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Millennium Post

Towards a secular Bangladesh

Some would call it an upheaval, some an awakening of sorts. Others would say it is the display of pent up feelings and expression that has been stifled for years. It’s amazing to see what’s happening in Dhaka and other main cities in Bangladesh. While many would disagree with the Shahbag protests being equated with the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt, it is heartening to see a secular movement thriving with such gusto in a country where the polity has been heavily polarised. The coverage of the Bangla movement both in the print and electronic media has been subdued in comparison to the Arab Spring or the Tahrir Square uprising because there is no call here for toppling regimes. Representative reality may be mired in illusion as many sceptics would say but in this case it is a visible spontaneous movement which has not been suppressed despite attempts by two major opposition parties in Bangladesh.

The Islamic parties and their chief ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia are bitterly opposed and have stayed away from the movement being spearheaded by the enlightened generations of Bangladesh. Other than being held responsible for the death of one of the leading bloggers, defaming his character through fictitious blogs after his death, the sectarians are systematically trying to defame the whole Shahbagh movement through a concerted campaign of misinformation. Disseminating propaganda, fanning the usual religious sentiments through their network of imams and their well funded madrasahs, the Jamaat is trying its best to fizzle out the awakening. The media in Bangladesh is also being targeted for reporting objectively. News channels are taking the heat for protests of an unprecedented nature on an unprecedented scale. It is as if the agony of creation of this nation is now taking shape. Many analysts feel the only way for BNP to topple the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League regime is with the help of Jamaat and by giving a fillip to religious extremism. For the BNP, this would have been an opportune moment to relinquish ties with Jamaat but they chose not to.

Whichever side of the border we live in, the religionists perhaps enjoy minimal popular support and the largely secular Bengali populace and rational thinkers alike have never voiced their opinion more frankly. Though there have been ripples felt in Kolkata where first you had a pro-Jamaat protest rally and then a show of solidarity towards the Shahbag protesters by people from various walks of life.

The elections scheduled at the end of this year may throw in a variety of permutations. Awami League returning with a bang in the first past the post system is easiest to predict. Traditionally, it has a support base cutting across the rural and urban hinterland though regarded as less business friendly than the BNP by many.

In the unlikely event of Jamaat cornering a sizeable chunk of the votes, it can sufficiently destabilise the polity and create havoc. This may lead to a clamour for an interim caretaker government and that would open up the possibility for widespread manipulations.

Some say, Jamaat will also be providing the main source of funding to the BNP in the next Bangla elections and also the support of their cadres. Many critics say that the Jamaat-e-islami and the perpetrators of the massacres of 1971 were rehabilitated under President Zia after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination. Despite the death sentence and life imprisonment verdicts by the war crimes tribunal, Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP has kept itself rather insulated from the Shahbag agitation.

As the Shahid Minar in Sylhet was attacked and flags of Bangladesh burnt inside the country, it raised several questions felt around the pangs of a nation. The fair minded majority is once again held hostage, to the fanatics of the land. Whether an external force inimical to the present regime is fanning the embers of conflagration is not the point. What is stark is that the movement is a movement of spontaneity and resurgence as the christening of an area in Dhaka as projomno chottor or New Generation Square suggests. If an Ekushey February book fair can be targeted, something is seriously rotten within since the birth of Bangladesh is inextricably twined with the language movement. At a time when all socio-economic indicators are looking up in Bangladesh, this kind of turbulence may also be an impetus for instability in the future.

For the Shahbag movement to happen around Ekushe February (21 February) is indeed reinforcing the win of linguistic nationalism over religious nationalism. Thus even beyond the religious identity which was common, it was the forces of revolt against the Urdu hegemony that created Bangladesh. Islam does provide a common identity but in this case the identity of language is what defined the nation, as the instrument of oppression was also via language. It is also true that migration has continued unabated since Bangla independence and is still on. But the collapse of the erstwhile economic system of zamindars, mostly from a community and the support system has also to be taken in perspective. Even if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Bangabandhu had gone to Pakistan in 1974 to attend an Islamic brotherhood conference, for Bangladeshis, the liberation war and ekushe February can’t be claptrap.

From an Indian perspective it is important to note that both Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon have recently expressed strong support to the Shahbagh protests with the latter attributing it to the open-mindedness of the Bangladeshi youth battling extremism. The upheaval clearly spells out the path most Bangladeshis would like their country to take in future. As expected, Pakistan has made no such warm endorsement of the protest clearly showing Islamabad’s priorities in the country.

The supreme questions confronting the average Bangladeshi at this crucial juncture is whether this resilience and pent up anger can be combined with intelligence and wisdom to assimilate internal  contrasts and divisions for development and enrichment of life rather than to intensify hatred even in select segments of the populace. One only hopes the movement sustains momentum and does not fizzle out despite forces inimical to it.

It is slightly extreme to consider as a section within the country is suggesting that the state of Bangladesh is dispensing justice in the same way as the Razakars.  The government has had to pass a bill to be able to appeal a verdict of the Tribunal and this appeal has just been submitted. Hardly the way the Razakars systematically picked up and killed the University teachers in 1971 in a deliberate policy to create a society that couldn’t provide intellectual leadership. We must look inwards. The West did not stop Bangladesh from bringing the perpetrators of rapes and murders during the 1971 liberation movement to justice for 42 long years. The state is working rather hard to deliver justice. As Bangladesh braces for another day of protest against justice delayed by 42 years and justice denied to many.

If one objectively analyses the Hasina and Khaleda regimes in totality, forces both of cohesion and disunity have coexisted in a precarious balance, as it has since the nation felt its pangs of birth. Even the Shahbag protests may not lead to complete integration and so fulfilment would extract its pound of flesh. Bangobandhu was also well aware that History offers no warrant for optimism; it encourages hope and strenuous, unremitting endeavour. True, what is happening in Dhaka is unprecedented but can the Awami League completely align itself to a despondency that its chosen path is what the protesters are crying for or is it much more than the ideology of both the political dispensations that the cries in the air personify?

Bangladesh as a nation is at the crossroads. The faultlines may be etched and there is a fragmentation in terms of politics, religion and nationhood. So, it is much more at stake than discontent and support both in favour and against the war crimes tribunal sentencing anti-liberation satraps. Awarding the death penalty to two perpetrators for ‘crimes against humanity’ in the 1971 war, one in absentia and life sentence to another Jamaat leader may be the trigger for widespread turbulence ahead. When Sheikh Hasina initiated the war crimes trials in 2008, she may not have anticipated this offshoot - the churning of a nation in the 42nd year of its liberation.

The writer is a commentator on South Asian affairs.
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