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Bangladesh at a crossroads

Bangladesh is stranded at the crossroads, as successive terror acts jolted the famous Bengali pride — a byproduct of pan-national collective sense of identity that has emerged in the predominantly Bengali-speaking areas of the Indian subcontinent’s Gangetic delta region over the course of history.
The terror attack at Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s Gulshan diplomatic enclave earlier this month and the subsequent targeting of Bangladesh’s largest Eid congregation by home-grown militants point to a larger malaise. For far too long Bengalis have been proud of their progressive cultural background, which they felt has insulated the extended community from the onslaught of radical ideologies in a volatile time.
Indeed, the Bengali class has assiduously protected its unique cultural attribute despite embracing diverse ideas through the ages. This land, laced with rich history and dynamism, produced scholars and litterateurs of international repute, who have repeatedly espoused the cause of brotherhood and harmony in a multi-cultural and multi-linguistic ambience. Today, in this period of violent lunacy that has come to hold Bangladesh in its grip, the Bengali conscience is badly bruised and battered, even as the world’s attention is primarily focused on the question of just how deeply entrenched is the influence of radical ideology in this exclusively Bengali-speaking nation’s social strain.
Like most Bengali intellectuals, Prof. Gowher Rizvi, foreign policy adviser to Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina, is perturbed too. Unable to reconcile such appalling cruelty with the liberal Bengali ethos, Rizvi kept wondering how a few happy-go-lucky teenagers could turn so brutal virtually overnight. It is not that violence is uncommon in Bangladesh because slashing or hacking with machetes and even beheading is a common phenomenon in areas inhabited by people of Bengali origin, where sizable numbers are executed in cold blood due to land-related disputes at fairly regular intervals. But the savagery displayed by educated youngsters from affluent families should pinch every Bengali heart. The very fact of Bengali youths killing innocents with the same barbarity that indoctrinated Daesh foot soldiers generally shows while dealing with hostages is a hard wake-up call for the community and the political leadership.
Let us not forget that at least 500 youngsters have gone missing from various parts of Bangladesh in the last few months. While some were exploited by the Indian strategic intelligence setup to penetrate deadly terror organizations operating globally in order to maintain plausible deniability, as a Cabinet Secretariat source confided in this writer, others have probably fallen prey to the rhetoric propagated by extremist propaganda machinery, like their counterparts in the western world, who left home to fight for the cause of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate.
Most importantly, proliferation of international terrorism in Bangladesh is expected to hit adversely the country’s economy. Ranked among the world’s poorest nations, Bangladesh’s gross domestic product has surpassed the 6-percent mark and the economy is poised for a quantum jump, says a World Bank report. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also acknowledged that the country’s economy has been consistently strong and stable since the middle of 1990s, the reason why foreign investments are pouring into Bangladesh lavishly. Besides, Japan promoted Bay of Bengal industrial growth-belt concept, which envisage making Bangladesh an important trade gateway to the rest of Asia and beyond, does provide a golden opportunity for Dhaka to strengthen its economic base further.
Being positioned at the junction of South and East Asia, Bangladesh has a fairly good chance to make full use of the geostrategic opportunities offered on a platter and derive maximum benefit from the on-going regional integration effort in South and Southeast Asia. Above all, a Pew Research Center study reveals, Bangladesh has been transformed into the most free-market and trade-oriented country in South Asia in recent years. But then, can Dhaka hold onto this significant progress as it faces a steady wave of targeted killings and extremist violence? The Gulshan restaurant massacre can potentially have a huge impact on the textiles sector.
Alarmingly, many of the victims were connected to the garment business, which accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export, and the worry is an unstable security environment could push international players to revisit their business ties with the domestic garment industry due to growing concern over employees’ safety. As fear and uncertainty keeps Bangladesh on the edge, the one question that comes up repeatedly like a teaser is “what next?” Indeed, how does a beleaguered society confront the pied pipers of terror to prevent unsuspecting youths from getting brainwashed?
Perhaps, more than anything else, Bangladesh is in need of genuine reconciliation and effective management of revenge impulse that dismisses gestures of concord. The day Dhaka can eventually move past its bloody birth, the violent streak associated with the country’s sociopolitical structure — responsible for catalyzing extremism — will automatically start dying down. Yes, excesses perpetrated during Bangladesh’s turbulent pre-independence history are reprehensible. But the psychic scars of victimhood should have been assuaged after former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s expression of remorse, for the atrocities committed by his country’s army, during a visit to Dhaka’s Liberation War Memorial.
India on her part must stop playing strategic hegemonic games, by way of stoking the embers of distrust and exploiting the vulnerability of exiled members of intelligentsia, to impede extensive radicalization.