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Mainstream, VOL LI No 52, December 14, 2013 | Focus on Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh: Religious Fanaticism and the Secular State

Thursday 19 December 2013

by Syed Badrul Ahsan

One of the earliest decisions made by the Bangladesh Government-in-Exile—and that was within hours of the surrender of the Pakistani occupation forces in Dhaka on December 16, 1971—was clamping a ban on political parties based on religion. There were reasons behind the move. In the first place, the War of Liberation, that began on March 26, 1971, was a fully and unambiguously secular Bengali struggle for political sovereignty, meaning that Bengalis were finally turning their backs on the spurious two-nation theory upon which Pakistan had been founded in 1947 and of which state East Bengal had been an integral part. The second had to do with the collaborationist role of such parties as the Muslim League, Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan Democratic Party and Nezam-e-Islam during the course of the nine-month war in 1971, a conflict that left as many as three million Bengalis dead at the hands of the state of Pakistan.

The secular underpinnings of the Bengali state remained in place for a mere three-and—a half years, till August 15, 1975, when the nation’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in a violent Army coup d’etat. The coup was the earliest sign that religion, indeed the old bogey of Islam so repeatedly used by the erstwhile Pakistani rulers, was making a stealthy comeback into statecraft. The coup- makers, including the man they installed as the President, for the first time invoked Islam in their pronouncements moments after the coup. The secular wartime slogan of Joi Bangla (Victory to Bengal) was with alacrity replaced by Bangladesh Zindabad, which was a throwback to the old Pakistan Zindabad. The overthrow of the Mujib Government caused cheers in Pakistan, with Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto according recognition to the ‘Islamic’ Republic of Bangladesh, though the state officially remained a People’s Republic.

Such were the beginnings of religious fanaticism in secular Bangladesh. And the portents of disaster began to come soon enough. Three months after the coup in August 1975, a series of counter-coups placed General Ziaur Rahman in power as Bangladesh’s first military ruler. The regime had no illusions about where it needed to take Bangladesh in the political sense of the term. Through an exercise of authori-tarian fiat, Zia prised secularism out of the Constitution, replacing it with the patently communal ‘belief in Allah’. That was followed soon enough by the decision to allow, in the name of democracy, political parties based on religion to enter the field. Predictably and happily, the old collaborators of the Pakistan Army reorganised themselves in a state they had so assiduously tried aborting in 1971. One of the Deputy Martial Law Administrators under Zia publicly presided over a seerat (Islamic religious conference) in Dhaka, leaving no one in any doubt as to what Bangladesh was being reduced to.

Religious fanaticism, then, has had a whole lot to do with the persistent efforts of successive regimes in Bangladesh to give the state an Islamic definition and thereby undermine the secular principles that had gone into the struggle against Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh’s second military ruler, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, carried the idea of Islamisation further through his decision to impose Islam on the country as the religion of the state. Meanwhile, as all this frenzied movement toward cobbling a Muslim Bangladesh into shape went on, madrasas (or religious schools imparting Quranic education to the young) began to sprout all over the country. On walls in Dhaka, Islamic motifs were on display. In time, the international airport in Dhaka would have its name displayed prominently, besides Bengali and English, in the Arabic language. A different twist to the fanaticism factor came through the questionable manner in which diplomats from Western nations based in Dhaka began to assess Bangladesh’s place in the global scheme of things. From them came the idea of Bangladesh being a ‘moderate Muslim country’, a stance that, like the positions of the Zia and Ershad military regimes, ignored the secular foundations of the state. And through all this, individuals and organisations holding fast to the non-communal principles of life became targets of organised communal assault. Additionally, the increasing emphasis on the place of Islam in the functioning of the state began to push followers of other faiths, especially Hinduism, into a niche of their own. The country’s Hindus, Christians and Buddhists banded together to form the Bangladesh Hindu-Bouddho-Christian Oikyo Parishad in defence of their interests, indeed entities. Meanwhile, perceptible changes in the nation’s religious demography were soon to be a cause for bigger worries. The country’s Hindus, in increasingly bigger numbers, simply made their way out of Bangladesh, to a point where today the Hindu is as good as absent in a state that was to guarantee equal rights to him beside his Muslim neighbours.

Given the realities noted above, it was hardly surprising that bigotry would rear its head in what originally was a secular Bengali republic. The simultaneous, coordinated explosions which took place in 63 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh in August 2005 were proof, if proof were at all needed, of the strength that Muslim religious fanatics had acquired in the years after the tragic happenings of 1975. The rise of funda-mentalist preachers like Bangla Bhai, the concentrated attacks on a rally of the then Opposition Awami League in August 2004 and the placing of two notorious Jamaat-e-islami collaborators in the Cabinet of the then Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, in October 2001 completed, so to say, the process of a communalisation and radicalisation of the state.

The return of the Awami League to power at the elections of December 2008 was, in a number of ways, a sign of fundamentalism at last getting its comeuppance. And indeed the determination with which the new government pursued religious fanatics together with clamping down on elements busily engaged in promoting religious terrorism in the country did produce noteworthy results. The drive against the purveyors of religious fanaticism was important as well in the context of the activities of groups engaged in anti-Indian activities, with the active involvement of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, on Bangladesh soil. Over these past five years, the efforts of Sheikh Hasina’s government to neutralise these elements have quite paid off.

And yet it is only a battle that has been won. The war goes on, with a violent Jamaat-e-Islami on the rampage, with a medievalism-driven Hefazat-e-Islam calling for a confinement of women, Taliban-like, to their homes, with a desperate Bangladesh Nationalist Party waging a war of attrition against a secular, constitutional government on the streets.

The challenge of religious fanaticism remains. Democracy continues to be under assault from those who see in secular politics a threat to their parochial understanding of life and all that it means. The people of Bangladesh have yet a long way to go in reversing the negativism inaugurated three-and-a-half years into liberation, back in 1975.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Executive Editor, The Daily Star, Dhaka. E-mail:

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