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

Whither Bangladesh?

Thursday 19 December 2013

by Shahriar Kabir

The anxiety about the outcome of the coming general elections in Bangladesh—how the elections will be held, who will be returned to power, what will happen after the elections, etc —has now spread beyond the borders of Bangladesh into the international arena. Heated discussions are going on all around. I have not seen such intense speculations about elections in any other country as is being seen in the case of Bangladesh. The country’s capital, Dhaka, is being visited daily by law-makers, represen-tatives of different international organisations, journalists and NGO representatives as well as poll observers from various countries. They are meeting leaders of political parties, representatives of civil society, scribes, intellectuals, men from the trading community, etc. They have only one question to ask: Which way is Bangladesh going?

I visited Delhi on November 10 to participate in a seminar on the current political situation and human rights conditions in Bangladesh. On my return on November 12, I found three invitations from Europe, the US and India. They had the same subject for discussion—whither Bangladesh? Which force will emerge victorious from the elections—the secular democratic force or the militant fundamentalist and communal force?

Foreign journalists having vague ideas about the situation in Bangladesh usually interact with some people they know—those familiar faces in the TV talk-shows. They think they are experts on Bangladesh. When they go back home, they explain the problem in Bangladesh simply as a quarrel between two ‘Begums’ or two women. But the international community is now trying to foresee the situation that a country in South-East Asia with a population of 160 million and a fast-growing economy will take in the next five to ten years. In broad terms, whether the country will go back to the course it was following under the BNP-Jamaat rule during 2001-06 or continue to march along the path it has been pursuing under the rule of the Awami League alliance since 2008.

One of the reasons for the concern of the international community is the mushroom growth of militant-fundamentalism in Bangla-desh during the BNP-Jamaat rule of 2001-06 and the export of militancy to countries like neighbouring India to Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Europe and North America. During this period Bangladesh joined the international jihadi fraternity of the Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood. From England, Bangladeshi young men went for jihad in Afghanistan. They were caught by US troops and sent to the Guantanamo prison where they are now languishing. During that period, not only did free-thinking intellectuals, professionals and innocent citizens become victims of murder and mayhem by these elements, they did not even spare the British High Commissioner who was injured in a bomb attack in the shrine of Hajrat Shah Jalal in Sylhet. The fundamentalists targeted cinema halls, folk theatres, cultural functions and shrines of Sufi devotees. They targeted members of the minority communities, especially Hindus and Christians. In the first year of the Khaleda Zia-Nizami alliance rule, about three lakh Hindus were forced to leave the hearths and homes of their forefathers in the darkness of night as paupers. Though many of them later returned, a large number are still living in subhuman conditions in India as stateless citizens. This is undoubtedly a matter of concern for the international community.

Along with these, certain other developments are taking place which are no less worrying. The USA had so long been holding secret parleys with the Jamaat leaders while opposing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Now the US is putting pressure on Pakistan to open talks with the Taliban while at the same time persuading Bangladesh not to ban what they call a ‘moderate Islamic party’, the Jamaat, and allow it to take part in the Bangladesh elections. No self-respecting citizen of Bangladesh will like the US ambassador in Bangladesh airdashing to Delhi to discuss elections in Bangladesh. This has also been officially criticised by Bangladesh.

Even last week, the State Department officials visited Bangladesh. They talked to many political heavyweights, even giving a patient hearing to insignificant persons like me. In the last ten years, whenever I visited Washington, the State Department officials held discussions with me. The position of the State Department officials on the militant jihadi politics of Jamaat is diame-trically opposite to our own stand. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that the Jamaat is the godfather of all the militant fundamentalists. The jihadi politics of the Jamaat and the Brotherhood is giving birth to terror outfits like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. They are guiding terrorist activities in different countries. In spite of this, the Americans believe that the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are representatives of ’refined’ Islam. The way the US policy-makers are helping militant fundamentalists in the Muslim countries to speed up the implementation of their global agenda of extending political, economic and military hegemony will, in future, prove disastrous for the US itself and endanger the cultural heritage of the entire human civilisation.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan the US, on the one hand, is talking about opening a dialogue with the Taliban while, on other, is continuing to kill the Taliban with drone attacks. These attacks are taking a ten times higher toll of the civil population than the Taliban. The operation is proving counter-productive inasmuch as it is creating more sympathy for the Taliban among the worst affected North Waziristan people while increasing their hatred for the Americans. Like the opium cultivation in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, the Americans are cultivating militant fundamentalism everywhere. The zeal for extending the American hegemony is making the US issue a certificate of ‘refined Islam’ to the Jamaat.

If, like the Sindabad djinn of the Arabian Nights, the Jamaat comes back to power again, riding piggyback on the BNP, then the cultivation of militant jihadis will increase tenfold.

Raids, like the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 9, 2001, will increase tenfold. The death of innocent Americans irrespective of faith, culture and wealth will go up from thousands to tens of thousands. But this will give the US the ruse for military intervention in Bangladesh. The US Seventh Fleet will have a permanent presence in the Bay of Bengal—something the Americans failed to succeed in having during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 because of the mighty Soviet Union. Bangladesh will have to bear the brunt of drone attacks on the plea of suppressing militants. It will become an accursed land like the North Waziristan. Thus will Pakistan and the US take the revenge for their 1971 defeat by making the Jamaat its friend.

