It all started with the pro-liberation and secular Awami League (AL) winning the last general election with three-fourth majority in the parliament. They were riding on the youth vote, who are newly inspired by the spirit of liberation of Bangladesh, but now have reached a state of confrontation against a massive rally in the heart of Dhaka, led by an apparent coalition of non-Jaamat-e-Islami (JI) Islamist parties and organisations led my relatively unknown Hefajat-e-Islami (HI). JI is, in fact, the largest Islamist political entity, however, much smaller in vote share than the major two parties — the AL and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
With the AL incorporating the popular demand of the trial of the war criminals of 1971, at least the available local collaborators, in their 2008 election manifesto, the youth votes had poured in their favour.
This factor might have assisted the AL to rise to power for the second time in the post-1990 democratic era, it also put it in a conundrum of running such a trial, given the fact that most of the prominent accused are JI leaders and politically powerful.
When the trial actually started and verdicts began to get announced, the JI for obvious reasons, with their well-organised party activists, started anti-trial protest and vandalism. The government responded with heavy hand. There was big number of causalities on both the sides. The spirited youth was not silent either and they started the ‘Tahrir Square’ style ‘Shahbag Movement’ demanding capital punishment for the 1971 war crime accused. The liberal media remained by their side.
There were also the parallel protest and agitation by the main opposition BNP demanding the restoration of election time care taker government system, which the AL dominated parliament abolished following a court verdict. There are acquisitions of politicisation of the court of law through non-transparent appointment of judges. The prime factors of the current political twist involving the ‘Shahbag’ liberals and Hefazat-e-Islam have everything to do with the associated propaganda war that have ensued over past many months. The JI and BNP affiliated media played a crucial role in this mobilisation. The JI is a comprehensive and well organized socio-political entity having affiliated youth organisations, media, professional organisations, hospital, bank, business and industries etc. They have trained cyber manipulator. They have substantial international link both in the sub-continent, in the middle-east and with Islamist elements among Muslim population in the west.
Before going into how propaganda techniques and yellow journalism work in Bangladesh it’s important to have some idea about the multifaceted socio-political spectrum of Bangladesh. In the last century two equally strong political current developed in this overpopulated agricultural delta. One was based on majority Muslim identity and the other was on secular Bengali nationalism flourished through political mobilisation in post 1947 period.
The struggle for freedom in Pakistan period followed by the Liberation war brought forth the secular ideologies, culture and intellectuality but didn’t really eradicate the social bases for Islamist mobilisations. Thus two strong conflicting streams persisted and the confrontation took place in different forms and contexts. BNP, by part, is the representative of the later along with their own version of secular nationalism and they don’t yield much to the Islamist demands other than mostly at the symbolic level. Neither of them are properly modern secular political parties.
The radical sub-stream is further divided into Moududi (reformed political Islam but fundamentally non-liberal), Qaumi (primitive version of orthodox Islam) and Pir-Aulia-Sufi lines. The JI represents the first, HI and similar others the second and there are the shrine based third. They all have more or less good organisation and extensive network of domestic and international funding. The first two sometimes draw common inspiration from the philosophical school of Deoband. The dominant rendition of Islam in Bangladesh is orthodox enough, if not militant like Pakistan and Afghanistan, to make its common followers highly apprehensive with anything derogatory about the religion. Thus the political-communal stability of Bangladesh requires a subtle balance between freedom and preservation of sacredness of Islam.
This religious sensitivity in Bangladesh is the fault line of Islamist exploitation. The presence of some culturally insensitive ultra-liberal bloggers who have a derogatory tone towards religion isn’t impossible in the current context. At the same time there were ample of fake blogs engineered by JI’s cyber manipulators in the name of liberal bloggers which were used to defame the Islamic icons. The right wing and anti-government print and electronic media were more than ready to spread these materials throughout the country which otherwise were seen by a small section of net users. This act is defamatory by itself but was mostly unnoticed by the charged up Islamists. This development has unified the plethora of non JI Islamist group under the leadership of Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi a 93 year old disciple of prominent Deobandi Ulema Mulana Hussain Ahmed Madani. He is the principle of a remote village Madrasa in Hathazari of Chittagong. He and his small organisation called Hefazat-e-Islam (HI) captured the headlines through their confrontation with Chittagong element of ‘Shahbag Movement’ and became the van guard organisation for this latest mobilisation. In ‘Shapla Chottor’ in the heart of Dhaka he almost became the Sunni Khomeni. Yet they were careful while criticising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for they knew she was no Shah and AL was no baseless regime. Instead they took on the accused bloggers and Shahbag Movement and then put forward a demand which can easily be termed as Medieval Aged.
There are, of course, political games being played by the prime protagonists apart from the ideological tussle. The AL knew there would be violent resistance against the war crime trial. Many AL leaders encouraged the ‘Shahbag Movement’ for its strong pro-trial stance. But sometimes they went out of hand. The direct demand for ‘Hanging’, instead of ‘Justice’, put many sensible citizens in an awkward position. The prolonged stay in protest by them allowed the Islamist reaction to grow and harmed the AL government.
The increasingly repressed BNP welcomed the Islamist reaction sparked by the abusive bloggers or fake bloggers actions. In fact one BNP funded Bengali daily acts almost like propaganda leaflet in favor of extremist or right wing reaction. BNP fears for a rigged election in the absence of a care taker government in 2014 which might ensure AL retention of power. AL hard-line against BNP stems from the suspicion of BNP involvement in the assassination attempt against their lead Sheikh Hasina in 2004 while BNP was in power. The grand rally organised by the alliance led by HI, in fact, allowed all other anti-government Islamists including JI and many BNP activists to join the rally and put pressure on the government despite their demands not typically a BNP or even JI ones. It was like a temporary alliance of convenience. The AL doesn’t want to make a direct enmity with HI alliance that is mostly non-political in election terms and in fact the government gave permission for the rally. They already have powerful political enemies.
However, in the mean time Bangladesh is undergoing series of strikes and protests called mostly by BNP and JI. There persists a fear of further and wide spread violence with HI’s successful grand rally. Their radical demands evoked hostile reaction from the liberals. Many worry that whether Bangladesh is going Pakistan or Afghanistan way. It is to be seen now whether the incumbent can put their act together and rescue the nation and the democracy from this complex and multifarious political deadlock.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is former officer of Bangladesh Army and UN peacekeeper. (IPA)