once set up training camps for a growing separatist insurgency. By mid-1971, Indian forces were fighting inside East Pakistan, launching hit and run attacks on isolated Pakistani units; and, on 22nd November, India launched a full-scale invasion of the territory.

Why did India do this? Partly, it was the pure desire to weaken Pakistan at any cost whatsoever. Also, the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, saw an easy way to gain popularity ahead of an upcoming election. After all, the isolated and badly outnumbered Pakistani soldiers in the east could hardly provide serious resistance to India in case of a war. Besides, the horror stories told by the floods of refugees – blown up by themselves, and then again in the media – inflamed public opinion to an extent that “something had to be done”. A lot of these refugees were East Pakistani Hindus – but, as Bose says, the majority of them had been forced out not by the Pakistani army, but by their own Muslim neighbours, who took the opportunity to loot their belongings.

It does not seem to have occurred to anyone in power in India then that East Pakistan was a problem for Pakistan, and the longer the problem continued, the worse things would get for Pakistan; and by cutting off the territory, India was actually relieving the rump state of Pakistan of a major burden.

Now, far from all the East Pakistani Bengalis had been anti-Pakistan. As usual in these cases, the vast majority were neutral, their primary effort being to survive. A fairly small number, mostly of educated urban youth with Marxist leanings, were for the secession movement. And a significant portion was of fundamentalist Muslims, from among whom the West Pakistanis raised a militia force called the Razakars. As the Indian army advanced into East Pakistan and converged on the capital, Dhaka, the Pakistani army was tied up fighting the invasion – and the Razakars let loose a reign of terror, abducting and murdering professionals, intellectuals, and anyone else who might be of use to the new country of Bangladesh.

Razakar victims [Source]

By the middle of December 1971 the war was over. Mujibur Rahman took over as the new ruler of the country. Naturally, the problems that had led to the East Pakistanis growing disillusioned at the West didn’t disappear. If anything, they intensified, because now even the links to the western wing were severed, along with the markets and sources of manufactured products that it provided. As is also the normal human reaction, the Bangladeshis blamed everyone but themselves. An easy target for their ire was India; by January 1972, a bare month after the end of the war, anti-Indian sentiments were already on the rise.

Instead of harming Pakistan, India had freed it of a burden and given it a reason to seek revenge; and, in the bargain, it had gained an increasingly unfriendly neighbour in the east.

Mujibur Rahman was far from a good leader. Soon enough, he had declared his own party as the only one in the nation, and in 1975 he and his family – all but a daughter, about whom we’ll speak in a while – were murdered in a coup. In the original 1972 constitution, Bangladesh (despite being about 90% Muslim) was a secular nation; but in 1977 the new military dictator, Ziaur Rehman, declared Islam the state religion and lifted the ban on Islamic parties. The old Razakars, who had disappeared in the aftermath of the war, came crawling out of the woodwork and soon achieved considerable influence. Ziaur Rehman was himself killed in a coup in 1981, and another military dictator, Hussein Mohammad Ershad, took power. Ershad was ousted in a popular revolt in 1990 led by two women. One of these two was the sole surviving daughter of Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The other was the widow of Ziaur Rehman, Khaleda Zia. Once Ershad was gone, though, these two began bitterly feuding with each other, and their respective political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, fought each other with their respective goon squads, in and out of power. Today, it’s the Awami League which rules, and the BNP is marginalised. But, of course, the situation of the average Bangladeshi has improved not at all.

I had said the old Razakars were brought back by Ziaur Rehman. The Muslim fundamentalists had flourished under the BNP, and therefore the Awami League were against them. It began arresting some of the more prominent among the Razakars who had been living openly for decades, and has hanged a number on “war crimes” charges. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that the perpetrators of the massacres of Biharis and ethnic West Pakistani civilians were never charged.

By the early 2000s, a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism was sweeping Bangladesh. A lot of this came from the very large number of Bangladeshis who lived and worked in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Barbaria, and got infected with Wahhabism. Some of it also came from domestic disgust at the corruption of the old Razakars, living in comfort – those of them who weren’t arrested and executed, that is – and the ineptitude of the government. Soon, there was a growing fundamentalist terrorist movement in Bangladesh, which launched spectacular but fairly ineffectual attacks in the towns, while murdering secularists, leftists and other undesirables in the countryside.

