Never a dull moment
Regardless of an ongoing pandemic, games of influence and power struggles continue unabated in Bangladesh
Corona threats or otherwise, Bangladesh has not had a single dull moment on its political or diplomatic spectrum. The high pitch excitement even on canvas of religion ran its writ middle of this month when ten-year-old Islamic outfit Hefajat e Islam lost its 104-year-old Amir (chief of the organisation), Shah Ahmed Shafi. The demise of the old man who was already a centurion was inevitable but it led a trail of vandalism and violence in the struggle to occupy the post of the all-powerful General Secretary of the entity. Shafi, the most venerated and powerful for having taken this set up to new heights over the last decade, has left a vacuum which is unlikely to be filled easily and is expected to see serious law and order issues in the future.
The principal reason for this is the control of Hathhazari madrasa in Chittagong. It's a well-known Qaumi madrasa which doesn't accept financial aid from the Government, though a number of religious institutions from Saudi Arabia were known to be funding this madrasa which is believed to be very rich. The natural heir of the madrasa was Shafi's son Anas Adani who was groomed to take over the 1896 built Al Jamaitul Ahiya Ulum Muinul which later became the Hathhazari madrasa in Chittagong with a large number of students coming to enrol in this religious institution of Shafi who himself was a product of Deoband, India. The principal of Hathhazari madrasa is always the ex officio head of all the Qawmi madrasas in Bangladesh.
There are many madrasas in Bangladesh but what makes Hathhazari and Hefazat e Islam so significant? Hifazat is thought to be patronised by the Government and is always considered to be close to Prime Minister Hasina and her AL led Government. This is notwithstanding the fact that during the uprising of the Shahbagh movement of 2013, Hefazat had played a proactive role in trying to mount pressure on the Government for the introduction of blasphemy laws in Bangladesh. It had submitted a 13 point charter of demands to the Government which were against the seculars and liberals. Also, it had been openly opposing tolerance against liberal bloggers, LGBT, etc. Crucially, it was against further empowering of women in Bangladesh. Right-wing BNP, the main opposition party and the electorally disenfranchised Jamat e Islami had leaned towards Hefazat to wean it away from the Government's proximity. These elements are reputed to be backed by pro-Pakistan lobbies active in Bangladesh.
Now reverting to the question of exercising control over the outfit — Hefazat, main adversary of Shafi's son, Anas Madani is challenged tooth and nail by Junaid Babunagri to wrest control over the Hathhazari madrasa. The flexing of muscles and brute show of force was amply displayed on September 16, when several die-hard supporters of Junaid Babunagri clashed with Shafi adherents leading to violence, vandalism and destruction thus not ruling out chances of more breach of peace. The Government is closely watching the developments amid assessments by the security experts that Pakistan, with suspicion of ISI complicity, is backing Junaid to remain in control of the madrasa and Hefazat. This needs to be operationally neutralised in the larger interest of security, both in India and in Bangladesh. It must also be underscored that security and intelligence agencies in Bangladesh are in favour of Anas Madani to remain in charge of Hefazat than Junaid. They have sound reasons in support of their opinion.
Interestingly, at the burial of Shafi, a large number of Jamat elements including Golam Porwar and other cadres were seen acting as pallbearers of the coffin to send a signal of their solidarity. This is not ominous at all. Any Pakistani backed Jamaat footprint to exploit the vacuum is not a positive sign. Critics of Hefazat, in the meantime, continue to allege that the Government is not intervening as it remains beholden to the ruling Awami League for having received support from Hefazat in the formation of the Government in 2009. It now wants its pound of flesh. The situation in the aftermath of Shafi's death and the violence that ensued remains fluid with likely repercussions on the law and order front. Things might attain some clarity after the Shura meets to decide about the replacement of Shafi to head the Hefazat.
On one hand, we are seeing no dull moment on the religion linked activities in Bangladesh impacting the tranquil, on the other is the defence front. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina received a call from the US Defence Secretary, Mark Esper earlier this month which is seen as significant. Hasina holds charge of the defence portfolio and is firmly entrenched in her position. She wants to modernise Bangladesh by the year 2030 with sophisticated military equipment. On its part, the US is perhaps trying to reach out to Bangladesh in view of Chinese overtures to Dhaka by offering vaccines, help in other infrastructural projects as also aid for the Teesta water project, hence this phone call.
Meanwhile, the US and Bangladesh talks on the sale of the Apache helicopters and missiles are believed to be already on. The US is obviously trying to improve defence strategic cooperation. This was confirmed recently by Lara Stone, the US concerned official to a news portal which broke this news. Experts feel that the US warming up to Bangladesh now when the elections are around the corner shows that timing is crucial. It is also possible that Turkey's most recent generous overtures under President Erdogan to Bangladesh on numerous projects has alerted the US to see that Bangladesh remains within US reach and meeting its military requirements is very much on the agenda. These developments are indicators that there is never a dull moment in Bangladesh.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius.
Views expressed are personal