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 on the Shahbag Movement

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 23, 2013 - Special Supplement on Bangladesh

Behind BNP-Jamaat’s Onslaughts
 on the Shahbag Movement

Monday 25 March 2013, by Manas Ghosh


The euphoria that the Shahbag Square movement had generated all over Bangladesh over a month ago is clearly on the wane in the face of murderous onslaughts unleashed by the pro-Pakistani Islamists who have threatened to wage a civil war so as to bring down Sheikh Hasina’s democratically elected government. Already Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the pro-Pakistan Islamist alliance, is on record saying that her alliance’s one-point programme was to wage an unceasing movement against the so-called Bengali secularists to ensure the downfall of the Awami League Government.

Scared by the spread and wide sweep of the secularist and nationalist nature of the Shahbag movement, Begum Zia and other pro-Pakistanis like her had no alternative but to checkmate the Shahbag movement through coercive tactics as a tame submission to it would have meant the end of the road for Isalmic politics in Bangladesh that their foreign patrons, specially Pakistan, Suadi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, would never accept. These Islamic countries, a few of which call themselves secular, are now doing a repeat of what they did in 1971 to undermine and frustrate the liberation war. But this time they and their world forum, the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), are opposing the movement skilfully and dourly. Their envoys in Dhaka are maintaining close liaison with the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami and providing them with advice and the wherewithal needed to scuttle the movement which has posed the biggest ever political challenge to the BNP and its ally Jamaat’s thoroughly communal and divisive politics.

The Shahbag movement is all about the identity of Bangladesh and its people. It is trying to sort out the longstanding unresolved Identity issue—whether its majority people are first Muslim and then Bengali or vice versa. The leaders of the Shahbag movement, all whom belong to the present generation, quote Mujib to say that “first I am a Bengali and then a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist” which negates the formula of the Islamists’ two-nation theory since to those elements (Islamists) the Bengali identity is an anathema. It is to assert and highlight the Bengali idenity that one of the oft-repeated slogans heard in Shahbag Square is: “Tumi Ke, Tumi Ke? (Who are You, Who are You?)” and the crowd thunders back, saying: “Bangali, Bangali”. Another popular slogan
being chanted there is: “Religion is personal. Nation belongs to all”. Besides the famous war cry of “Joy Bangla” of the liberation war days reverberates the area. The leaders and followers of the movement call themselves the progeny of Masterda Surya Sen and Pritilata Wadedar, heroes of the historic Chittagong Armoury Raid. They claim the “blood of these heroes flows in their veins”.

The highlight of the movement is that it is entirely peaceful and non-violent and is without any religious bias. Its leaders and followers say they are not against any religion and certainly not against Islam. But they are against the Wahabi brand that Jamaat preaches and strives to impose on Bangladesh. The Jamaat brand of Islam is nothing but political Islam whose objective is to capture power by using religion as a tool.

The Bengali Muslims by nature are against religious extremism and also against mixing religion with politics, according to Dr Imaran. A faculty member of Dhaka’s Bangabandhu Medical College, he further added: “Our movement is a part of an ongoing struggle which began with the language movement in 1952 and culminated in the liberation war of 1971. But victory in the liberation war and subsequent events did not result in the emergence of the kind of Bangladesh that we wanted. All those who had opposed the liberation war of 1971 and participated in genocide, rape and arson had remained unpunished and were attempting to make the country another Afghanistan by breaking down its democratic institutions and by doing away with our pluralistic society. So we decided to rid the country of the Rajakars and other collabaorators and hence our support for the war crimes trial. But when we found that even the trial’s outcome was being influenced, our movement started. And it will continue until our goals are achieved. Our goals are: sending to the gallows all those who had taken part in the killings and rape, and also banning the Jamaat. We know that this is a very difficult task for the government to accomplish but then it has to be done to save Bangladesh from the Islamists. We have already paid enough price for our past mistakes and do not want their repeat.”

The weakness of the Shahbagh movement is that it is led and supported wholly by the urban middle class boys and girls who are either IT professionals, bloggers or students of Dhaka University. It is yet to spread to Bangladesh’s 63 thousand villages where the Mollahs from the local Mosque still have the last say. It is the clerics of the mosques who are trying to stem the tide of the movement by labelling it an “India and Hindu-inspired conspiracy to banish Islam from Bangladesh”. This also is a political line of the country’s principal Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, who, after consulting her Pakistani mentors in Singapore last month, rushed back home to launch an anti-India tirade with the sole purpose of stalling the visit of the Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee, to Bangladesh that she viewed as Delhi‘s expression of solidarity with the movement and also with Sheikh Hasina’s government. She and her alliance partner, the Jamaat, to scuttle the Indian President’s visit called a 72-hour countrywide bandh (hartal) and ordered the systematic cleansing of the minorities in Bangladesh. Hindu and Buddhist villages were targeted for attacks all over the country with the message: “Go to India if you vote for the Awami League. You can stay here only on one condition: you will not vote for the Awami League in any future election.” The worst affected districts where the Hindu and Buddhist minorities have been targeted are Chittagong, Noakhali, and Begumgunj. There the arsonists burnt down houses in matter of minutes with gun powder. More than 2000 temples have been destroyed by the BNP-Jamaat supporters.

A peculiar feature of the current minority bashing in Bangladesh is that soon after the attacks, senior BNP leaders, including Khaleda Zia, have rusheed to the victims with relief and pledging security to their life and property only if they desisted from voting the Awami League. Minorities in Bangaldesh decide the outcome of 35 parliamentary seats in the Jatiya Sansad (National Assembly) election slated for next January (2014).

One of the purposes of the current minority cleansing in Bangladesh is to destabilise Sheikh Hasina’s government and force the leaders of the Shahbag movement to call-off their Chittagong rally as both the BNP and Jamaat had threatened of bloody confrontation which would turn the port city’s streets into rivers of blood. The BNP-Jamaat alliance is scared that the ideals of the movement, Bengali Nationalism, Secularism and Democracy—have placed the Awami League-led alliance in an electorally advantageous position ahead of the next January’s (2014) parliamentary poll. The other purpose is to fish in troubled waters. Both Khaleda and the Jamaat are hoping against hope that the prolonged face of political turmoil and uncer-tainty may encourage the Islamist elements in the country’s military to stage a coup and take over power. Because Khaleda and the Jamaat are hellbent against going to the parliamentary poll under the Sheikh Hasina Government’s administrative supervision. Observers in Dhaka think that the current volatile situation has the potential to snowball into a civil war.

Both the BNP and Jamaat leaders frankly admit that they have nothing to lose in their do-or-die battle as the Shahbag movement threatens to rob them of their bread and butter. After all, the Islamic banks, insurance companies, educational institutions, health and medical clinics, and NGOs—totalling 7000—fetch over Rupess 15 hundred crores of profit for them annually. Both the parties are afraid that the success of Shahbag movement will put at grave risk their financial sustenance and this would certainly jeopardise their political existence.
(March 18, 2013)

The author was a foreign correspondent representing The Statesman in Dhaka soon after the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. He closely follows the developments in that country, and is currently the Editor of Dainik Statesman (brought out from Kolkata in Bengali).

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