One major target was the increasingly vulnerable Hindu community, who, ironically, found that they’d been better off under Pakistan than they were in Bangladesh. Temples were attacked and destroyed, Hindu women abducted and raped, and once again Hindu refugees began streaming across the border into India. This time, though, the Indian government’s reaction was total indifference.

Among the prominent Islamic Holy Warriors was one Siddiqul Islam, popularly known as Bangla Bhai (Bengali Brother). The military commander of a terrorist outfit grandly called the Awakened Muslim People of Bangladesh (JMJB), he was finally captured in 2006, tamely surrendering after being injured in a bomb blast. In a move of incredible stupidity, the government executed him in 2007, along with several other Islamic fundamentalists, thereby not just washing away the stain of his surrender but immediately promoting him to the rank of martyr. The terrorist movement went temporarily underground, but was far from destroyed. And, as time went on, the fundamentalists began asserting themselves again, hacking to death several atheist bloggers in recent times, among other victims. The Awami League government seemed, and seems, more interested in keeping the BNP at bay than defeating the fundamentalists.

Bangla Bhai on capture [Source]

As the state of Bangladesh weakens steadily, therefore, the fundamentalists are gaining influence, feeding off the resentment of the people at the government; a resentment at least partly the result of the very artificial nature of the country, which doomed it to poverty from the start by amputating it from India. The government itself is concerned virtually entirely with its own survival. The BNP is itching for revenge against the Awami League, and not particular how it gets it. Wahhabi influence is rising. And with increasingly uncertain weather patterns, the consequence of global warming, things for Bangladesh – a low lying agriculture-dependent country – can only get worse.

Can you imagine a more fertile ground for ISIS? Can you wonder why I was surprised they hadn’t moved in already, especially since it's not exactly a secret that they have Bangladeshis among them?

Alleged British ISIS member of Bangladeshi origin, Rakib Amin [Source]

Let me make a few predictions here. Please understand that these are only my opinion, and in no way do they pretend to be a cast-iron prophecy for what is to come:

1.As ISIS is pressurised in Syria and Iraq, especially by the recent Russian entry into the war – and Russia does not mess around – it will try and spread into other territories. The technique is the same as a metastasising cancer: even if the original source is totally excised, it will start up again elsewhere.

2. For a new place to expand into, Bangladesh is a sitting duck for ISIS. The JMJB and other fundamentalist terrorists will instantly flood to its banner. Bangladeshi citizens who have been trained by ISIS and have fought for it in Syria and Iraq will come home and train more members (in fact, as I’ll talk about in a moment, they almost certainly already have). They will have, with ISIS’ funds and resources, far better weapons than the tiny bombs and crude guns that the JMJB had. And, most important of all, they’ll have a cause and an idea – something to aspire to, a goal that’s greater than themselves. Whether this is even possible or not is not as important as the idea itself. All revolutions in history ultimately grow out of an idea.

3. By its own actions, the government of Bangladesh has provided the Islamic State with a ready-made collection of martyrs, who can be readily harnessed into the propaganda effort. Also, again by its own actions, it’s created a powerful political enemy thirsting for revenge, which more likely than not will cheerfully ally with ISIS if that means damaging and bringing down the Awami League. Yes, I am saying that Khaleda Zia’s BNP will prefer to side with ISIS against Hasina Wajed. South Asian history has showed that we always side with our greater long term enemy against our smaller, immediate enemy. Always.

4. Therefore, once ISIS secures a foothold – once, not if – the state of Bangladesh is pretty much doomed. Peripheral areas like the Buddhist Chakma tribes of the eastern hills, who fought a failed secessionist war with Indian help, will once again try to break away. The government will react with all the agility of a soggy biscuit. It will soon lose control over large areas of the countryside, and be isolated in the cities. Car bombs and assassinations will become daily news in Dhaka. Attempts to send the army into the villages to conduct sweeps will fail. If these missions are made in force, ISIS will keep its head down until the soldiers leave. If they attempt to secure the area, they’ll be ambushed and attacked in their bases. The more they try to control, the less they’ll end up controlling.

5. What will the government do then? Appeal to India for military aid? That will at once paint it as a traitor to even the neutral Bangladeshis. And it’s hardly clear that India would even send aid. It would certainly not send troops, because that would at once make it into an occupation army in a country where the people already hate it. Any weapons it might provide, as it did to the army of Nepal during the civil war in that country, would more likely than not be swiftly seized by the insurrection. And, quite frankly, I don’t see Bangladesh as being important enough for any other nation to send forces there. It’s got no oil, no mineral wealth, minimal strategic importance, and not much of a voice in world affairs anyway.

