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

Rise of Religious Fundamentalism in Bangladesh

Thursday 19 December 2013, by Barun Das Gupta


The phenomenal rise of Islamic fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh has created an extremely critical situation in that country which now seems to be poised on the brink of a civil war. To the casual observer, the growth of jihadi Islam in Mujibur Rahman’s Bangladesh may appear to be a paradoxical phenomenon, but a close study of the development of Bangladesh since its emergence as an independent country in 1971, will reveal that two basically antagonistic forces, subscribing to two mutually exclusive concepts of national identity, have been at war from the beginning.

One concept recognises the common Bengali identity for all people living in Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion. The other concept visualises Bangladesh as an Islamic country and an Islamic society. For the protagonists of this concept, it is not Bengali nationalism but Islam as a religion is the binding force and the common identity for the majority of the people. Those who are not Muslims are not to be treated on an equal footing. And those who consider themselves Muslims, must be conservative and fundamentalist Muslims.

Both forces were at work from before Bangla-desh was born—during its existence as ‘East Pakistan’. As Bengali nationalism grew in strength and ultimately overthrew the colonial rule of West Pakistan to emerge as independent Bangladesh, the forces that wanted a religious identity were considerably weakened but they remained as a potential force. Within the first few years of Bangladesh attaining independence, these forces, strengthened by the overt and covert support from Pakistan, struck to liquidate the Bangabandhu and all his family members who were present in Dhaka on that fateful August 15, 1975. Sheikh Hasina escaped because she was not present in Dhaka. No doubt, Mujib’s assassins did enjoy support from some section of the people of Bangladesh. It is these elements who helped the assassins escape from Bangladesh and take refuge in other countries.

Side by side with the Bengali nationalists who wanted a modern, progressive, secular Bangladesh, free from all religious bigotry and communal fanaticism, the Islamist fundamentalists also existed, biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to strike again and take control of the country to transform it into an Islamic theocratic State. Since then, that is, since the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, Bangladesh has seen a see-saw battle between the secularists and the fundamentalists, between those seeking to establish Bengali identity and those seeking an Islamic identity as the basis of the Bangladesh polity.

Let us take a quick look at some of the major developments after Mujib’s death. General Ziaur Rahman, on becoming the President of Bangladesh in 1977, moved the Fifth Amendment to rescind Article 12 from the Bangladesh Consti-tution which emphasised on realising secularism through elimination of communalism in all its forms, denied state patronage of any particular religion and discrimination between citizens on religious grounds. The same year, Article 38 was rescinded in order to legalise the formation of political parties based on religion. A new clause was added to Article 26 for promoting ‘fraternal relationship with other Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity’. (It may be added here parenthetically that Ziaur Rahman dealt with all his opponents with ruthlessness. His rehabilitation of some of
the most controversial figures in Bangladesh aroused fierce opposition. He was assassinated by a group of Army officers at Chittagong on May 30, 1981.)

In June 1988, as the President of Bangladesh, Hussain Mohammed Ershad effected the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, making Islam the State religion. In June 2010, when the Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came back to power, the Constitution was amended to ban political parties based on religion. But the very next year, in July 2011 to be precise, the ban was revoked. It signified a victory of the fundamentalist forces. There was another paradox: though secularism was again incorporated in the Constitution, Islam was retained as the State religion.

All these developments tell the story of the continuous see-saw battle between the liberal, secular forces and the conservative, fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh.

The Hasina Government’s decision to set up the War Crimes Tribunal in 2009 to bring to trial those guilty of mass murders and other crimes during the liberation war in support of the Pakistani forces, and the fierce opposition it immediately aroused in the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami Opposition camp, reflected the same battle between the two antagonistic and irreconcilable forces. In fact, this marked the beginning of the latest phase of the battle which has now reached a point of no return.

