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How deep is the economic reach of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh

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Bangladesh

By Amitava Mukherjee

Bangladesh is now at the crossroads. The war crimes tribunals, set up to punish those who had committed crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, have already sent to gallows three leading lights of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) — Abdul Quader Mollah, Mohammed Qamruzzaman and Ali Ahsan Mujahid — while death penalties have been awarded to Motiur Rahman Nizami, the chief of the JeI in Bangladesh. However, the Jamaat’s enormous financial clout has created a dangerous situation for the Awami League-led government.

While the election commission barred the Jamaat from the polls on Bangladesh Supreme Court orders in 2013, several front-ranking Awami League leaders are now demanding its outright ban. But Jamaat has so much financial clout that any attempt to uproot it altogether at this moment may lead to social unrest.

According to Abul Barkat, a professor of economics at the Dhaka University, the Jamaat-e-Islami has created a ‘state within a state’ and an ‘economy within an economy’ in Bangladesh. Barkat’s study paints a frightening picture. The JeI is now almost everywhere in Bangladeshi society like large financial institutions, household-level micro-credit organizations, madrasas, mass media, information technology, big trading houses, and non governmental organizations.

Barkat has calculated that Jamaat’s net annual profits from such ventures amounts to about $278 million and the largest chunk – 27.5 percent – of this comes from banks, insurances, and leasing companies. The NGOs contribute 18.7 percent, 10.5 percent comes from trade and commerce, 10.1 percent from pharmaceutical industries and healthcare institutions, 9.4 percent from the education sector, 8.8 percent from real estate business, 7.3 percent from transport, and 7.7 percent from the media and information technology business.

Bangladesh Culture Minister Asaduzzaman Nur has recently alluded to Islamic fundamentalists’ involvement behind a collection of huge funds from mosques and Bangladeshi establishments in London. But the fundamentalists perhaps do not need such collections as nearly 10 percent of Jamaat’s annual profit in Bangladesh goes towards funding the party’s political activities. It has also been calculated that this 10 percent can sustain nearly 600,000 cadres. As the Jamaat controlled economy is showing a higher growth rate – 9 percent per annum – than the mainstream’s growth figure of 6 percent, the fundamentalist bloc can remain assured of a continuous flow of money.

Abul Barkat has calculated that from 1975 to 2012, the Jamaat has earned a profit of $11 billion.

Jamaat’s principal financial arm in the country is the Islami Bank of Bangladesh Ltd. (IBBL), an organization which was once penalized for money laundering by the Bank of Bangladesh, the country’s apex regulatory institution for the financial sector.

Mir Quasem Ali, a Jamaat central executive committee member now awarded the death sentence, was once the IBBL director. The beneficiary of IBBL’s alleged illegal acts was no doubt the Jamaat-e-Islami. It is interesting to note that the IBBL was founded in 1975 at the initiative of Fuad Abdullah Al Khatib, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Bangladesh.

The JeI’s penetration into the political economy of Bangladesh is astounding. Apart from the IBBL, Jamaat is in control of 14 other banks which are working mostly in the country’s rural sector. In addition, the IBBL is now widely linked with other powerful financial institutions of the Islamic world. Notable among them is the Al Razee Bank of Saudi Arabia.

The IBBL has now become one of the three largest banks in South Asia, with 60 percent of its shares held by Saudi individuals and institutions. Among the rest Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have prominence. Moreover, Jamaat has its presence in the insurance sector also and has entered into a collaboration agreement with the Far Eastern Islamic Insurance Corporation.

If information from across the border is to be believed, the Jamaat has already started taking steps to safeguard its financial interests in the event of a crackdown by the Bangladesh government and line-up the next generation of leaders if Matiur Rahaman Nizami and Mir Quasem Ali are really hung. For over 40 years, Mir Quasem was Saudi Arabia’s ‘money man’ in Bangladesh and it is quite probable that pressures will be mounted by the Islamic world of West Asia and the Middle East to stop his execution. He had taken refuge in Saudi Arabia after the birth of Bangladesh. After coming back in 1974 he immediately got a job in the IBBL and soon became its director.

Mir Quasem Ali is a crucial man in the Jamaat chain of commands that extends up to the Middle East and West Asia. He happened to be the chief of the Islamic Bank Foundation (IBF) too, an affiliate of the IBBL. The IBF acts as the custodian of Jamaat’s money accruing from various projects and foreign donations. Mir Quasem was also the country director of a Saudi Arabia-based NGO named Rabeta-al-alam-al-Islami. Rabeta, along with other NGOs like the Kuwait Relief Fund and the Al-Nahiyan Trust of Saudi Arabia, used to run many projects in Bangladesh.

