Council for Strategic Affairs

Council for Strategic Affairs

Bangladesh- A Smoldering Cauldron of Islamist Resurgence

By Nakshatra Jagannath & Dr. A Adityanjee


Successful conclusion of democratic national elections and return of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for the fifth time has focused international attention and spotlight on the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. Western Governments including the US raised concerns that the recent elections conducted on January 7th, 2024, were not free and fair. Bangladesh was generally considered a moderate Muslim democracy in contrast to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan which is the fountainhead of Jihadi terrorism. In the recent past, Bangladesh has witnessed a systematic growth in religious fanaticism and Jihadi extremism and an upswing in anti-India sentiments. This trend has been supported by non-state actors and agencies of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

A large section of Bangladeshi population has been radicalized by the fugitive Indian Islamist hardliner Dr. Zakir Naik who is currently living in Malaysia. Zakir Naik’s Peace TV had a large following in Bangladesh before it was banned by the Bangladeshi government. The growing resurgence of fanatic elements and Jihadist groups in Bangladesh along with systematically organized mob attacks on Hindu temples, processions, and establishments is very worrisome, indeed. The fears of the religious and ethnic minority communities in Bangladesh (Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Chakma Tribals, Free Thinkers and Atheists) are not necessarily exaggerated. A famous epitome of the Islamic fanaticism is the expulsion of the internationally acclaimed author Taslima Nasrin who continues to face death threats from Bangladeshi Jihadi elements while living abroad. Several free-thinkers and secular authors have been killed in Bangladesh by Islamist terrorists. This growing Islamist sentiment and resurgence of Jihadi violence in Bangladesh and reaction in neighboring India in the form of protests and calling for international intervention has naturally led to further complications. Per several credible reports, Jihadi elements from Bangladesh have travelled to West Asia and joined the ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab and their terrorist operations. Bangladesh is certainly not immune from the global epidemic of Jihadi and Islamist terrorism. The US State Department, from time to time, has expressed concerns about the same and in 2023 did not invite Bangladesh for the White Houe summit of democracies!

 History of Islamization of Bangladesh:

After liberation from Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the liberation hero, created a secular republic in Bangladesh. After his assassination in a military coup, the military dictator General Zia-Ur-Rahman encouraged process of Islamization. General Zia was the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and served as the President of Bangladesh from 1977 till May 1981 when he himself was assassinated. His widow Khalida Zia inherited the mantle and the Chairmanship of the BNP from him. The BNP has long battled against the existing Awami League regime, led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujib. The BNP has called for the establishment of Sharia Law in conjunction and collaboration with the Islamist parties. Bangladesh, per original constitution, was established as a secular republic. Under military junta rule and subsequent democratic governments led by military strongmen and their families, the name of the country was changed to Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. Last year, before the scheduled General Elections, the BNP had announced a boycott of the 2024 elections. Even in the past, the BNP had boycotted the elections due to their reservations about the elections being unfair and partial. The BNP and its allied Islamist parties claim that elections are systematically rigged by the Awami league. Their demand for a caretaker government was rejected by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as per Bangladesh Supreme court judgement in 2012 such practice was not constitutional. The Jamaat in Bangladesh which supposedly calls for the revival of the local majoritarian Islamic society has time and again publicly undermined democracy in Bangladesh and has publicly announced that humans are unfit for sovereignty. The landmark court verdict nullifying any hopes for the Jamaat to contest elections was a nip in the bud to the larger aspirations of the Jamaat. It was a step that re-assured some if not many about democracy still retaining the top-most face value if not real value in Bangladesh. Despite sharp international reactions, the return of the Awami League with the massive majority for the fifth time under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina is certainly welcomed by India.

Bangladeshi Illegal Emigration:

Bangladesh is demographically very dense and challenged for land. Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are ubiquitous in their attempts to find better economic opportunities in other countries including India, ASEAN countries and the US. They are known to indulge in criminal activities including drug and human trafficking and collaborating with Islamist terror modules. So-called Rohingyas are essentially Bangladeshis who migrated to Myanmar and committed atrocities on Buddhists and Hindu groups in that country.  Their expulsion from Myanmar by the military Junta has been condemned by the West without understanding the root cause of the problems. Bangladeshis, like their Pakistani counterparts are no longer welcome in moderate Arab countries because of radicalization and involvement in crime. Scores of Bangladeshis have been arrested and indicted in the US Justic department for human trafficking across Mexico. There has been illegal migration flow of more than 3000 Bangladeshis in the US since 2017. This poses a national security risk to the US also because Bangladesh teems with ISIS and Al Qaeda agents.   Followers of a radical Jamaat are now out of power in Bangladesh. These homegrown jihadists who migrated to Syria are now returning from Syria with combat experience. These battle-hardened terrorists may surreptitiously infiltrate into India, US, or other countries.

