Asia's Basket Case (Page 2 of 2)

But the mutiny that supposedly ensued from these complaints appeared well-planned and executed, making it difficult to believe that it was a spontaneous outburst of pent-up feelings and suppressed grievances. The most frequently cited theory is that it was a well-calculated move to discredit the security forces of Bangladesh, particularly the army, and undermine the government of Sheikh Hasina, which came to power with  massive popular support, allegedly with the help of the army.

The principal actors behind this conspiracy are said to be extremist religious forces, which have vastly enhanced their influence and power in Bangladesh during the previous regime under Khaleda Zia, of which they were participants in. Some political analysts, especially in India, also see the hands of external forces, particularly the international network of the al-Qaeda and Taliban. The ISI, the intelligence wing of the Pakistan armed forces known for stoking Islamist forces, is also implicated.

Much like in Pakistan, a traditional ‘lite’ version of Islam is giving way to a stark and assertive Wahhabist strain in Bangladesh. As the idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state in the subcontinent comes under strain, it also weakens the nature of a Bangladeshi identity.

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But unlike Pakistan, language and not religion is the organising principle of the country. Bangladesh is an ethnically homogeneous country, with a national identity built on a shared history of violent struggle, from rising up against the British and against India to form East Pakistan to the 1971 liberation war against a West Pakistan hell-bent on imposing its Urdu language on the Bengalis.

But this history of linguistic nationalism is being threatened by growing Islamic extremism. As a poor country that can’t say no to money, Bangladesh has become an ideal place for al-Qaeda affiliates, which, like Westernised NGOs, are filling needs unmet by a weak central government. Islamist orphanages, madrasas and cyclone shelters are mushrooming throughout the country, thanks in part to donations from Saudi Arabia and Bangladeshi workers returning home from the Gulf. The site where weapons were found most recently was both an orphanage and a madrasa funded by a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin.

This extremism is increasingly being blamed for a number of attacks within India, too, co-ordinated by Bangladeshi immigrants. The most recent such attacks were in May 2008, months before the Mumbai massacre. Indian authorities claim the attacks, which took place in the northern Indian city of Jaipur and resulted in 80 deaths, were masterminded by a Bangladeshi Islamist group. There are an estimated 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh residing in India and many of them gravitate towards Islamist outfits with undisguised terrorist intentions.

A 2007 publication, Military Inc., by a Pakistani academic based in the US documented the way the Pakistani’s army’s tentacles extend into every part of the population, through its grip on the national economy and corporate life, with generals managing everything from bakeries to banks without any real accountability.

The themes are identical in Bangladesh, whose army shares a colonial history with Pakistan and who fought together for close to a century prior to Bangladeshi independence. The army has ruled the country for 15 years of its existence in between elected governments and Hasina must ensure that the army continues to back the government in the aftermath of the mutiny.

Failure to do so could shove the country further towards radicalism, fuelled by a powerful combination of poverty and imminent environmental catastrophe.

Bangladesh demonstrates how confronting developing-world misery has acquired – in the form of climate change – a powerful new raison d’être, tied to the more fundamental outcry for justice and dignity. But in the meantime, the global financial crises and resultant decline in remittance payments and garment exports – which along with foreign aid power the Bangladesh economy – will strain this dignity to breaking point.

All of which suggests there is a chance this artificial block of territory on the Indian subcontinent could morph again, amid the forces of regional politics, religious extremism and nature itself. Such a transformation could destabilise India, add weight to Islamic extremism in Pakistan and give the world another geopolitical and humanitarian headache of monumental proportions

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