Dialogue  October-December, 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

Whither Heading Bangladesh? The tale of an emerging Islamic monolith.


Bibhuti Bhusan Nandy*        



A flat and low lying country, Bangladesh occupies 140000 square kilometers in the Indian subcontinent. With 144 million inhabitants, its population (2005) density at 1000 per square kilometers is currently the highest in the world and is estimated to reach 1100 by 2020.

     The country has the fourth largest Muslim population. At the time of Partition in 1947 Hindus comprised 30 percent of its total population, but owing to sustained migration of non-Muslims to India in the face of persecution by the Muslims non-Muslims have been reduced to barely 9 percent. Besides the Hindus and the Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Chakmas, Tripuris, Garos, Hajongs and Santhals have contributed to the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.


Demographic Invasion


    At the current rate of population growth – nearly 2 per cent per annum – every decade adds 40 to 50 million people. Clearly, Bangladesh is in the throes of a demographic disaster and environmental degradation of Malthusian proportions. Providing this fast growing population accommodation, employment and reasonable levels of health, education and sanitation is a daunting task for any government. Unsurprisingly, the surplus population has been spilling over to India in search of employment and succour. No authentic census of the milling immigrants has been conducted yet in India, but in the last three decades no fewer than 20 million economic migrants from Bangladesh, mostly Muslims, have settled down in our border states, notably in the frontline states Assam and West Bengal. This has changed the communal balance in our border districts and created a whole range of enormously complex socio-economic and socio-political problems that pose a serious threat to national security and territorial integrity of this country.

      The ruling parties in Assam and West Bengal have been encouraging immigration from Bangladesh in pursuance of their cynical policy to augment their respective vote bank balance. For its part, Dhaka views the sparsely populated north-east region of India as a lebensraum for off-loading its excess population. In the mid-Nineties, some Bangladeshi intellectuals, a section of the country’s media and at least one cabinet minister in the BNP government of Begum Khaleda Zia openly campaigned for such living space.

     The fact that Bangladesh-sponsored low-intensity tribal proxy war in India has unleashed chaos and instability in our vulnerable north-east region must not be viewed in isolation from the ongoing unmitigated demographic invasion occurring from across the border. These phenomena and the plan of the Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist groups of Bangladesh to curve out a transnational Islamic state spread over the compact zone comprising Bangladesh, Assam, Tripura, Muslim-majority districts of West Bengal and the Arakan Hills of Burma attest to insidious expansionism of our eastern neighbour. Pakistan is actively fomenting this conspiracy and China may not be unwilling to chip for clipping India’s wings. Keeping all this in mind Dhaka’s blunt refusal to admit, much less address, the immigration problem, may one day lead to an Indo-Bangla military confrontation in a time scale of, say, a quarter century.




    Except for developing a few agro-based industries the scope for industrialization in the country is woefully limited. Natural gas is the only resource the country has in relative abundance, but its optimal use and exploitation is hindered by inter-party political wrangling and the inability and unwillingness to harness it for economic growth. Agriculture is the mainstay of the country’s economy, but natural calamities like flood and drought destroy standing crops and destitute millions every year.

      The per capita income of Bangladesh has shot up to $ 599 last fiscal year (July 2007-June 2008) mainly due to remittances from its citizens working abroad. The latest economic indicators released by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics show a fall in growth by one to three percentage points in agriculture, manufacturing, construction and service sectors. The growth in agriculture and forestry was 3.47 percent in 2007-2008 down from 4.69 per cent the year before. The manufacturing sector marked growth 7.42 per cent from the previous year’s 9.72 percent. In the construction sector also growth dropped by 1.08 percent to 5.93 per cent.

     In the Eighties, almost 100% of the Bangladesh budget depended on foreign aids prompting Kissinger to make his oft-quoted remark that it was a “bottom-less basket”. As the economy stabilized, the situation has become less precarious. In recent years it has established some industries like Readymade Garments and Pharmaceutical Industry. Bangladesh today is one of the major exporters of clothes in the world and has achieved significant development in rural areas through the grameen bank movement led by Mohammed Yunus. But nearly 40 percent of the country’s budgetary resources still comes from donor countries, which make it vulnerable to foreign pressures. 

