Bangladesh is slowly beginning to emerge from its rear-facing progress and is preparing itself to welcome a measure of development and prosperity. Despite having to live next door to Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal, the government of Sheik Hasina – who might not be perfect but is better than anybody else her benighted country has to offer – is proving herself amenable to change and development. The railway between India and Bangladesh is now freely open; cross-border trade and diplomacy, with the investment and economic expansion that will flow from it as part of Modi’s evolving South Asia free-trade area, will eventually transform the fortunes of former East Pakistan (West Pakistan take note). That is why Hasina is playing ball with India. But not everyone in Bangladesh is happy about it.
The problem with development and change is that it disrupts an existing system. Cybernetics and family therapy made the point decades ago that if just one element of a system, such as a member of a family, decides to alter their role or act differently it radically changes the positions and outlooks of everybody else (for example, an insecure teenage girl turns anorexic and instantly becomes the star of the family). Systems are organisms where each part is interrelated to the others and has an interest in maintaining not only its current state, but that of every other one. So change provokes resistance.
We have heard over the past few years of the murders of several ‘liberal’ or secular bloggers in Bangladesh, usually in Dhaka, who are customarily hacked to death with machetes by radical Islamists. So far, so simple: free speech must be crushed in the name of Allah the almighty, as if Mohammed never spoke up himself in favour of change or social justice. Last weekend, however, the situation escalated with the hostage-taking and murders of dozens of people, including Westerners, at the Holey Artisan Bakery, an upmarket international café in downtown Dhaka. The terrorists were self-identified ISIS adherents, and they seem to have hacked rather than shot to death most of their wretched victims. That’s a very Bangla method (continuity with blogger murders), but on a much larger and ‘international’ scale (sign of discontinuity and development).
It turns out that although ISIS is naturally crowing about the success of its ‘Dhaka cell’, the perpetrators of the café atrocity were neither formally allied to nor in contact with ISIS, and were in fact quite sui generis, acting on their own initiative and only claiming their psychopathy as part of the Daesh death cult. ISIS released photos of three of the seven terrorists (six of whom were killed when 100 commandos stormed the café), but it is most probable that the pictures were supplied to Daesh post-mortem by the local Bangladeshi Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in the interests of propaganda.
The important thing to note is that the attack is a symptom of progress in Bangladesh. Elements of the system interested in things not changing are starting to act up – which is a good indication that things are changing. Most interesting is the social composition of the terrorists, many of whom were privileged students from good schools who had not (at least until very recently) shown any previous signs of religious radicalism.
Of the attackers, Shamim Mubashir and Rohan Imtiaz both attended Scholastica, one of the best Dhaka schools, and Nibras Islam was a student at another elite establishment, Turkish Hope.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan confirmed the terrorists were ‘from rich families’ and had a ‘good educational background’ despite attempts by local Islamists to glorify them as heroic resistance fighters on the run from the authorities. Look at the idiotically grinning martyr photos (headscarves and assault rifles) and compare them with the moronic over-privileged rich-kid snaps on their (dreary, inevitable) Facebook pages. Their expressions are almost indistinguishable, prompting the thought: did these spoiled babies possess any self-awareness at all?
Is it a puzzle to detect how these pampered elements of the system warped themselves out of their cosy niches? I suggest it is not, and further suggest that it is exactly because they had enjoyed a worthless life of privilege that this atrocity occurred. It happened because they sensed they were superfluous and enjoyed an unearned status in Bangla society, and realised that things were changing. Thus, they acted to halt the change. Despite sucking up to the local sadists in the Dhaka Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, they were not in fact radicals, they were reactionaries.
Even to call them Islamists is misleading because I really don’t think they were. Instead let’s call them what deep down they – and their ‘Islamist’ friends – actually are: Naxalites.
In 1966 Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in China and in 1967 the Communist Party of India split into two factions, the original Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Chinese nutter-influenced Communist Party of India (Maoist) or CPI(M), centred on – guess where? – Calcutta. The CPI(M) came about as a direct result of the theoretical and ideological extremism unleashed in the Cultural Revolution. It appealed particularly to the over-privileged, wealthy and well-educated scions of Bengali-Bangla society in India, who, lacking experience of life but certain they knew what was best for the peasants, took to the jungles to begin destroying ‘bourgeois’ Indian society. The ‘revolution’ started around the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal.
The so-called Naxalites claimed they were interested in the redistribution of land to peasants, thus empowering the proletariat and so on. But the real point was that Indian society was finally starting to move in the direction of social progress and the danger for self-regarding communists was that the peasantry might one day become prosperous and – god forbid – bourgeois. Were that to happen, the Left would be out of a job. They decided to have a revolution instead, to keep the Comrades on top of the pile. Petit bourgeois innovation and prosperity was the reason a nervous Mao called for the Cultural Revolution in China, and it’s exactly the same situation with the Dhaka ‘Islamists’.
In India the foot-soldiers of the Naxal ‘revolution’, as well as the majority of its victims, were and still are poor people. The officer cadre, who rarely risked themselves and typically devoted their time to theory and exhortation (and of course sexual relaxation with the underlings), were the over-educated nitwits from the upper classes telling the peasants what’s best for them. Classic communist intellectuals, in other words. It was much the same situation with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka – relatively wealthy and privileged leaders (in the Tigers case even Westerners), ordering around the local coolies, often on pain of death. The rich twits always felt good about themselves, and the moral infants responsible for the Dhaka atrocity are cut from the same cloth. Islamism, like Communism, is the excuse and method needed to protest the process of change they can feel irresistibly quickening in their environment.
That is not exactly a cheerful diagnosis, but at least it points to the direction of travel, the vector of progress that will eventually see an improvement in the lives of Bangladeshis despite the best that violent reactionaries can offer.