The NATO troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014. For NATO even Pakistan is becoming a danger. Though a big party like the BNP has got the Jamaat as an ally, no big party in Pakistan trusts the Jamaat. The top leaders of Jamaat may be either languishing in jail or waiting for the hangman’s noose for committing mass murders in 1971, but despite this the Jamaat is in a more advantageous position in Bangladesh than in Pakistan because of the BNP and the so-called civil society. The Pakistani civil society may not be enamoured of the Jamaat, but many in the civil society in Bangladesh have discovered a lack of transparency and political vendetta in the trial of the mass murderers because they have come under the spell of the Jamaat’s riches. In my recent documentary Churanta Jihad (the extreme jihad), eminent Saudi Islamic thinker and terror-specialist Dr Irfan Alavi has said that in 2009, Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East allocated £ fifty billion to be spent in the Muslim countries for training, campaigning and other activities of their workers. The money will be routed through the Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood. Prof Abul Barkat’s research has revealed that the Jamaat in Bangladesh earns a net profit of Rs 2000 crores from its investments in trade and industry in Bangladesh. It spends 15 to 20 per cent of it on organisational work. This explains why they have no dearth of obliging people in TV talk-shows, in newspaper columns or in international seminars to speak for the Jamaat. The Jamaat knows that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

During the last two weeks I had the oppor-tunity of talking to several visiting journalists, terrorism experts and law-makers. They have expressed grave concern about the telephonic conversation between Sheikh Hasina and
Begum Khaleda Zia. They are worried that the discussions between the two leaders failed to yield any result. Some of our pundits have opined that Sheikh Hasina is bent on holding the elections under her one-party rule, keeping the BNP and Jamaat out. So she will not ring up Khaleda Zia again and also not form a caretaker government. And so on and so forth. I am not a pundit like them. But it is plain common sense that the Jamaat, which has been prohibited by the highest court from taking part in the elections and is now at the mercy of the BNP, would not like to contest the polls on the BNP election symbol and therefore would not like the elections to be held at all. The Jamaat knows that after its registration was cancelled by the Election Commission, it cannot contest the polls on its symbol of ‘scales’. By the courtesy of the BNP, some of its members may contest the polls on the BNP symbol of ‘paddy panicle’ but that will mean the Jamaat’s political identity being lost in the BNP. It will be suicidal for the Jamaat to give up the symbol it has been fighting under for the last 56 years and opt for another. As the Jamaat does not want to commit political harakiri, it will try to prevent the holding of elections, just as it is trying to prevent the trial of the war criminals.

Khaleda Zia, Tareq Zia and many other BNP leaders are trapped in corruption cases. The BNP has no organisation worth the name. It has only some hired goons. Unless the Jamaat does the job of mobilising people, Khaleda cannot hold huge public rallies on her own. According to press reporters, in the last ‘showdown’ at the Suhrawardy Park, about 80 per cent of the people gathered were the Jamaat supporters. Some students, who were brought by the BNP, were outnumbered and cornered by the students of the Isllamic Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the Jamaat.

As far back as in 1986, we had said that the theory of holding elections under a caretaker government was propounded by the Jamaat. The Awami League at that time had no choice but to swallow it because the type of elections Khaleda Zia’s party held at Magura showed how terrible the elections could be if held under the one-party government of the BNP. This time the situation is different. In the last five years, most elections were won by the Opposition candidates. The Constitution has been amended following the judgement of the higher court. Sheikh Hasina has shown her wisdom by inviting the BNP to join the government during election time. The BNP leaders claim that 90 per cent of the people is with them. If so, they should have no objection to participate in elections held under an all-party interim government. But the obstacle is the Jamaat. The Jamaat will never allow an election to be held in which it may lose its existence.

We have said time and again that if the ferocious hyenas of the Jamaat are let loose, they will plunge Bangladesh into chaos. The waves of hartals, the burning alive of people during the hartals, burning of vehicles, uprooting of railway tracks—all these are taking Bangladesh back to the 1971 days. One after another bomb-making factory of the Jamaat is being unearthed in the capital, Dhaka.

Before setting up the ‘Ekattarer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmool Committee’, some freedom fighters had formed a body named ’71-er Yatree’ (the pilgrims of 1971). I still have the last poster of the Yatree adorning my wall. It portrays Jahanara Imam, the mother of a martyr, holding up the victory sign under which are written three slogans: ‘No pardon for the murderers, traitors and war criminals of 1971’; ‘We will fight till the last for implementing the ideals of the Liberation War’; and ‘Rear a new generation imbued with the ideals of the Liberation War’.

 The new generation that has grown up in the last twentyone years since the days when Jahanara Imam started the movement against funda-mentalism and communalism has triggered a great awakening from Dhaka’s Shahbag to Tentulia and Teknaf. These young men, who did not even see Jahanara Begum in flesh and blood, will not budge an inch from their demand to ban the Jamaat and the Chhatra Shibir. They are determined to build a secular and democratic Bangladesh in the spirit of the liberation war.

About five crore voters in the next elections will be under 35. Then there are another five crore women voters and a crore of religious minorities and different ethnic groups. There is no alternative to banning the Jamaat. The Americans will not vote in Bangladesh. The ISI can create terror. It can even draw up a list of people to be butchered as it did in 1971. But even the ISI cannot vote in Bangladesh. Why then should the Jamaat not be banned under the anti-terror law? If we could defeat Pakistan and the US in 1971 and win the liberation war, why can’t we do so now?

The Election Commission has talked about deploying the Army. This is necessary in the interest of holding peaceful and trouble-free elections. It is just not possible to allow public order to be disturbed and national security to be endangered by calling hartal for three to four days every week. It is the duty of the armed forces to ensure national security.

Foreign observers may have doubts as to whether Bangladesh would go the way of liberal democracy or fundamentalist terrorism. But we should not have any doubts on this score. Bangladesh will march toward the goal set for it by the three million martyrs who made it possible for Bangladesh to emerge as an independent state.

(Translated from the original Bengali)

The author, who is the General Secretary of the ‘Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee to Exterminate the Killers and Collaborators of 1971)’, is a noted columnist and intellectual of Bangladesh and an intrepid fighter against religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.

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