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EFSAS Commentary

Bangladeshi opposition forces are weaponizing the radical Hefazat-e-Islam to overthrow the Sheikh Hasina government


In what can be termed as a development laden with dangerous implications for peace and stability in Bangladesh, which in turn will impact the entire region and especially India, recent reports emanating out of Dhaka have revealed that the violence unleashed by the Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh (HIB) across the country in March this year was aimed not only at embarrassing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during a visit of her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to her country, but also at eventually overthrowing her government. While it had been observed in the EFSAS Commentary of 09-04-2021 that the purpose of the March violence was to announce the arrival of the HIB as a new political force, what was not known at that time was the critical role that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) had played in instigating and fanning the bloodshed and destruction. The major behind-the-scenes role of the Pakistani agency the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has been known to be the patron and the benefactor of the BNP and the JeI as well as the guiding force behind the terror-friendly regime that these two parties oversaw in coalition between 2001 and 2006, has also come to the fore in recent times.

In an expose titled ‘Autopsy of Hefazat sabotage’ on 4 August, the Bangla language daily Bangladesh Pratidin revealed that “The sabotage by Hefazat-e-Islam was pre-planned to take place around the golden jubilee of independence. The plot was hatched a month before the incident. The plan was made in coordination with the BNP and the JeI, and their goal was to overthrow the government”. Elaborating on the credibility of the basis of the daily’s information, which consisted almost entirely of statements made in courts of law by influential HIB leaders and the findings of police investigations, the report added, “The police investigation into the violent insurrection and the court statements of the arrested top leaders of the Hefazat-e-Islam provide shocking information. After the death of HIB Amir Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi last year, the new top leaders of the Islamic outfit began contacting the BNP, JeI and other like-minded Islamist parties. An in-principle agreement to launch a robust anti-government movement centered on violent protests was reached”.

The report underlined that “The statements of the arrested Hefazat-e-Islam leaders in court also revealed various details of the sabotage plan. Maulana Nasir Uddin Munir, former joint secretary general of Hefazat-e-Islam, mentioned in his confessional statement given in the court that a secret meeting was held in Dhaka on March 7 to block the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence. The meeting was attended by several leaders from Dhaka and Chittagong, including those who maintained contact with the BNP, Jamaat and like-minded Islamist parties. The meeting outlined the March 26 movement. On March 24, the top leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam met again in Dhaka. It was decided at that meeting that if the government obstructed the March 26 movement, it would be transformed into a movement to overthrow the government. Azizul Haque Islamabadi, former organizing secretary of Hifazat-e-Islam, told the court that his directive to the leaders and workers of Hefazat-e-Islam was to work in coordination with the leaders of various Islamist parties, BNP and Jamaat. On March 8, the top leaders of BNP and Jamaat were contacted. Meetings were held with them more than once. After a meeting with BNP-Jamaat leaders on March 24, government installations across the country were set on fire and vandalized on March 26”.

Enamul Haque Farooqi, the personal assistant of HIB Amir Junaid Babunagari, confirmed in court that the objective of the top leadership of the outfit was to overthrow the government and that BNP and JeI leaders had been in contact with them for this purpose. Farooqi also highlighted the HIB’s use of social media to engineer the riots of 26 March.  Zakaria Noman Fayezi, a publicity secretary for Hifazat-e-Islam, elaborated before the court that “the central leaders of Hifazat-e-Islam had a Facebook ID, which was managed by multiple leaders and personal aides to the Amir of Hifazat-e-Islam. Rumors before and after March 26 were spread from that ID. If the rumors about the death of several students had not been spread from that ID, the incidents of sabotage across the country could have been avoided”. Several other HIB leaders made similar disclosures in their statements in court.

These were not the first reports of the top leadership of the BNP and the JeI, a large number of whom have fled abroad to escape prosecution in Bangladesh on charges as serious as crimes against humanity, murder and massive embezzlement, seeking to regain relevance by using the HIB’s popularity within sections of the Bangladeshi population. The former Amir of HIB Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi was considered a moderate leader who shared cordial relations with Sheikh Hasina from which both benefitted. His death and the appointment of the radical Babunagari, however, opened the doors for the BNP and JeI. The Dhaka Tribune reported in June that the Detective Branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) had revealed that the former finance secretary of HIB, Monir Hossain Qashemi, had met a representative of the BNP’s acting chairman Tarique Rahman in Thailand last year to work out the modalities for funding a bid to topple the Awami League (AL) government. Qashemi told investigators that he went to Thailand on behalf of HIB leader Nur Hossain Kasemi and a top BNP leader to meet with Tarique’s representative. He added, “I had a discussion with the representative on removing the government, and he offered me a large sum of money to fund activities that would help achieve this objective”.

A Hadith scholar who studied in Pakistan’s Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia for four years, Babunagari has reportedly been in constant touch with the Pakistani mission in Dhaka. Since the JeI was de-registered as a political party by the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 2013, Pakistan has been trying to use HIB to dethrone the AL government. Recent media reports in Bangladesh have suggested that the Bangladeshi government was seriously looking into the role played by Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka in supporting and funding the violence and destruction of 26 March. Several members of the Bangladeshi parliament have, in separate tweets, also alleged strong links between the HIB and the Pakistan High Commission and the ISI, and the direct involvement of Pakistan in the unfortunate events of 26 March.

One does not need to look too far back into the past to comprehend the reason why Pakistan is desperate to get rid of Sheikh Hasina and install the BNP – JeI combine back in power. In the years that the two parties were in power, Pakistan had unfettered occasion to introduce its extremist vision into Bangladeshi society. As Roland Jacquard wrote in an opinion piece in Global Watch Analysis, “From 2001 to 2008, two jihadi groups, Jamaat-ul-Mujhideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-lslami (HUJI) had a free run in Bangladesh. Religious minorities and political opponents, including then opposition party leader and current Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina were targeted”. He added that former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of the BNP had for a very long time denied that these groups even existed. It was only an outcry in the local and international media and threats of economic sanctions by the US State Department that caused her to grudgingly acknowledge. Such an atmosphere played straight into the hands of the ISI, which not only set up a complex and expansive terror structure in Bangladesh from where it could target India extensively, but also enabled it to propagate an extremist, radical ideology within Bangladesh.

When Sheikh Hasina came into power in 2008, religious radicalism was at its peak in Bangladesh. As mandated in her party’s principles for upholding democracy and secularism, the Hasina government enacted the country's first anti-terrorism law in 2009. Such legislation and robust ground-level action by law enforcement agencies have seen the Hasina government maintain a strict check over Islamic radicalism and terrorism in the country for the last 13 years. That, in turn, has yielded a period characterized largely by peace, stability, economic development and progress.

The BNP – JeI exertions to rope in and weaponize the HIB is aimed at shattering this version of Bangladesh, and at fulfilling a dream that is more Pakistani than it is Bangladeshi.