Millennium Post

Unfinished business of Bangla secularism

Whether or not the now month-long civil agitations at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square can be compared to the iconic protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, one aspect that stands out in stark contrast is the firm hand of the secularist government in the matters and the large-scale support that it enjoys amongst the protestors themselves. Commendably, ‘Bangla Spring’ has not fallen into the hands of the fundamentalists sponsored by the Islamist hardliner party Jamaat-e-Islami, even though deathly violence was unleashed by them that took lives of several innocent people, women and children included. Nevertheless, for the Awami League leader and prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, the war crime tribunal and sentencing of the Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee is less about political one-upmanship and scoring points over the closest rival Bangladesh National Party, which is led by Khaleda Zia, than about taking the liberal secular political project of the nationalist revolution of 1971 to its rightful finale. Bangladesh, which was formed with a secular, democratic ideology at the crux of its origins in the 1971 struggle for independence, had been fighting a ceaseless war with the Pakistan-backed Islamists. Not only are the members of Jamaat responsible for repeatedly stalling the reformist project of the Awami League government, but also, others belonging to organisations such as Al Badar, Al Shmas and the Rajakars — all of whom have a history of brutally cracking down the agitations that had gripped the pre-1971 East Pakistan, wherein Bengalis had demanded the inclusion of Bengali as a national language, in addition to Urdu that was the official mode of communication in Pakistan — have been involved in cycles of violence, particularly the massacre of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s family in 1975.

What the spontaneous protests at Shahbag Square indicate is that not only does the Awami League government has been able to tap into the pulse of the majority of the people of the nation, but also that the civil society, which comprises a formidable section of young and first-time voters, holds the fundamentalist agenda, whether Islamic or otherwise, in strong suspicion. Clearly, judging by the durability of the Shahbag demonstrations and their ability to sustain the initial revolutionary impulse in the face of terrible violence and rising death tolls, it is evident that religious orthodoxy and a brand of politics driven by fascist ideals have taken a backseat in the list of claims that Bangladeshis have in their minds. Instead, all-round economic development and a secular liberal democratic political mission have gained grounds with the youth of Bangladesh, who want to reap the benefits of a strongly nationalist government that shares a cordial relation with  India. In the longer run, Khaleda Zia’s refusal to meet President Pranab Mukherjee during his recent visit to Dhaka might prove to be one of her biggest diplomatic blunders, further attesting to the poisonous hold that Jamaat and other extremist parties continue to have on Bangladesh’s chief political opposition.
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