During the past several years, a number of religiously-based radical groups have emerged in Bangladesh, most notably the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in the north. The outfit aims to establish a Shari’a-based Islamic state in Bangladesh by violent means.
There can be little doubt after reviewing existing research findings that the rise of JMB militants has been attributed primarily by religious, economic and political dynamics. However, environmental factors — especially drought and seasonal food insecurity, coupled with poor coping strategies - appeared to be about equally responsible for this type of radical movement.
Water scarcity, drought and seasonal food insecurity
The northern region of Bangladesh has in recent decades has been afflicted by recurrent and severe droughts, which in turn often led to intense food insecurity,known locallyas Monga. Every year, generally from mid-September through mid-November, this crisis occurs. People call the period Mora Kartik, meaning the month of death and disaster. Too little water in the rivers during the dry seasons and less rainfall creates drought situations. Statistics show that 92% of water in Bangladesh comes via external rivers and only 8% is local rainfall. The initial watersheds of all the major rivers in the region run through neighboring India, making Bangladesh is heavily dependent on India for the availability of water resources. These rivers are the lifeline for agriculture, industry and the domestic sectors.
However, the construction of barrages, hydroelectric dams, and other structural interventions in the upstream of these rivers heavily obstruct the normal flow of water towards Bangladesh. India often exploits these structures to withdraw water in the dry months (generally from March to May) for irrigation, energy production and economic uses. It not only creates tremendous stress on surface water resources in the northern districts of Bangladesh, but also causes a significant decrease in groundwater recharge, resulting in the depletion of soil moisture.
The scarcity of water in these areas has also been exacerbated by the low and uneven distribution of rainfall in recent years due to the effects of climate change. According to Bangladesh Meteorological Department, “There was 21 per cent less rain during the monsoon period from June to August in 2009 and the northern districts suffer from drought”. Drought is one of the major environmental stresses in the north that drastically limits the grain yield of rice, a staple food of Bangladeshi people. This causes a lot of people to become unemployed and fall into acute food shortage between late July and early November. During this interim period, there are no alternative agricultural activities left for people and the small non-agricultural sector cannot absorb the seasonally unemployed labour force. Hence, food insecurity in the region is associated with yield reduction in rice and non-availability of wage employment.
Food insecurity, poor governance and radicalism
An immediate impact of seasonal food insecurity is observed in starving millions of people in the drought-prone north. To cope with the crisis, the government distributes rations under several food assistance programs, which cannot often meet the overall demand. Poor governance makes it very difficult for the local government to fulfill the right to food. There are many complaints about inefficiency and corruption in rations distribution. It is evident from the cases documented in the monga-prone district of Gaibandha that corrupt officials do not allow people to enjoy government food distribution and other policies and programs unless they pay bribes.
Improper targeting of the poor is another vital aspect of weak governance that contributes to the failure of government programs. The middle and upper classes benefit most from these social safety net interventions. They are mainly politicians, local government officials and bandits, taking advantage of people’s vulnerability to food insecurity. Thus, practical application and implementation of the state-funded food assistance programs in the area still remain a major challenge.
The larger NGOs have adopted some new strategies, especially under the implementation of income-generating business through micro-finance, but their capacity is too small to address the scale of the problem. Local economists have said, “the non-government organisations that run micro-credit business have failed to help the ultra-poor come out of poverty trap and get self-employed with dignity, resulting in scourge like monga — seasonal joblessness”. They also underlined the importance of a comprehensive program by connecting the northern region with mainstream national economic activities to end monga. There is, however, no such plan from the government to reduce vulnerability of the monga-affected people.
The radical groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh(JMB) have skillfully exploited the hungry and uneducated people to increase their support among the northern poor. They utilized the facilities of numerous social welfare programs across the region by foreign-funded NGOs and charities. Some of the prominent ones are Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage (RIHS), Saudi-based Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and Qatar Charitable Society. These organizations were banned by the government of Bangladesh several years ago having strong connection with financial activities of JMB.
Prior to closing, such Gulf-based NGOs worked hand in hand with the banned outfit to exploit religious sentiments of people in order to promote their cause. Since 1996, the Kuwait Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) has built one Islamic University, 10 madrasas, 4 orphanages, 1000 mosques, 100,000 deep tube wells in 16 districts in Northern. Madrassas and orphanages usually provide free food, housing and clothing, along with religious teaching to students. These kind of attractive offers encourage monga-affected poor people to send their children to madrassas. It has been observed in the media that many madrassas in the region over the past decade have becomethe strongholds of JMB militants.
The financial support given by some Middle Eastern charities not only helped the JMB militants to meet their organizational and operational costs, but also enabled them to offer cash incentives for recruiting young people into terrorist acts. A government official explained the recruitment process for fresh members:
“The invitation unit of the outfit first selects young simpletons from ultra poor families in rural areas or by visiting mosques. After that the militants get close to the target people and start discussing about jihad. If the targets respond positively the JMB operatives start giving them a certain monthly amount to gain their confidence and slowly make them dependent on the outfit. At one stage the targets become infatuated with the JMB.”
Other sources provide evidence that thousands of full-time JMB members are being paid $25-50 per month. A youth perception survey carried out jointly by Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and Saferworld revealed, “Many of the survey participants believe that people were motivated to join by extremists offering money or other incentives”. So it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the JMB militants come from poor or lower-income backgrounds. Persistent food insecurity, seasonally high unemployment, poverty and consequent inability of state to deal with the crisis have contributed to creating the conditions that sustain this radical movement.
Food insecurity has multi-faceted social, economic and political effects, but it can possibly destabilize the country by promoting violent radicalism under poor governance systems. There is generally limited attention paid to adaptation factors to environmental change as drivers of insecurity and conflict. From the above analysis it is quite evident that adherents of militant organizations are mainly the victims of persistent food insecurity, drought and seasonal unemployment.
In the context of northern Bangladesh, the nexus between drought, food insecurity and radicalism is becoming clear. Although the government has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards militancy and has achieved major successes in its anti-militancy drive, the JMB’s roots in these communities still remain. The threat of radicalism would not fully abate unless the problem of food insecurity and its adverse effects are properly handled.