On Friday night, when I paid the customary last visit of the day to my Facebook account before hitting the bed, my eyes got stuck on a post from my friend and former colleague, Faruq Hasan, who presently works as political advisor to the Norwegian ambassador in Bangladesh. It read, “Attention! Gunshots heard. There is a hostage situation in the Holey Artisan Bakery, near Gulshan II. Please avoid the area.” Immediately, I checked the Facebook profile of a few more Bangladeshi friends to grasp the situation. Gradually, the news started trickling in from all quarters, and I realised that it’s another wave of terror attacks all over the world, including, Turkey, Baghdad in Iraq and the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia, just before Eid. And if that was not enough on the day of Eid, a grenade was hurled at a prayer meeting in Keshoreganj district in North Bangladesh.
Coincidentally, another friend from Dhaka, Wasfi Tamim, was visiting me on Sunday in Delhi on his way to Manali for his Eid Holidays. After the initial pleasantries, the discussion wavered to the Friday massacre, and he said, “I will not return to the same Dhaka.” That one striking comment explained the impact this massacre has had on the entire Bangladeshi society. In fact, I have also been told the same thing by my Bangladeshi friends for the last couple of months. I had the opportunity to work in Dhaka for just more than a year in 2010, and since then the social and political landscape of the country has changed drastically, and perhaps the last Friday’s massacre was just the nail in the coffin. In the last few years, the Bangladeshi courts have handed death penalties to several Jamat leaders, who were found guilty of colluding with the enemy and committing mass murders and atrocities during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle in 1971. In retaliation several fundamentalist smaller groups have mushroomed, who have threatened and carried out secret killings of many free-thinking bloggers and non-muslim religious leaders. The Bangladesh government, too, after Friday’s massacre issued a statement blaming the state fundamentalist groups to be the brains behind it, although the social media is abuzz with the fact that the perpetrators, who carried out the terror attacks belonged to ISIS (Islamic State). Now, a second video has surfaced on the internet threatening Bangladesh of more attacks. Reportedly, the three youths in the second video have been identified as a dentist, an aspiring singer and a management student.
The Bangladesh that I got to know was Islamic by faith, secular in nature and friendly to foreigners. I could instantly connect to the place. Being someone who believes in the faith of Islam, and who grew up in the cosmopolitan society of Assam, it felt home away from home. Since 2002, I have been living in Delhi, which is culturally and geographically a more alien place, so shifting to Dhaka, even though for a short while was kind of a welcome change. I remember our Hindu colleagues fasting with us during Ramzan, and the whole Bangladeshi society jubilantly celebrating the Bengali New Year, Poila Baisakh. I remember how I fell in love with the big bright red bindis on the foreheads of most Bangladeshi women. I am confident that this vibrant culture of Bangladesh would continue to prosper even in these challenging times.
My friend Faruq from Dhaka explains what are these challenging times. “Many of my friends, who live outside Dhaka, see it as a Dhaka problem. There has been a constant influx to Dhaka from the rural areas, who come looking for better livelihood prospects here. Some of them have become financially affluent over the years, but the cultural evolution that should have accompanied this transition is amiss, due to which some young blood grow up to believe that ‘my way is the only way’,” says Faruq.
Bangladesh, like any other countries of the sub-continent has a dominant socio-economic class difference, but the demons of terrorism and religious fundamentalism is targeting everybody alike. Bangladesh has witnessed armed conflicts earlier — the BDR mutiny in 2008, the series of crude bomb explosions in 300 different locations that was claimed by Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh in 2005 and the hurling of a grenade at a political party’s rally in 2004. But never had such a gruesome terror act happened where unsuspected regular boys from the neighbourhood with no criminal background were involved. “This has left every family in Bangladesh in a state of shock, they are worried about their children as well as their own safety,” says Abrar Anwar, a musician and an internet marketing professional. He further adds, “Most of these boys were friends of friends or someone’s younger cousin brother. It’s not that they came from outside, they were a part of us.” This is a global terror trend that started with the 9/11 attack — suspects, who have no criminal background and with no family history of fundamentalism. Although the Bangladesh government is busy playing its electoral politics, but the entire country has to understand that this just more than home-grown terror.
Friday’s massacre has also put the focus on the growing list of Bangladeshi youth, who have been reported missing. Infotainment portal NTV Online, shared a report that said 150-200 Bangladeshi youth who have been reported missing have been traced to the Middle East. The report was shared by Security analyst Brig Gen (retd) Sakhawat Hossain, apparently hinting at the ISIS and al-Qaeda link. Hossain, made a very pertinent quote in the story, which is exactly my point of view, he said, “‘I see that ideology is working with my children here. None came here from Syria and Iraq.”
One fallout of this tragedy could be on the foreign visits to Bangladesh. Already the English cricket team captain has expressed his reservations about the tour to Bangladesh, amid security concerns. If this happens, it would be sad for a booming economy like Bangladesh that depends majorly on imports and foreign investments, especially in the garment sector. Manpower, is one of the biggest resources of Bangladesh, a big portion of the country’s revenue, comes in the form of foreign remittance from non-resident Bangladeshis.
I always experienced a sense of warmth among the Bangladeshis; towards the foreigners. A small example would be the autorickshaw and the cycle rickshaw pullers who never tried to fleece money from my European friends. Although, to outsiders, all this may sound a bit hard to believe after reports that the perpetrators of the Friday massacre were looking to spare Bengalis and those, who could recite a verse from Quran.
I fondly remember my occasional visits with a few European journalist colleagues to the Nordic Club in Gulshan. I heard, the Holey Artisan Bakery that came up after I returned from Bangladesh, is in the same vicinity. Any bad memory is like a scratch on a glass that cannot be removed. I sincerely hope, Bangladesh, would be able to put a fresh coat of paint in everyone’s mind in the time to come, so that this scratch is as less visible as possible.
A Sarwar Borah