       Bangladesh has a system of governance that is “apathetic, secretive and unaccountable”. Transparency International has identified Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in consecutive three years. No wonder then, that development and aid do not reach the needy and human security is nearly non-existent in the country. 70 percent of the people subsist on less than $2 per day; such is the lot of a typical Bangladeshi family. This economic reality is perfect for the growth of radical Islam, which offers answers and spiritual rewards that a conviction in periodical voting does not and cannot match. In such a situation, to many international observers the surprise is not how radical Bangladesh has become, but how moderate it has still remained.


Legacy of communalism


      Despite a rich tradition of Sufism, the advent of radical political Islam in Bangladesh has a long history. In the 1930s and 1940s an aggressive movement by the majority Muslim community spearheaded by the Muslim League focused on Jinnah’s two-nation theory led to the Partition of India and creation of Pakistan as a separate homeland for the sub-continental Muslims. This has caused a lasting chasm between the Muslims and the Hindus of Bangladesh.

    The British and Pakistan-era legacy of communal disharmony has dogged the security of life and property of the non-Muslims in Bangladesh through the decades since the country’s liberation in 1971. Despite paying lip service to the ideals of secular, social democracy, the left-of-centre political parties like the Awami League and various communist factions have done nothing worthwhile to resist the march of militant Islam in the country. In the prevailing situation, religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh have two stark choices before them: Migrate to India and lead a sub-human existence or en mass embrace Islam to live in peace in their native land.


Bengali Nationalism


   Unlike Pakistan or Iraq, Bangladesh is largely a racially and linguistically homogeneous country though Islam is not the sole unifying factor that holds together disparate religious and ethnic groups. National identity has been built in this country on a shared history of struggles. In 1947, Muslim Bengalis rose up against the British rulers and “Hindu India” to form East Pakistan, but, paradoxically enough, the 1971 liberation war was fought against Muslim West Pakistan. By 1971, language had replaced religion as the society’s organising principle and powerful instrument for nation-building in Bangladesh.

     Beginning with the student uprising against imposition of Urdu by the federal government as the lingua franca of Pakistan, the movement for giving Bengali an equal status with Urdu soon snowballed into a struggle for political autonomy and economic emancipation, as well as greater representation of the Bengalis in federal services of Pakistan and the armed forces of the country.

    The strong-arm tactics followed by the military regime of General Ayoob Khan and General Yahya Khan further alienated the Bengalis from Pakistan, which soon reached a point of no return. A nine-month-long civil war that ensued dismembered Pakistan, liberating Bangladesh from the stranglehold of the Islamic theocracy.

     The nationalism that led to the liberation of Bangladesh was rooted in its language and culture, which provided the Bengalis with an identity distinct and separate of their own. Eventually, other factors also rolled into the process of nation-building, but on the whole Bengali identity was an antithesis to the Muslim nationalism that had created Pakistan. In both the cases the underlying objective was economic emancipation. In the case of the movement for creation of Pakistan political mobilization was based on the use of Islam. By the time the Bangladesh movement was launched, Islam’s appeal had lost much of its weight because by then in the perception of the Bengalis Islamic Pakistan stood for betrayal and exploitation. In both cases, however, the catalysts were the elites. During the Bangladesh liberation struggle the elite interests were articulated in such a way as to induce the Muslim and Hindu masses alike into the mainstream anti-Pakistan nationalist upsurge. The main tenor of this nationalist movement was marked by a secular dialogue underpinning the fledgling unity of the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist communities during the tumultuous days between 25 March and 16 December 1971. The task of mass mobilisation cutting across caste and creed was rendered easy by the Pakistani military crackdown.


Weak secular ethos


   Despite espousal of secularism during the Bangladesh liberation movement, as a political ideology its hard-core support was limited only to a small section of the country’s elite. The prolonged movement for the creation of Pakistan accompanied by frequent communal riots in East Bengal before and after the Partition constructed a radical Muslim mindset that has militated against the growth of a truly secular ethos and political culture. Consequently, the true spirit and essence of democracy has remained an illusion for the minorities in Bangladesh. In the name of majoritarian rule minorities have been marginalized politically, economically as well as culturally. The country’s constitution extends guarantee for the majority, the Bangla Muslims, but does not reflect any comparable concern for the protection of the country’s cultural and ethnic minorities. Religion has been used as a tool by the political parties and politicians of all hues in Bangladesh to consolidate their power base.


