Bangladesh- A Killing Field

Hasina Wazed, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, must exercise control over the administration if she really wants to stamp out religious fundamentalism from her country. Prevarication will not serve any purpose. Faisal Arefin Dipan, a secular publisher, has been killed and there is now a threat to another publisher named Farid Ahmed. At this critical juncture, the Hasina administration must not adopt a soft attitude. After the murder of Niloy Chakrabarty Neel, another secular blogger, a few months back, the Inspector General of Police had tried to shift at least a part of the blame to the bloggers by asserting that the latter should not have crossed the limit or written anything that hurts the religious beliefs of others.

Now no one can say that the bloggers had crossed the limit. Secondly, they have the right to air their own views. They did it by directing their ire against those fundamentalists who had committed horrendous crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s war of liberation. What the government should admit is the fact that it had trampled upon the principles of natural justice. For the uninitiated, the government had previously arrested some bloggers although they had not committed any crime.

Clearly, Hasina is playing a dangerous game which may gobble her up in future. With a single-minded devotion, she is bringing to book the war criminals of 1971. However, she has adopted a prevaricating attitude against religious fundamentalism. It is worthwhile to note that Niloy Chakrabarty Neel did not get the police protection he needed. More importantly, the Awami League’s (AL) attitude to the issue was made clear by Sajeev Wazed Joy, Hasina Wazed’s son, some time back. After the murder of Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy, Sajeev had said that it was not possible for his party or the Awami League-led government to come out in support of the slain blogger as the Awami League does not want to be branded as an atheist organisation. After a long time, some of the alleged murderers of Avijit were arrested. But Sajeev Wazed Joy’s statement is a pointer to the actual reality in Bangladesh.

Right now the field of religious terrorism in Bangladesh is dominated by the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Al-Qaeda affiliate, which has eliminated quite a few liberal bloggers. Its leader, Jashimuddin Rahamani, is known to enjoy a lot of influence in Bangladesh politics. So much so that, the government could ban his organisation only in 2013. Although, the ABT has been carrying its depredations for a long time, the organisation is modern as well as medieval. It is tech savvy and ABT members regularly rummage through the internet to find what is being written for and against it. Using the cyber world, the extremist organisation threatens its critics and even follows up the threat by acts of assassination. But its methods of murder are archaic - machetes and meat cleavers.

However, the watershed moment in Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalism was marked by the rise of the Chittagong-based Hefazat-e-Islam. The earlier phase of religious terrorism was represented by the HuJI, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami and Shahadat-al-Hikma. Except the Jamaat-e-Islami, all the other organisations lacked mass popular base and relied on secret violent operation. Even the Jamaat-e-Islami, in spite of its not-too-insignificant share of votes, could secure a minuscule number of Parliamentary seats. The Jagrata Muslim Janata represented a transitory phase between the earlier organisations and the rise of the Hefazat-e-Islam in 2010.

Hefazat’s importance in today’s Bangladesh lies in the fact that the ABT is, in fact, executing the agenda which the former had declared in opposition to the Shahbagh movement. In 2011, Hefazat opposed the National Women Development Plan which sought to ameliorate the plight of women. As the Shahbagh movement picked up momentum Hefazat fielded nearly five lakh men on the streets of Dhaka and demanded death penalty for atheist bloggers. As a result, Rajiv Haider, a blogger and one of the organisers of the Shahbagh movement, was killed.

If Hasina Wazed wants to take control of the situation, then she must tackle the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hefazat-e-Islam, which is, in fact, a conglomeration of several fundamentalist outfits. Although ABT is now being described as Al-Qaeda’s front in Bangladesh, the latter had actually struck its first root in Bangladesh through the Hefazat.

Past and present experiences, however, leave much room for doubt. It is hard to gauge Hasina’s sincerity in fighting radical Islam. Throughout April and May of 2011 Bangladesh had witnessed waves of demonstrations led by fundamentalists, who protested against the Women Development Policy, formed by a previous Hasina-led government. Under the policy, women were to be given equal share in property, and equal opportunities in employment and business. An interim caretaker government had backtracked and formed an “ulema committee” which opposed equal rights to women as, in its opinion, the idea was against the principles of Quran and Sunnah. Unfortunately, the following Hasina Wazed-led government agreed to remove the “contradictions” as demanded by the ulema committee.

Prevarication at every critical juncture has become a hallmark of the Awami League government. Perhaps the Bangladesh Prime Minister has no other way as the Army, a very critical institution, has 35 per cent of its recruits from madrassas. However, apart from the war crimes trial, the Awami League did not show any inclination to build up a liberal secular democracy. On the contrary, there are ominous digressions that nobody expected. There is an Awami League affiliated body named the Awami Olama League, an organisation of Mullahs. It had come out in 1996 under a direct patronage of Amir Hossain Amu, an important AL leader and a freedom fighter. But this organisation is also demanding death penalty for secular bloggers, repeal of National Education Policy, and abrogation of anti-child marriage act as “it is opposed to the principles of Sunnah”. For quite some time, two factions of it have used the address of the Awami League as their own official address. In fact, one of the two factions even threw an Iftar party in Ganabhavan, the official residence of the Prime Minister.

The fundamentalists’ opposition to the idea of women’s emancipation has the potential to sink the economy, as it is almost totally dependent on garment industry which employs three million women and contributes to around 80 per cent of the country’s earnings. The Awami League led administration may now lie between the devil and the deep sea. But for a country ranked 145 out of 173 nations in the United Nations human development index, a journey to the road of religious terrorism is perhaps inevitable.

(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal)
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