As these lines are being written, it is anybody’s guess whether the general elections can at all be held, as announced, on January 5 next year, whether the Opposition 18-party alliance led by the BNP and Jamaat would participate in the polls and if it doesn’t and still the elections are held what is in store for Bangladesh. It is now known that pressure has been brought to bear on Sheikh Hasina not to proceed with the war crimes trials not only by Pakistan but by Saudi Arabia and some other countries as well. It exposes the international connections of the fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh.

A flashpoint may soon be reached in Bangladesh if Abdul Qader Mollah, better known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, is hanged. Mollah has been sentenced to death by the War Crimes Tribunal and his death warrant has already reached the authorities of the prison where he has been kept. Mollah, who was a leader of the dreaded Al Badr during the liberation war, has been convicted for the killing of 344 civilians and other crimes against humanity. He is also a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Opposition is demanding his unconditional release.

To return to the question we started with, namely, the two conflicting concepts of identity —whether a Muslim of Bangladesh is a Bengali first, or a Muslim first. Badruddin Umar, is an eminent progressive thinker and intellectual of Bangladesh. Dwelling on the place of religion in private and community life, Umar writes in the preface to his Sanskritir Sankat (Crisis in Culture)(in Bengali): “There is a special place of religion in many people’s life. This also makes their personal life religious. They do not invoke religion outside their personal life. So, their practice of religion does not retard social progress. That happens when religion is brought into other spheres, outside personal life. This mentality and the attempt to apply religion to other spheres is communalism.”

Tracing the evolution of the thinking of Bengali Muslims from the 19th century onward, Umar observes: “The Western influence was not much effective or beneficial in shaping their (Bengali Muslims’) cultural consciousness. The main reason of this is their hatred of the British on the one hand and hostility to the Hindus on the other. After the decline of the Muslim Nawabs and other influential sections, a sign of decadence became evident in the Bengali Muslim aristocracy and the upper middle class. As a result, they became more anti-British and anti-Hindu. The hostility to the British made them resistant to Western education, while their anti-Hindu feelings drove them to de-link themselves from Indian culture and Bengali culture. They tried to reject both Western and Bengali cultures and build up an exclusive religious-communal culture. Their failure in this attempt exposed how artificial and unnatural it was. For economic and political reasons, they tried to project themselves as different from the Hindus. This gave rise to the question: ‘Are we Bengalis or Muslims?’ The genesis of this question and its subsequent evolution lies in the communal atmosphere of the times.” (Sansksritir Sankat, pp. 2-3)

Umar wrote this when Bangladesh was still in Pakistan and known as East Pakistan. But he had no hesitation even then in debunking outright the question whether Bengali Muslims were Bengali or Muslim. Elaborating, he says: “If someone asks, ‘are we Bengalis or fish-eaters or music lovers or supporters of world peace?’ he will certainly be accused of confused thinking and quite justifiably so. Because it is not difficult to understand that a Bengali can also be a fish-eater, a music lover and a supporter of world peace. Therefore, there is no point in characterising a Bengali as a fish-eater, music-lover and protagonist of world peace. Because his fish-eating or love for music or desire for world peace does not negate his Bengaliness, because there is no contradiction between these characteristics. To accept one of these does not require the rejection of the others. The same thing applies to the question: ‘Are we Bengalis, or Muslims or Pakistanis?’”

This rather lengthy quotation from Badruddin Umar succinctly lays bare the conflict of identity —a meaningless and irrational conflict—that assails the Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh. It is for them to resolve this conflict or contradiction. The future of Bangladesh depends on the way it is resolved or whether it is resolved or it continues to plague the country as an intractable problem that cannot be resolved one way or the other. In the ultimate analysis, the genesis of Islamic fundamentalism in post-independence Bangladesh can be traced to this contradictory perception about the Bengali Muslim’s identity. And the equally misconceived idea that to be a Muslim one has to be a conservative, fundamentalist and bigoted Muslim, not a liberal, tolerant one, accommodative of non-Muslims.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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