January 24, 2012: Much to the distress of Indian leaders, on January 19th the Bangladesh army announced it had thwarted a coup attempt against the government, conceived and nearly executed by some mid-ranking officers. Five army officers, including a lieutenant colonel and two Majors have already been arrested, while a top army officer is under investigation. The attempted coup was instigated by Islamic radical military personnel, including some Bangladeshis living abroad and retired and serving officers.
Ever since the India-friendly government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came into office in December 2008, her arch-rival Begum Khaleda Zia and elements of Pakistan’s military establishment have been plotting a coup. Hasina’s overly friendly gestures to India, including cooperation in such diverse fields as security, counter-terrorism, trade, infrastructural linkages, and, above all, her diplomatic outreach to India have worried her political opponents in Bangladesh and critics in the Pakistani strategic establishment. The biggest “provocation” from Hasina, as seen from the viewpoint of her detractors, came recently when Bangladesh embarked upon the war crimes trial to punish those army officers who committed excesses during the 1971 Liberation War.
The simmering disquiet in Bangladesh is not new. Sheikh Hasina’s party Awami League has faced violent attacks from pro-Pakistan Islamic radicals ever since its formation in 1949. The party still commands the widest popular support base in the country, but less so in the armed forces, media and the business community. The last Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) rule (2001-06) was a clear demonstration of the fact that Islamic nationalism had only been used as a garb to capture power and hold on to it. Rising Islamist militancy marked by country wide synchronized bombing and the advent of suicide bombers that shook the country in 2005 was secretly supported by JEI which was part of the BNP-led alliance that ruled the country.
There are other signs of growth in Islamic radicalism. The Islamic music industry is being expanded in an effort to replace secular Bengali music and culture. Cultural wings of JEI, HUJI, and other radical groups are in the forefront of spreading music propagating Islamic terrorism and praising Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The Islamic universities and madrassas funded by Saudi Arabia are all seeking to make a more conservative and violent form of Islam popular in Bangladesh. – Rajeev Sharma