Veering towards anarchist tendencies
The cold-blooded murder of Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy by Ansar-al-Islam, an Al Qaida affiliate in Dhaka last month, follows a pattern of macabre killings targeting secular writers, minorities, and foreigners.
In this case, “deviants” like Xulhaz, who was the editor of Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT magazine, Roopbaan, were targeted. The tragedy of illiberalism, intolerance and extremism received international attention in 2013 with the supposed ‘hit-list’ of 84 bloggers, who were deemed to have committed blasphemy for their propounded “un-Islamic” thoughts and beliefs.
Today, Bangladesh is caught at a crossroads between two parallel, violently opposed and irreconcilable strains that have split the political and social instincts of the country into two distinct parts. First, the decidedly anti-India and pro-Pakistan, ‘Islamist’ coalition of Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in alliance with the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami, versus, the ruling Bangladesh Awami league of Sheikh Hasina who is seen to be pro-India and more ‘inclusive’ and ‘Bengali’ in her political identity.
It has posited the two conflicting identities– a ‘syncretic Bengali identity’ that prides itself for the freedom struggle against the stated pogrom of 3 million Bengalis by the Pakistani Army, versus, the other ‘Islamic identity’ that regrets the vivisection from West Pakistan. The latter is intrinsically anti-India and covertly hand-in-glove with forces of religious extremism that are bent on outlawing “un-Islamic” practices, institutionalizing Sharia system and declaring Bangladesh as an “Islamic State”.
Therefore, even the narrative on Bangladesh’s freedom struggle is disputed by these two political belief-systems, giving rise to the violent unrest and dispiriting that has engulfed Bangladesh.
There is supporting history that feeds the instincts of the two competing strains. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of ‘Bangabandu’, the father of the nation and the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (and therefore, she is considering the contentious “Liberation war denials crimes bill” that seeks to make, questioning the Pakistani war crimes to be an offense).
Khaleda Zia is the wife of Lt General Ziaur Rahman, the 4th President of Bangladesh who is famous for moving away from the pro-India sentiments of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and initiating the re-Islamization of politics and rehabilitation of Jamaat-e-Islami in the national context.
The current wave of global pan-Islamic resurgence has consumed Bangladesh and threatened not just the 14 million or 8.5% of Hindu minorities (down from 13.5% in 1974) that live in fear. Today, it is the intellectuals, professors, atheists and other sectarian minorities like Qadianis and the Shias that are facing the brunt of religious extremism.
Oddly enough, constraints of participative democracy have ensured that neither parties are openly denouncing the acts of violence vigorously enough.
On the contrary, while commenting on the killing of yet another blogger, Nazimuddin Samad, the Home Minister questioned incredulously, “Why are they (bloggers) using this kind of language against the religious establishment?” Such comments further embolden the Islamists to take the law into their own hands with impunity. So, while religious intolerance is allowed to breed unchecked, the historical debate of the freedom struggle is consuming the time, attention and actions of Sheikh Hasina’s, Awami League.
Therefore, Bangladesh Supreme Court’s recent rejection of the final plea against the death sentence and the subsequent hanging of Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami’s for war crimes during the 1971 liberation war with Pakistan, meets the strong and stoic approval from the ruling Awami League (incidentally, the judgement was made by the four-member appellate division bench, headed by the first Hindu Chief Justice, Surendra Kumar Sinha). The streets of Bangladesh are now awash with rumours and positions, reminiscent of 2013, when the conviction of Jamaat leaders had led to the deadliest violence in years, with nearly 500 deaths.
The Sheikh Hasina government is steadfastly disputing claims of the organizational presence of ISIL or Al-Qaida. It is content to blame the opposition for trying to destabilize the country - this belies the reality of many home-grown extremist groups (e.g. Islamic Liberation Front, Ansarullah Bangla etc.) who share an ideological connect with the pan-Islamic platforms.
In other words, the government’s reaction looks political rather than religious, thereby keeping some electorally relevant mullahs in good humour this pussyfooting compromises on the efficacy of governmental response and further strengthen the brazenness of the fundamentalist elements. More than 20 people have been killed in hate crimes since 2013 – and, but for the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013, no one has been convicted or punished for any of the subsequent attacks.
On the contrary, Sheikh Hasina issued a stern warning to anyone who criticised religion “I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions,” she said. However, making life difficult for Sheikh Hasina is the uncomfortable position of being seen to be supporting a BJP or “RSS” government in India, while taking on the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami at home.
Amidst, the political wrangling and social unrest – the military is the joker in the pack that is being actively wooed by both political parties. As the largest contributor to the UN “Blue Caps”, it is relatively flush with money and is further pandered by the ruling dispensation with arms and equipment beyond its threat perceptions (e.g. nuclear submarine). Basically, Bangladesh has a history of military interventions and there are elements within the forces who do empathise with Begum Khaleda Zia’s party.
In order to avoid any such intervention, as also avoid a mutiny akin to Bangladesh Rifles (BDR – paramilitary force guarding borders) mutiny of 2009 which led to 74 personnel dead, Sheikh Hasina is playing a dangerous high-stakes game. She is balancing electoral necessities, keeping the military on her side and simultaneously, asserting her party’s legacy and role in the freedom struggle by taking on her political opponents, head-on.
As a perfect example of the flawed ‘two-nation’ theory, today, Bangladesh is struggling to reconcile with its basic and newly learned instincts that counter each other. The nation desperately seeks the poignant invocation of the syncretic Bangla spirit of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh.
Though Nazrul used themes of Islamic renaissance to inspire, he attacked fanaticism in religion, denouncing it as evil and inherently irreligious – aptly, naming his sons with both Hindu and Muslim names, Krishna Mohammad, Arindam Khaled, Kazi Sabyasachi and Kazi Aniruddha. It is the increasingly eerie similarities to its previous political masters from the pre-1971 history that is driving Bangladesh towards its destructive course.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are strictly personal.