Che Guevara wrote that a guerrilla war develops in certain clearly demarcated phases. The first one is ideological indoctrination and recruitment. That, in substance, already exists in Bangladesh. The Razakars and the JMJB have already prepared the way for that, and, in addition, the Gulf Bangladeshis and their Wahhabi ideology can only help. Remember that – again – they don’t have to recruit everyone. The majority of people will be neutral and try just to survive.

The second phase is training. A lot of this, again, already exists, both in terms of what Bangla Bhai and his gang achieved. The groundwork is already there; ISIS merely has to build on it.

The third phase is hit and run attacks, building up to creating “liberated areas” where the government can’t operate freely and where its writ does not run. The fact that ISIS has already launched at least one attack is proof that it’s at least arrived at this stage.

The fourth is the phase of full conventional war, designed to try and defeat the government forces in the field in battle. That is the stage where ISIS is in Syria and Iraq – or where the Taliban are in Afghanistan. If and when it comes to that, India might step in – might, with air strikes, try to turn the tide. But what good that would do is doubtful. And long before that stage, ISIS would most certainly have got active on Indian territory as well, so one can safely assume that India will have more important things on its mind than what happens in Bangladesh.

All this is of particular interest to me, you see, because I am an ethnic Bengali, and because I live not far from the border; just about sixty kilometres from Bangladesh. When they come, they'll come here first. The car bombs will go off in the streets of this town.

Of course, I may be wrong, and this ISIS attack might be only a flash in the pan.

But I’ll wager, against my own hopes and inclinations, that I’m right.

Monday 28 September 2015

The Weapon

The night was black and silent, but the darkness and silence would not last long.

The warrior was uneasy. He was still very young, so young that the others laughed at him and said he was still a hatchling. But he was old enough to have been put on guard duty, and in these last hours before the beginning of history.

That was what the senior commander had called it that morning: the Beginning of History. “Today,” he’d said, “history begins. And you’re all privileged to be here to see it.”

The young warrior did not feel privileged. He just felt very nervous, and very cold. It was a cold night, like all the nights, but he felt colder than that.

A shadow loomed, a dark silhouette picked out against the stars, and the warrior slapped the stock of his weapon. “Halt,” he said, hearing the tremor in his own voice. “Halt and give the password.”

It was the junior commander, out on his rounds. An older, experienced warrior, he snorted at the uncertainty in the young one’s voice. “You don’t even sound like you mean what you’re saying,” he said. “All an enemy would have to do is shout at you, and you’d stand aside and let him go past. It’s lucky the war’s ending tonight.”

“Is the war ending tonight, then?” the young warrior asked, grateful for the darkness that covered the heat of embarrassment that coloured his skin.

“What do you think?” The junior commander jerked a digit at the angular mass of blackness that they were guarding. “Once that thing in there gets going, there will be nothing the other lot can do but pray.”

“Have you seen it?” the young warrior asked, in lieu of answering the question. The junior commander tended to expect answers even to rhetorical questions. “...Sir,” he added belatedly.

“I escorted it, didn’t I? I was in the escort that brought it here and guarded it while it was being assembled.”

“What was it like?” the warrior asked, and instantly feared that he’d gone too far.

The junior commander seemed to be in a good mood, though. “It was just like an egg,” he said. “The core of it, I mean. A shining, silvery egg, about so big.”

“And that will...wipe out the enemy? End the war?” The young warrior found it impossible to believe. The war had been hanging over his parents’ heads since long before he’d even been hatched. “Really?”

“They won’t even have time to scream,” the junior commander said with relish. “We’re going to hit them with thousands of these. Burn them all to a crisp. Tomorrow you’ll be out of uniform and back on your farm.”

“I’m from the city,” the young warrior protested.

“City, farm, whatever. The main thing is, you’re never going to actually have to fight.” The junior commander glanced back at the angular building. It was no longer quite as dark as before. Tiny lights moved back and forth. “They’re getting ready,” he observed.

“What...” the young warrior hesitated. “What does it do?”

The junior commander rumbled a cough. “I shouldn’t actually tell you this,” he said. “It’s still secret. But there’s nothing you could do now, even if you were a spy.”

“I’m not a spy!” the young warrior protested. “...Sir.”

The junior commander laughed. “Of course you aren’t. Nobody in their right minds would use someone as half-hatched as you to spy. Well, I have a friend, who’s posted out in the western desert, where they tested one of these. He showed me pictures of what it did.”