Post-Mujib Radical Islam


     The assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman in a military putsch in the small hours of 15 August 1975 marked the end of a whole era of hopes and aspirations surrounding the prospects of ushering in genuine social democracy in the country in conditions of extreme backwardness and underdevelopment. As Lawrence Lifschultz, author of the book Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, has observed, with that event and the killing of four other senior national leaders in the Dhaka Central Jail three months later “the regression to military and bureaucratic dictatorship reasserted itself like an old depressing cancer”. The arrival of mass politics and mass politicization in the 1960s had swept the Pakistani military dictatorship to the barracks, but in the post-Mujib era it returned with vengeance to Bangladesh. In the intervening decades it spun around the Bangladesh society and, although election under military hegemony is the order of the generals, there is no illusion of a popular ‘new democracy’ returning to the country under existing conditions in the foreseeable future. The long night of ‘Martial Democracy’ is all set to continue in the country unless and until the history of what has happened in the past thirty-three years finally breaks out of obscurity into the open.

   Though the liberation war in Bangladesh was fought on the slogan of secularism and inter-religion unity, in reality the secular base of the Bangladesh society has remained, weak and precariously fragile. This was evident from the fact that even at the height of anti-Pakistan upsurge during the 1970 general election the communal and fundamentalist Islamic parties in East Pakistan together secured 17 percent of the total votes, though they could not win even a single seat in the National Assembly.

   The liberation of Bangladesh was widely hailed in India as repudiation of the two-nation theory. Its immediate fallout in this country was a respite for some time from the secessionist insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast. But Indira Gandhi’s decision to return the 93,000 captive Pakistani soldiers without insisting on any quid pro quo was a Himalayan  blunder which yielded enough leeway to Pakistan to hit back India not in any frontal military confrontation, but through a low-intensity state-sponsored proxy war. And into that unconventional, guerrilla war it has co-opted Bangladesh on its side.

    More importantly, Mujib’s decision to grant amnesty to war criminals - the Jamaat, Rajakars, Al Badr Al Shams et al - who had collaborated with the marauding Pakistani army in its campaign of murder, rape and pillage against the Bengalis in 1971 signalled that the new state was soft towards the anti-liberation forces because they were Muslim. Repatriation of Bengali military officers from West Pakistan and their integration in influential positions within the Bangladesh military structure enormously boosted the morale and spirit of the pro-Pakistan, anti-liberation forces in the country.


Islamisation of polity – Zia & Ershad


      On taking over the rein of government as the Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Ziaur Rahman de-secularized the country’s constitution, legitimized the banned communal and fundamentalist political parties and built upbeat relationship with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world. In his anxiety to distance Bangladesh from India he evolved and popularized Bangladeshi nationalism in place of Bengali nationalism emphasizing its Islamic content. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) formed by Zia comprised leading cadres of the Muslim League and other pro-Islam parties as a foil to the Awami League and other left-of-centre secular political groups.

     The Islamisation of the country was significantly carried forward when in 1988 General Ershad declared Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh giving radical Islam under the leadership of the Pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami and other fundamentalist groups.

      The close ties between Bangladesh and the Muslim countries of West Asia promoted Ziaur Rhaman have greatly strengthened the Islamists and the process of Islamisation of the new polity. Liberal flow of petrodollar from West Asia resulted in the mushrooming of mosques and madrassas in every nook and corner of the country.

     The Islamic seminaries and the mosques spread fundamentalism of the Quran and Sunna. In the Eighties, no fewer than 5000 Bangldeshi mujahideens drawn from the madrassa alumni joined the jihad against the Soviet occupation army in Afghanistan. These soldiers of Islam received ideological and guerrilla warfare training from the Al Qaeda and Taliban and joined the jihad in Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechnya.

