The attack by Islamic State (IS) on a Spanish restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone of Gulshan late Friday evening exposes once again the vulnerability of the state machinery in Bangladesh. This is not, of course, the first time that violence has shaken up the structure of the state. Since its liberation from Pakistan in 1971, the country has been no stranger to violence, either in its politics or social structure. But in the past decade, the uninhibited growth of Islamist fundamentalism has posed a threat that has overshadowed all previous threats to the socio-political stability of the country.
The threat has now taken on dimensions which leave Bangladesh’s ruling classes looking woefully embarrassed, especially in light of the government’s repeated denials of the presence of Islamic State or its affiliates in the country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal have for months been dismissive of reports of IS presence in Bangladesh, to a point where the former has regarded such reports as an attempt to undermine her government while the latter has infamously let it be known that all Islamist acts of violence have actually been isolated incidents.
The attack on Holey Artisan Restaurant, a café which largely catered to foreigners and affluent Bengalis in an elite residential region of Dhaka, has now given the lie to the assertions of the government. The fact that the IS has already claimed responsibility for the attack, which left 20 killed and many more injured, is vindication of the long-held feeling that Islamist elements have been making inroads in the country.
But the Sheikh Hasina government as well as the earlier one led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have been reluctant to acknowledge it. Between 2001 and 2006, when Islamist terror first began to manifest itself, Khaleda Zia’s government refused to countenance the suggestion that religious militancy was on a slow, creeping rise in Bangladesh. Today, it is the government led by Hasina, which publicly and repeatedly proclaims that there is no IS presence in Bangladesh and that all incidents of bigotry-inspired killings were the work of what the prime minister has always termed as a BNP-Jamaat clique. Not many have, of course, bought the story.
When, therefore, Islamists stormed Holey Artisan on Friday evening, it was but grim confirmation of the dangers that today threaten to undermine the Bangladesh state a good many degrees more than they have so far. In these last two years and more, as many as 49 people have been murdered by Islamist fanatics. Bloggers, writers, publishers, Hindus, Christians, two foreign citizens, and secular Muslims have died in targeted attacks by Islamists wielding guns and machetes and operating in ways that have become a pattern: Almost every attack on individuals has been carried out by three men riding a motorbike before making good their escape.
The storming of the cafe, however, is a marked change in approach. That ought not to have been surprising, though, given that in recent months outfits like IS and al Qaeda have threatened to treat Bangladesh as a base for launching terror operations against India and Pakistan. It was a threat which the government never took seriously, preferring instead to score political points against its rivals. The points predictably were never scored and instead it is the administration’s mood of denial which has in these past many months become increasingly palpable in the public eye. The attack on the restaurant has definitively exposed the hollowness of the government’s claims that it is on top of the situation.
The tragedy assumes an even more sinister shade considering that the Islamists, screaming Allahu Akbar (God is great), struck in Dhaka’s diplomatic region. The area to which the authorities have in recent months accorded utmost priority in terms of ensuring security, has now been revealed to be an easy target for the Islamists. None of the routine checks the security forces have carried out in the elite city area for months — checking cars and motorbikes and pedestrians — appear to have worked. Instead, the police and other security forces have been found to be complacent. That the Islamists were able to make their entry into the restaurant on a weekend and take not just its customers and management, but by extension an entire nation hostage, is proof, if any more proof were needed, of the large, deep holes that have been drilled into the nation’s security system. Repeated assurances by the government to foreign governments and organisations as also to citizens that life and property are safe were revealed to have been rather hollow.
But should that be surprising? Over the decades, security failures have led to the assassinations of two presidents, four political leaders in prison, military coups, and mutinies such as the one that left 74 people, including 57 army officers, dead at the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles (since rechristened as Border Guard Bangladesh).
One does not need much wisdom to understand the enormous damage that the Islamist attack on Friday has inflicted on the state and, particularly, the government. Now, after months of dogged denials of reality, Prime Minister Hasina and her administration must face the very logical and surely relevant question of why they failed to be prepared for a dark eventuality and why they consistently tried to deflect attention away from the Islamist danger and, improbably, towards the political opposition.
For its part, the opposition personified by former prime minister, Khaleda Zia, has certainly played truant where a solidification of Bangladesh’s cultural and political ethos is concerned. Its emphasis on “Bangladeshi nationalism”, which essentially is a carefully calibrated return to the infamous two-nation theory propagated by the Muslim League in the 1940s, has over time created conditions for Islamists to reorganise and reinforce their presence in an otherwise secular milieu. Begum Zia had three notorious Islamist collaborators of the 1971 Pakistan army in her cabinet. In the months leading up to the elections of January 2014, her party’s open support for such medieval Islamist outfits as the Hefazat-e-Islam was a shot in the arm for those who have always looked to Bangladesh being someday governed by Sharia law.
The Islamist attack on Friday raises fears of similar tragedy in future. Religious militancy is alive and well. Whether or not it can be rolled back depends on whether the government can turn around and assert its authority, something it has been unable to do thus far.