Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Bangladesh could pay for failing to crack down on its Islamist threat

Police march towards activists from Hefazat-e Islam in Dhaka (Getty images)

Bangladesh turned 50 last week and the country has much to celebrate. Having inherited a dismal GDP growth rate of -14 at its birth in 1971, Bangladesh’s most recent figures for the growth in the size of its economy (7.8 per cent) edged out India (6.1 per cent), and comfortably outdid Pakistan (5.8 per cent). Bangladesh overtook India in per capita income last year. And of the 14 World Development Indicators measured by the World Bank – including fertility rate and life expectancy – Bangladesh is faring better than Pakistan in all but one (air pollution), and outranking India in seven. The country’s life expectancy average of 72.3 is ahead of the two South Asian nuclear powers; and poverty rates have also tumbled dramatically since the country’s inception.

These are remarkable statistics for a country born out of colossal suffering. But the government’s refusal to crack down on an Islamist threat could mean that trouble lies ahead.

Bangladesh is certainly no stranger to violence. Created after 24 years of political, economic, linguistic, and ethnic marginalisation, the newly-born state endured some of the goriest post World War II violence. Three million were killed during a genocide in which over 200,000 women were raped at the hands of the Pakistan Army and mercenaries. Some ten million people fled.

The truth is that for all Bangladesh’s success, its rulers risk playing with fire in their refusal to stamp down on Islamists

In the years since, and against the odds, Bangladesh has prospered. And while Pakistan has remained fixated with India, Bangladesh hasn’t manifested similar obsession vis-à-vis Pakistan, despite having borne unspeakable atrocities. A profound ethos, however, centres around the gory events of 1971, as commemorated by the annual Bangladesh Genocide Memorial Day on 25 March. And in the remembrance of Bangladesh’s liberation, amid gruesome crimes against humanity, lies lessons to consolidate the remarkable gains of the past 50 years.

The 1,400 miles separating the eastern and western wings of the united Pakistan notwithstanding, what actually separated the two were the contrasting visions for nationhood.

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