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HUJI as a Political Party: Where is Political Reform in Bangladesh Headed?

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 20, 2008

    The caretaker government in Bangladesh had assumed power with the objective of bringing about a new political culture in the country. This aim had made them decide upon a crackdown against corruption and the introduction of a slew of political reforms. One such reform was the need for all parties to abide by the constitution the non-registration of religion based parties. But with Bangladesh appearing to be heading towards parliamentary elections, the military-backed caretaker government has sprung a surprise by allowing the registration of a terrorist group, Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), as a political party. This step of the Bangladesh Election Commission has raised questions about the sincerity of ongoing political reforms.

    HuJI was formed by a group of Afghan War veterans under the leadership of Sheikh Abdus Salam at a press conference on April 30, 1992. HuJI has built up a network across madrasas. It has organised arms training for students in hilly forested areas. They were also dispatched to Myanmar to fight on behalf of Rohingya militants against the Myanmarese army.

    It is also blamed for a large number of terrorist activities in India, the most recent of which have been serial blasts in various Indian cities. Seven HuJI cadres were killed by Jat Regiment troops at Bashbari in lower Assam’s Dhubri district on September 26, 2008. They were on their way to Guwahati where they were supposed to meet another HuJI module and plan and execute serial blasts in Guwahati. Though this plan has been foiled, HuJI has been successful in a similar operation in Agartala. Reports have indicated that the Agartala blasts were carried out by HuJI in collaboration with the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). ATTF cadres have been provided training in Moximghat in Chittagong by Bangladesh’s military intelligence. This was revealed during the interrogation of a recently arrested Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) leader by the West Bengal intelligence, who was himself trained in this camp.

    HuJI has been active in Agartala in the past. Tripura police records reveal that six Bangladeshi nationals with ISI links have been arrested in the state since March 2008. Subsequently, three Bangladeshi nationals were also arrested in connection with serial blasts in Agartala taking the number to nine. One arrested HuJI militant, Mamun Mian alias Mafizur Rahman, allegedly has links with Shahid Choudhury, a senior member in the Manik Sarkar Cabinet and who had to resign on April 17, 2008 because of this.

    HuJI has been in touch with Bangladesh’s caretaker government to obtain permission for contesting elections ever since the latter came to power in January 2007, and finally got the nod six months ago. HuJI leaders are now planning to register it as the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) and their goal is “to run the country as per the Charter of Medina that gives equal rights to all citizens irrespective of religion and ethnicity.” According to Kazi Azizul Huq, an adviser of this newborn political party, their aim is to introduce Shariah only for Muslims. Other religious and ethnic minorities may follow the existing law of the land and norms of their respective communities. To demonstrate this, it invited members of all communities for the Iftar party it organised in Dhaka.

    The HuJI leadership claims that the government gave them permission to register after finding nothing incriminating against them. But the fact is HuJI has been a banned terrorist outfit in Bangladesh since October 2005. The United States has declared it as a foreign terrorist organisation. The Bangladesh caretaker government is quite aware of the outfit’s activities. In early 2008, it contemplated taking help of the Indian government to question two HuJI terrorists, Anisul Mursalin and Mahibbul Muttakin, lodged in New Delhi’s Tihar jail. These terrorists hailing from Faridpur in Bangladesh have been in jail since the Indian police arrested them at the Delhi railway station on February 26, 2006 with three kilograms of RDX, two electronic detonators and two pistols. At the meeting between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) on October 10, 2008 at the Dawki-Tambil border outpost in eastern Meghalaya, BDR chief Major General Shakil Ahmed admitted that HuJI is a threat to both Bangladesh and India. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to accept that the caretaker government did not find anything incriminating against the HuJI.

    Some external players seem to have facilitated the registration of HuJI as a political party. Two prominent persons who could be involved in this are Salahuddin Soaib Chaudhary who is editor of Blitz and an American Jew named Dr. Richard L Benkin. Many people in Bangladesh suspect that they played an influential role in getting the caretaker government to accept HuJI as a political party, motivated as they are by the objective of gaining greater acceptance for Israel in Muslim countries.

    The decision of the caretaker government to allow the registration of HUJI as a political outfit has done serious damage to its effort to reform the political culture of Bangladesh. This development is bound to further strengthen Islamist forces, which have been regrouping despite some small steps taken by the present government. The Islamists have been waiting for an opportune time to increase their hold over the country’s politics. The emergence of HuJI as a political party will make their job easier. HuJI may well discard its moderate garb after gaining acceptance in the polity. It seems the caretaker government is not only unwilling to take any serious action against HuJI militants but is in fact legitimising their activities. For India, this would mean a greater threat from Islamist militants operating from the territory of Bangladesh in the days to come.