Millennium Post

Bangladesh and ‘secular project’

There is a post-election calm in Bangladesh right now after the much talked about one-sided general election. Even the 1st phase of officially non-partisan local elections, being held between 19th and 27th of the current month, is more of a subdued one despite the participation of opposition-supported candidates. The opposition despite being able to create some trouble in communication and few other aspects of public life, failed to bring people to the street against the Awami League led government in the time around the general election in early January 2014.

It appears now that a hardline section of pro-independence politician, intellectuals and youth of Bangladesh are determined to complete the unfinished part of the 1971 revolution, the way many put it; be it by choice or for failing to find a suitable exit strategy from the current political twist. Within the progressive domain of our society a tiny few ambitiously cherish for a proper social revolution, which includes secularisation of society and solid wall of separation between spirituality and politics; translating into banning of religion-based politics. The recreation of a secular climate – the intellectual and socio-political scenario resembling post 1971 state – is dearly sought by them. Whereas majority rest cautiously desires gradual change towards progression.

Any revolutionary change or even part of it may come at a great cost. Few questions pop up in a rational mind in the current context. Is the nation willingly ready for it? Had the majority been taken aboard on the issue of the conclusion of this unfinished revolution? Should it be a priority now at this point of time? Or, whether these whole strategies of clearing the 1971 garbage are the right ones? Obviously, counter questions can also be posed about this unfinished task. In case of timing, if not now, when? Given the process started few years back already. And, if not the AL, who? Given the wide mandate they received in 2008 election on issues such as secularism/non-communalism, trial of war criminals and so on. But the topic will throw more questions than answers.

The revolutions in many other countries, beginning from French revolution up to the likes of Vietnamese revolution, were proper social revolution. They brought about great changes, normally considered progressive, in social structure and also in ideologies, values and norms. These revolutions were normally left wing. There were other socio-political upheavals, often termed as revolution, which stemmed from nationalist movements. These events engendered quasi transformations, which many deemed to be the right development. In many societies, of course, there were incremental and gradual changes for good without a revolution. Even there are one or two instances of reactionary regressive revolution. The Iranian one is the brightest example of the latter.

In 1971 and immediately after that, there was a great opportunity for completing a social revolution. But the events that ensued fell much short of that.  Many Marxists and Maoist maintained that the AL was never a revolutionary Avant-garde; rather it was an opportunist ‘Petty Bourgeoisie’ party or in raw Bangla, Jotdarder Party (party of the middle peasant). But the AL had its own logic. It never claimed to have believed in conventional socialism. It just wanted some appropriate or more cynically ‘convenient’ mix of some bit of communism in its political vision.

But ‘secularism’ is one ideology the AL believed in and still continues to hold dear overtly. But the AL always considered that religiosity of the majority community in this country is a sensitive area and refrained from getting into that even in their hay days of post 1971 time, despite having a lot of leverage to do many things at that period. So any serious social reform was never on the AL agenda and still it is not. But surely the party has undertaken a task which is to resolve some apparent contradiction of our post 1975 political settings i.e. removing the elements from the current political landscape that opposed the revolution like popular upheaval of 1971, values of which are ought to be the basis of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. This is a limited assignment leaving aside a plethora of other types of religion-based entities untouched.

Even this limited task is no easy one. Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), which tried to prevent the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation and sided with that notorious Yahya regime in 1971 was banned bin the initial years after 1971. Why and how they experienced a resurgence is a known story. But the extent to which this outfit has rooted in a religiously dedicated section of society is startling, despite being not too significant per se as per popular vote share. Their indoctrination of this small percentage of citizenry has been rigorous and thus the retaliation of the attempt to uproot them has also been correspondingly noxious.

Some other political strategists suggest that the best way to erase JI from the political landscape or reduce their clout to negligible would have been the gradual one; making them and their ideologies irrelevant by simply ignoring them and tacitly contrasting their ideologies with the more discernable progressive narrative. Putting them in an existential struggle could be a counter-productive especially when the popularity of the AL government itself has seemingly hit a low with average performance in governance and development over last five years. The solution of the current conundrum could lie in finding a smart way out that can in one hand remove the unsustainable historical contradiction of JI being part of the polity, on the other hand allows the new generation of the hundreds of thousands of JI activist and supporters to be able to make their political


The author is an associate research fellow in Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies

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