      The success of the Islamic holy war in Afghanistan under the aegis of the CIA and the ISI motivated the Jamaat and other Islamist groups to mobilise muslim masses towards Talibanising Bangladesh between 1992 and 1996. The 1992 post-Babri Hindu cleansing and the post-election genocidal attacks on the Hindus were perpetrated jointly by the BNP-Jamaat-HuJI cadres with the BNP government turning a blind eye to the unprecedented pogroms.


Islamic terrorism


      In this backdrop, in 1992 a few prominent Bangladeshi mujahideens led by Fazlur Rahman Khalil founded, on the advice and with the financial support of al Qaeda supreme bin Laden a terrorist outfit called Bangladesh Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam with the declared objective to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state.

     In the post 9/11 era, there emerged in Bangladesh a crop of other Islamist terrorist groups linked to international terrorist outfits like al Qaeda and the Taliban. The HuJI, Sahadat al Hikma, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JMU) and the Jagrata Muslim Bangla (JMB) of Banglabhai co-ordinated and networked with their Pakistani counterparts like Laskar-e-Toiba, Jaishe-e-Mohammed and Hijb-ul-Mujahideen in carrying out terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir and other Indian states in collaboration with Indian Students Islamic Movement of India  (SIMI) and Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assom (MULTA) under the guidance and with the logistic support from the ISI and Bangladesh Directorate General of  Forces Intelligence (DGFI) acting in tandem in the anti-India enterprise.

    In 2001 the centre right BNP returned to power heading a four-party alliance. With the arch fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami joining the government of Begum Khaleda Zia, fledgling Islamic terrorist groups secured government protection and patronage. The cadres of the terror outfits were mostly drawn from the alumni of the Jamaat-controlled madrassas and the clerics of the Jamaat-affiliated mosques. Between 2004 and 2006 HuJI, JMU and JMB carried out frequent bomb attacks on secular political leaders, academics, judges and journalists. The JMB went on a killing spree in Rajsahi division targeting the Awami Leaguers, Hindu leaders and left extremist cadres in collusion with the local administration and BNP leaders. The devastating grenade attack on the Awami League rally in August 2004 killed 24 people and seriously injured many others including Sheikh Hasina. In August 2005 JMU exploded 500 bombs simultaneously at many prominent places in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Instead of the BNP-Jamaat government effectively containing terror wave, Prime Minister Begum Zia accused the media of “information terrorism”. It was only after the US and western donor countries warned cutting off aid, that the Bangladesh administration got down to business and swiftly arrested and incarcerated a large number of Islamic terrorist cadres and executed four terrorist top guns. During the current military rule under a civilian façade since January 2007 terrorist outfits are lying low inside Bangladesh, but from all indications they are busy carrying out sensational operations in India.


Emerging Islamic monolith


    Bangladesh has been for long called a “failed” or “dysfunctional” state. In a recent article (Christian Science Monitor July 8, 2008) Selig Harrison has regretted that while al Qaeda and Taliban have been playing havoc in Pakistan, “al Qaeda affiliate HuJI has quietly built terrorist bases in the jungles of Bangladesh under the protective aegis of the latest military regime in Dhaka.” The Bush administration privately accepts mounting evidence that Bangladesh HuJI has spearheaded a series of devastating attacks in India. But the US has conspicuously failed to press Bangladesh military ruler General Moinuddin Ahmed for a crackdown on Harkat and removal of highly placed military intelligence officials with Islamist ties.

     Unless a long-term view is taken of the impending challenges of religious intolerance, political instability and endemic poverty there is every possibility of Bangladesh morphing into a monolithic Islamic non-state in the next two to three decades. In that eventuality, as its immediate neighbour, India cannot avoid being pushed to the brink of a catastrophe as well.




1. Robert D. Kaplan, Waterland, The Atlantic Magazine, January-February 2008.


2. The World Bank, Bangladesh 2020: A Long-run Perspective Study.


3. Lawrence Lifschultz, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, Zed Press, London.


4.Selig Harrison, Terrorists in Bangladesh?, Christian Science Monitor 8 July 2008.



Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati