Many Rivers, One Sea: This book is perhaps the most powerful examination of rising Islamic militancy in Bangladesh

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Published: November 24, 2019 12:18:35 AM

Bangladesh was founded on four pillars, one of which was secularism. Under Ziaur Rahman, in 1977, the country founded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would lose faith in secularism and assert instead ‘absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah’.

File photo of people at a prayer meet, mourning for the victims of Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery terror attack (photo: Express Archives)File photo of people at a prayer meet, mourning for the victims of Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery terror attack (photo: Express Archives)

Even if Pakistan was created during Partition on the basis of religion, ultimately, Islam didn’t prove the glue to hold west and east Pakistan together. West Pakistani elite acting as the cultural and political hegemon sparked off Bengali nationalism in undivided Pakistan, which culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Indeed, Bangladesh was founded on four pillars, one of which was secularism. Under Ziaur Rahman, in 1977, the country founded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would lose faith in secularism and assert instead “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”. Bangladeshi governments — whether led by Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party which, at one point, flatly denied the existence of Islamist militancy in the country, or Sheikh Hasina whose Awami League is perceived as being secularist, to which the radicals are most averse — have flirted with Islamists, including fundamentalists, who wouldn’t shy away from announcing their militant inclinations openly in their own way.

Bangladesh, which has gained in economic confidence in the last decade or so on the back of garment exports and commerce with developed nations, has opened doors for engagement on shared goals of peace and development. Why, then, should it emerge as a nursery for Islamist extremism? Written with the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery terror attack in Dhaka as the backdrop, Joseph Allchin’s Many Rivers, One Sea is a masterful attempt at answering the question. It helps that Allchin is a journalist with an academic bent. So we get a book that reads like a feature, and yet examines complex questions in a manner no news report or feature can.

Islamist militancy/fundamentalism in Bangladesh is the sea in the book’s title, to the existence of which many reasons (rivers), historical and contemporary, global and local, popular and political, contribute. One of the reasons — and Allchin brings this in with deliberate rationale — is the Cold War USA’s midwifing the mainstreaming of fundamentalist and conservative tendencies in Islam, to the extent that these are widely, even if baselessly, conflated with Islam itself.

To fight decades of what was a proxy war between the two great politico-economic ideologies of our times, the US and the former USSR chose the unlikeliest. As a bulwark against the spread of communism in central Asia and south Asia, the US and its ally nations propped Islamist fundamentalists. The Bangladesh liberation movement happened at the height of the Cold War, and CIA papers made public show how the US intervened and to what extent it was willing to go to foil the liberation struggle that had also somehow acquired a “socialist, secular” undercurrent.

Indeed, recently, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohamed bin Salman had talked about how the west Asian Islamic kingdom, at the bidding of the West (read the US), was funding fundamentalist religious education in Bangladesh to thwart the Soviets (read communism). This geopolitical nexus of ‘patronage’ that covertly attacks popular interests has had devastating consequences. As Allchin writes, “the movements in Bangladesh that gave rise to the ISIS or Al-Qaeda had precursors that… were sponsored by political actors in or from Bangladesh, many of whom were thrown up by the Cold War, including the America-led anti-communist alliance. Indeed, the US has in Bangladesh’s short history supported dictators who have actively utilised and fostered the extremist culture… returnees from an American sponsored war in Afghanistan formed organisations like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Harkat ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI) Bangladesh, which inspired today’s generation of Islamist radicals.”

This is not lay the entire blame at the doors of the Cold-War-era America and allies — remember, as Allchin says, many rivers. Betrayals of the people’s aspirations by Bangladesh’s political class, the fact that the larger neighbourhood is also the stage for sharp ideological differences to play out, both within and between nations, and the ease with which the political class in the country has co-opted, and been co-opted by militant Islamist organisations and ideologues, are also some of the factors.

A 2004 raid in Chittagong, southern Bangladesh, revealed how deeply Islamic militancy in Bangladesh, and one of its two primary political parties, the BNP, is tied to separatist movements in northeastern India. And regional rivalries — Pakistan-India, India-China — are fertile grounds for breeding client states.

No wonder, while both Islamabad and Delhi have tried to buy influence with Dhaka or armtwist without seeming to do so, Beijing, lately, has been happy to do business with Dhaka. Indeed, while the relationship with Hasina’s Awami League has often proved to be to India’s advantage, Dhaka and Beijing have used Hasina’s uninterrupted tenure since January 2009 to build Awami League-CPC bonhomie.

To peddle influence and protect interests, India’s neighbours and rivals don’t seem averse to a waltz with Islamist militancy. Add to this continuing frictions over the Rohingya influx and illegal immigration of Bangladeshis across a porous border with India, the export of Islamist fundamentalism from the east will prove a challenge India may not have fully understood.

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