Bangladesh On the Brink: Sectarian Conflict and IS Await After More Murders

A leading LGBT activist in Bangladesh has been murdered in the latest in a worrying list of assassinations carried out by Islamist militants in the South Asian nation. Xulhaz Mannan was reportedly hacked to death for his social commentary in support of LGBT rights in a country where homosexuality remains illegal, with more than 90% of the population Muslim.

Xulhaz Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh's only LGBT magazine
Xulhaz Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine

Atheists, Hindus, Christians, secularists and even Shia Muslims have also been amongst a spate of victims to have fallen prey to brutal attacks during the past couple of years. The government in Dhaka, meanwhile, appears either incapable or unwilling to address this terrifying security situation, where Islamist extremists can seemingly commit murder with impunity.

The Islamic State (IS) – as is its wont these days – has claimed responsibility for this latest killing. Whilst IS involvement is certainly far from definite, the Bangladeshi government’s assertion that the terrorist group has absolutely no presence in the country is both fanciful and arrogant.

Indeed, Bangladesh is facing one of its gravest challenges since its War of Independence from Pakistan in 1971. This conflict became renowned for its indiscriminate violence, which resulted in the deaths and rapes of hundreds of thousands of civilians, displacing several million more.

Unexploded Ordnance surrounds two children during the bloody 1971 conflict
Unexploded Ordnance surrounds two children during the bloody 1971 conflict

One of the main perpetrators of what some have labelled the ‘Bangladesh Genocide’ was Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical Islamic militant group that sided with the forces of West Pakistan in trying to prevent the cession of the Bengali-majority East, the land that would subsequently become Bangladesh.

Jamaat-e-Islami retains a presence in Bangladeshi politics and social life, even if the Supreme Court declared the organisation illegal in 2013. With an aim to create an Islamic state under Sharia law, the group is a prime candidate to come under the IS umbrella and has been linked with several of the recent murders in Bangladesh. Several of its members have been indicted for war crimes committed during the 1971 atrocities, a move that prompted a murderous, rampaging reaction from the group’s supporters.

Capture
A candle light vigil demanding the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their role in the atrocities of the 1971 War of Independence

Added to the mix is Jamiatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a fundamentalist offshoot of Jamaat-e-Islami responsible for a coordinated 2005 bombing campaign, in addition to a slew of murders. Despite the arrest and execution of many of its leaders, rumours abound that the JMB is not finished. A further 15 to 20 Islamist militant groups may currently operate in Bangladesh.

As in Pakistan, there is a suspicion that Islamist views hold sway amongst large sections of the ruling elite, severely undermining the security of religious minorities and ‘non-traditional’ civil society groups. Such a scenario, if true, could lead to violent retaliations by more moderate Muslims and minority groups,adding internal conflict to an already toxic mix of economic malaise and demographic pressure.

Put simply, sectarian bloodshed seems on the cards. With IS willing to delegate its barbarous mandate to local militant groups, Bangladesh stands as a perfect candidate for the next wave of civil war in Asia.

The government has to react before it’s too late. Whether its leaders have the inclination, the political capital, or the moral capacity to rise to the challenge remains to be seen, but nobody should want to be reminded of the realities of 1971.

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India and Bangladesh Sign Enclaves Agreement: a positive resolution of an historical anomaly

India and Bangladesh have concluded an historic land deal designed to resolve the problematic enclave issue that has existed between the countries since colonial times. There are 106 Indian-majority enclaves within Bangladesh, and 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. People residing in the enclaves live a fragile existence, where they are effectively neither members of their host or home state. Most dwelling within them barely survive amidst mass poverty.

A fence along an Indian enclave
A fence along an Indian enclave

The immediate cause of this issue – like so many other problems in the region – is colonialism, with the British failing to clearly demarcate the land borders between India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) prior to their departure. Before that, it is unclear exactly why the enclaves materialised. It is thought that they may be the result of an uncertain conclusion to war between the Mughal Empire and the Kingdom of Koch Bihar. A more fanciful idea is that the pockets of territory were used as stakes in card or chess games between rival rulers.

Whatever the cause the resolution of the enclave issue is most welcome, not only for the stateless thousands living within them but also for India and Bangladesh in general, whose relations have often been strained by historical and religious differences. A Land Boundary Agreement had been drawn up between the two states as long ago as 1974, although this was scuppered by the assassination of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the following year.

A post-colonial sketch map of the enclaves
A post-colonial sketch map of the enclaves

Border issues remain a particularly problematic barrier towards greater integration in South Asia. With the region’s two biggest powers – India and Pakistan – constantly at loggerheads over Kashmir, greater focus needs to be given to how to resolve long-standing territorial disputes, many of which were precipitated by colonial rule.

The Indo-Bangladeshi agreement is a mature one and a positive sign from Indian PM Narendra Modi that, after a disappointing first year in government, he is ready to take a pragmatic leadership role in the region. The 50,000 or so people living in the enclaves should now be given the choice about which country they wish to be members off, providing them with the benefits of citizenship that have for so long been denied them.

Modi with Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Modi with Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

It is one less historical issue contaminating regional relations in South Asia; that can surely only be a good thing.