Economics professor Abul Barkat has calculated that the Islamic fundamentalism controlled economy in Bangladesh amounts to 8.62 percent of the nation’s developmental budget and 1.54 percent of the national exports earning.

In such a situation, the JeI-led Islamic fundamentalist bloc is a reality in Bangladesh and mere hangings of some Jamaat bigwigs may not be enough to wipe it out. (IANS)

(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator)

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India’s Ties with Bangladesh at their Peak

In a caustic comment it said that while details of the lavish meals prepared for the Bangladeshi leader were enthusiastically reported

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India, Bangladesh, Prime Minister
A Bangaldeshi media report claimed that there was little information available in the public domain about the agreements. Pixabay

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned to Dhaka from a successful four-day visit to India last week having concluded seven agreements. But the agreements have caused unease among many in Bangladesh. Critics have panned the agreements as mainly advantageous to India and of little benefit to Bangladesh. Other commentators have called on the government to publish full details of the agreements.

India and Bangladesh signed seven agreements and MOUs on October 5, 2019 and a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) agreement for transportation of goods. The agreements include a pact for supply of LNG as well as water from Feni River to India, and for transportation of Indian goods through Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh to Tripura.

A Bangaldeshi media report claimed that there was little information available in the public domain about the agreements. In a caustic comment it said that while details of the lavish meals prepared for the Bangladeshi leader were enthusiastically reported on by the Bangladeshi media, there was no information on the nature of the agreements.

The agreements to provide connectivity were described as regional connectivity, but one critic termed them bilateral connectivity as they served Indian interests and had scant benefit for Bangladesh. “India certainly stands to benefit, but Bangladesh is yet to make a tangible assessment of its gains,” it said.

India, Bangladesh, Prime Minister
India and Bangladesh signed seven agreements and MOUs on October 5, 2019 and a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) agreement for transportation of goods. Pixabay

India’s smaller South Asian neighbours have often perceived New Delhi as exploitative for using its clout to negotiate one-sided agreements advantageous to India while ignoring its neighbours’ interests.

Sheikh Hasina defended her government’s decision to supply 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni river to India for drinking water purposes as a very small amount of water.

“If someone asks for drinking water, how can we deny it?” she said.

Regarding the agreement to supply of LPG, she added that it was not CNG that Bangladesh would be selling to India, but LPG, which was a byproduct in the refining of oil. In 2001, the possibility of selling natural gas to India had become a major controversy in Bangladesh with Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party objecting to the sale of a scarce resource.

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The agreement to supply Feni river water has rankled as there has been no movement on finding a resolution on the sharing of Teesta River waters. The criticism acquired a serious turn with the murder of a second year student of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology by fellow students for criticizing Sheikh Hasina and the agreements in a Facebook post. The students were allegedly members of the Chhatra League, the youth wing of the ruling Awami League party.

India’s ties with Bangladesh are at their peak, among the best of India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours. But the criticism of the agreements with India is evoking memories old irritations and suspicions.

There are several pending issues between India and Bangladesh such as the huge trade deficit and sharing of Teesta river waters. Dhaka has been remarkably patient over New Delhi’s problems in agreeing to a resolution on sharing of the river waters.

Sheikh Hasina’s government has accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance that he would work towards a satisfaction resolution to the ticklish issue. The main impediment on the Teesta issue is the stance of the Mamata Bannerjee-led West Bengal government.

India, Bangladesh, Prime Minister
The agreements include a pact for supply of LNG as well as water from Feni River to India, and for transportation of Indian goods through Chittagong and Mongla ports. Pixabay

The National Register of Citizens exercise in Assam with identification of illegal migrants has raised grave concern in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina has accepted for now the Indian stance that it is an internal matter of India. But comments by Indian leaders about pushing out the foreigners have their ripples in Bangladesh which facile assurances do not alleviate.

Building trust between the two neighbours has been a slow and steady process that involved wiping away the mistrust and suspicion that that had plagued relations for long. The resolution of the sharing of the Ganga waters removed a major irritant in the ties.

Sometime later, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s assurance that Bangladesh territory would not be used for anti-India activities and its effective implementation became the first major step in building the trust. The resolution of the Land Boundary Agreement for demarcating the border was the second positive factor in generating trust and confidence. It created the environment for closer cooperation between the two countries. Both Dhaka and New Delhi have used the friendly environment to construct a cooperative relationship.

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New Delhi can easily lose that goodwill if the sentiment that India is uncaring and lackadaisical about issues of interest to Bangladesh begins to gain ground in Dhaka. New Delhi needs to be more sensitive to Dhaka’s concerns. It should speed up tackling the long pending issues before they build up into a major grievance in Bangladesh, which could make it difficult to implement already concluded agreements. (IANS)