Bilateral Bharat Bangladesh Relationship:

Despite moral and military assistance from India during liberation from Pakistan and subsequent diplomatic developments and strategic partnership between the two governments, the relationship between India and Bangladesh deserves a closer look. There were systematic attempts to fan the religious fire in Bangladesh during Begum Khalida Zia’s rule. Diplomatically speaking, Bharat and Bangladesh have had an excellent bilateral government-to-government relationship under Sheikh Hasina’s tenure. The partnership under the leadership of incumbent Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and Modi Governments in India respectively has blossomed despite visible fissures in the two societies. Bangladesh Government has tried to deal with the extremist elements to some extent despite seemingly hardcore sentiments in the Bangladeshi population.

However, this current bonhomie does not overshadow the fact that growing fanaticism in Bangladesh not only poses a severe threat to minorities in Bangladesh but is a major strategic threat to India. Bangladesh is one of the very few friendly neighbors of India and shares land borders with India. There has been continuous illegal infiltration into India from the porous border. Bnagladesh harbors fanatic organizations that call for a revival of majoritarian Islamist society and establishment of a religious code of law (sharia). Therefore, it serves as a perfect launchpad for extremist attacks on India. Moreover, the illegal migrants in India from Bangladesh are a serious security issue. This migrant population can be controlled but not fully checked. This is a threat that can never go off the radar for India. There are systematic schemes of Jihadist and Pro-Jihadist organizations to infiltrate India and plan unscrupulous activities causing loss of life and collateral damage on the Indian soil. The presence of thousands of radicalized illegal immigrants in India, and some of them acting as sleeper cells on the Indian soil and receiving orders from fanatic outfits across the border is a fear that cannot go off the radar. It is imperative to identify and deport these illegal migrants who pose a serious threat to the national integrity and sovereignty of India apart from the secular fabric of the Indian society. This process is not only legally cumbersome but with the easy availability of fake travel and identity documents, it becomes nearly impossible. Also, a section of illegal migrants is generally shielded by local religious and regional political power outfits to consolidate power and vote banks in an illegal manner. This antinational practice is a very real issue on Indian soil which undermines the democratic fabric of the Indian nation meticulously woven by freedom fighters over the past.

What should Bharat do:

Moreover, the growing anti-India sentiment and revival of fanatic outfits in Bangladeshi society opens an additional front on the eastern flank that Bharat needs to counter. However, the strategic response must be more vehement and cautious so as not to spoil long-standing positive ties and bilateral relations with the current regime. Bharat needs to understand that the Bangladesh problem is very different from the Pakistan problem. In Pakistan, the regimes have themselves been anti-India at the very core; and Bharat has openly countered the Pakistani government and their backing of terror outfits operating on Pakistan soil against India and Indian interests. But in Bangladesh, the current regime for quite some time, has been perceived as pro-Bharat and has made efforts towards bilateral economic cooperation and overall development in a positive light with Indian authorities. Here the problem lies with religious outfits and radicalized sections that appear to be part of civil society. These elements have turned anti-India and with the upswing of religious fanaticism have started undermining the democratic fabric of both the countries. These groups have resorted to daylight violence against minorities on their home-soil too. There were attacks on over a dozen Hindu temples in Bangladesh in early 2023. Attacks on an ISKCON temple during Durga Puja led to the unfortunate killing of innocent and devout Hindus. Presence of India’s most wanted criminals on Bangladesh soil as evident from the arrest of Ikramul Haque. The recent arrest of 5 Bangladeshi citizens in Pune, India on charges of forgery and harboring members of a banned terror group is a living testimony to two things: 1) Danger posed to Hindu minority in Bangladesh, 2) Danger posed to Bharat, and Bharatiya interests due to growing fanaticism in Bangladesh.

Moving ahead, Bharat must do the following things to counter the issue at hand: Counter the growing anti-India sentiment among Bangladeshi youth by sending warm signals of brotherhood, and friendship between the two nations, urge the Bangladeshi government to promote religious harmony, and effectively counter the growing attacks on minorities in Bangladesh and cooperate with Indian agencies in cases of illegal migrants involved in terror activities on Indian soil. Apart from this, Bharat also needs to have a robust system in place to counter the incessant flow of illegal migrants in Bharat, thereby nullifying unscrupulous plans on Indian soil. Bharat must also plan for a post-Hasina scenario in Bangladesh as with her elimination from the scene by an act of God or terrorist act will portend ominous consequences. There must be institutional arrangements safeguarding Indian interests instead of undue reliance on one political personality.

Nakshatra Jagannath
Training Fellow in Strategic Studies at the CSA. He lives in Kolkata, India.

Dr. A. Adityanjee
President of the CSA and Fellowship Training Director.
He lives in Cleveland, OH


However, To conclude, Bharat and Bangladesh share a common history and heritage which needs to be well-preserved. Before 1947, the modern state of Bangladesh was part of a united British India. The proud Bhartiya and the proud Bangladeshi society must walk hand in hand, contribute to each other’s development and live up to the dreams of nation builders Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, among many others. Interestingly the national anthems of both countries Jana Gana Mana, and Amar Sonar Bangla. were written by one person Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. Although Finland itself has been de-Finlandized, Bharat may have to resort to Finlandization of Bangladesh to eliminate the long-term strategic threats emanating from that country.