“Just take it from me: you don’t want to know. They used only a small one, but they tested it on a town, you see.”

“A town? But...”

“They had to be sure it worked. And it did, even better than expected. That’s why I know that the other lot are done for.”

“But...” the young warrior repeated, not sure of what he wanted to say. “The people...the eggs...”

“Would you rather fight or be safe at home?” the junior commander asked him. “Well?”

“If you put it like at home, of course, sir.”

“And tomorrow you will be. That’s a promise.” The junior commander rumbled again. “Your parents will be happy, I suppose?”

“Well, yes, sir. They didn’t want to see me go to the army, but they didn’t have a choice.” The warrior hesitated. “I don’t think they’d have hatched me at all if they hadn’t been ordered to by the government, to tell you the truth.”

“More than likely they were ordered to. But then we were getting ready for a long war, and nobody could have predicted that we’d have this weapon then, and be able to finish the war at a stroke, even before it started. Not even the scientists knew.”

“I just have a feeling...” The young warrior felt the heat of embarrassment again. “I don’t know how to say it. But the others...they haven’t actually gone to war against us, have they? They haven’t done a thing to harm us in any way. It’s only we who have been getting ready all these years to harm them.”

“Don’t fool yourself,” the junior commander said. “They’d do exactly the same to us, if they got a chance. Only the fool waits for the enemy to make the first move.”

“But they don’t even know we exist.”

“All the more reason to press our advantage while we still have it, hatchling. Didn’t you hear what the senior commander said today? And don’t you think they’d use the weapon on us, if they’d discovered it first?”

“But they aren’t even the enemy, not really. Not until they fight us. Sir.”

“I’ve seen fighting,” the junior commander snapped. “And, believe me, anything that spares me from having to do it again is fine with me. Anything at all.”

The young warrior shifted restlessly but was saved from having to answer by a red light that glowed momentarily from the angular mass of the building. “It’ll be away soon,” he said.

“Yes.” The junior commander’s voice took on a dreamy tone. “Can you imagine them, right now, at this very moment, going about their business, maybe preparing their weapons, making themselves ready to attack us someday, and then, suddenly, they simply aren’t there any longer? Wiped from existence? And the threat to us is gone, gone forever.”

The young warrior opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a noise. It began as a low, grinding roar, swiftly built up to a howl, which rose to a scream that tore the night asunder. A light grew from the building, a red glow that grew orange and yellow and then white, and then it rose into the air, a white incandescent ball of flame. The nightmare shriek of its passage was still echoing from the land as it disappeared into the darkness above.

“There’s another,” the junior commander said, pointing to the horizon, where another ball of flame rose, and another beyond that. From all around the blazing fireballs leaped into the sky, their fading howls echoing back and forth in the darkness. Finally the last one had gone, and the night was silent again.

“Well, that’s that,” the junior commander said with satisfaction. “Aren’t you grateful you aren’t on the receiving end of that lot? Now we can go on with our lives.”   

“And they won’t have any more lives to go on with.” The young warrior hesitated again, and then decided he had nothing to lose. “Sir?”

“What?” Now that the weapon had gone, the junior commander’s good humour seemed to be evaporating fast. The young warrior suddenly realised that he’d been nervous as well, and needing to talk. “What is it?”

“I just had a thought. Suppose...suppose some other race finds us, has found us at this very moment, and decides to wipe us out before we could be a threat to them? Then what?”

The junior commander laughed shortly. “That could never happen. The sensors in the building there, and all the others, they’re scanning everything, all the time, without cease. We’d find anything before it could find us. Besides, the gods were good to us, to discover the enemy first and to let us invent the weapon to wipe them out. Why would they not be kind to us again? Tell me that.”

“Yes, but, still...”

“Get back on guard, warrior. Leave the thinking for people paid to think.” The junior commander glanced up at the sky one more time and went on his way.

Left alone, the young warrior shifted uneasily. He thought of the enemy, still oblivious, the enemy who was still not the enemy and would no longer be the enemy this time tomorrow. And he thought about tomorrow, with a little spasm of pleasure. He had not been happy in the army, and it would be good to be going home again.

Then he threw another look up at the sky, obscurely worried that his words to the junior commander would come true and there would be weapons hurtling down, from an enemy of whose existence they knew nothing.

But mostly he shivered. The night was really very cold.

He longed for the morning.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015