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Bangladesh: A battle for its secular soul

Recent protests in Bangladesh, in support of secularism and freedom, mostly of the post-1971 generation, which began in February this year, are now threatening to become a serious confrontation with right wing religious extremists in an election year. These extremists stabbed and killed young Ahmed Rajib Haidar, a thirty-year old blogger for his opposition to them. As one of the organisers of the famous Shahbagh Movement, Haidar was leading the demand that Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Qader Mollah sentenced to life imprisonment for his war crimes during the 1971 War of Liberation, should be hanged. One of the fears of the Shahbagh Movement was that if Mollah were not given the death penalty he would be resurrected by Khaleda Zia's BNP in case they were to win the next elections in 2014.


Secular view: Former President Pratibha Patil presents the Indira Gandhi Award for Peace, Disarmament and Development for the year 2009 to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

The Awami League Government had established the War Crimes Tribunal in 2010 to try several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their atrocities and collaboration with the occupying Pakistan Army. She did this aware that the BNP and the Jamaat would take the issue to the streets in an attempt to not only scuttle the trials and even try to destabilise her government.

Today, Shahbagh evokes the same imagery and the same hopes as the Tahrir Square protests but one hopes it does not lead to similar disappointments.

Yet, this peaceful protest could well be the last stand by young and unarmed liberal Bangladeshis in their battle against the plans of the fundamentalists to Islamise their country. The Islamists have wasted no time in resorting to violence.

With the sentencing to death of Delawar Hussain Sayedee, Jamaat protests have grown in scale of violence and range with over 60 killed in violence all over the country by early March. The stage is now set for more unrest in Bangladesh as Islamist groups will push for imposition of stringent Islamic codes to mobilise a quick reaction to the growing Shahbagh movement that seeks a banning on the Jamaat and other fundamentalist parties.

The battle victors will be those who have stronger staying power and money power. After years of being active in Khaleda Zia’s BNP government, the Jamaat is known to have developed an extensive reach in the country and huge financial resources. It is generally said in Bangladesh that persons like Mir Quasem Ali, presently in jail for war crimes along with his Al Badr group, de facto treasurer of the Jamaat provide the financial muscle. He is suspected to be Saudi Arabia’s money link.

There has been a strong undercurrent of right wing extremism in Bangladesh. It will be recalled that Jamaat-ul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB) founded in 1998 shot into prominence countrywide when it organised about 460 bomb explosions in the space of 30 minutes on August 17, 2005 in 63 of 64 districts of Bangladesh. Massive arrests and trials followed and eventually, the caretaker government of the day executed six JMB leaders in March 2007. The JMB and its affiliates have remained active; they were suspected to have been involved in the revolt by the Bangladesh Rifles in 2009 and in January 2011 there were reports of JMB plans to assassinate Sheikh Hasina. There are also suspicions on JMB contacts with the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in West Bengal and the training of some of its cadres in Pakistan.

Given this, it is unfortunate that 15 Muslim organisations held a big rally in Kolkata on March 30 to protest against the sentencing of Jamaat leader, Maulana Sayedee and very few see this is an ominous sign for ourselves. Islamist terrorist organisations have a tendency to reincarnate themselves and it is conceivable that Hefajet-e-Islami, the new Islamist group which is now leading the counter charge against the Shahbagh group and suspected to be sponsored by the Jamaat-BNP combine, may be an off shoot of the JMB.

Sheikh Hasina has been a bastion for secularism and has rejected the rightist fundamentalists’ demands for the introduction of the blasphemy law and a ban on the intermingling of men and women. Her strong actions against all kinds of terrorism has been of great help to India in the battle against insurgency in our north east.

We need to appreciate Sheikh Hasina’s courage, her predicaments and the reality that should the Awami League lose elections next year, there may not be any more elections after that. It is in India’s prime interest to strengthen her hands without leaving her open to the charge that she is playing to India’s tune.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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