Bangladesh: Political thought

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Ideological churning

The Times of India, Dec 06 2015

Jaideep Mazumdar

A battleground of ideologies

 Bangladesh is witnessing the rise of both liberal and radical elements and the conflict is set to get acute in the coming days An interesting term has en tered Bangladesh's political lexicon of late: `saadhinota birodhi' (anti-liberation). It is how secular liberals, who claim to represent the secular, progressive and democratic ideals on which the country was founded, often describe the pro-Pakistan Islamist radicals they are ranged against. The easy acceptance, and wide usage, of this term in Bangladesh today reflects the growing clout of the liberals in that country . But it hasn't been an easy journey for them. After Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman's assassination on the morning of August 15, 1975, by a group of junior army officers, Bangladesh was ruled by military dictators for the next 26 years. The army generals, especially Hossain Mohammad Ershad who was in power from 1982 to 1990, actively patronized Islamists in a bid to gain legitimacy and this led to the radicalization of Bangladesh.

“After the assassination of Bangabandhu (as Sheikh Mujib is popularly called), the army rulers allowed all those who had collaborated with the Pakistanis to torture, kill, maim and rape millions of Bengalis in 1971 to return to the country ,“ says Kazi Anis Ahmed, publisher of English-language daily Dhaka Tribune. “Pakistan's footprint in Bangladesh increased dramatically and organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami were patronized and de veloped deep roots in our country's polity .They started operating many businesses and became cash-rich. Bangladesh was made an Islamic state. Secular liberals were hounded and killed or subdued into silence,“ he explains.

What also increased the radicalization was the influence of Wahabism. “Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries also increased their footprints in Bangladesh and developed strong business and political interests,“ says Dhaka University political science professor Shah Alam. “They funded construction of masjids and madrassas where Wahabism was propagated. And a large section of Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East also got radicalized and influenced their families back home.“

Military rulers also started distorting the country's history . “The liberation war was portrayed as an invasion by the Indian military which led to the breakup of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh.`Bangabandhu' (Sheikh Mujib) was painted as a vain stooge of India. It is only recently that the process of correcting the textbooks has begun,“ says HT Imam, advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The effort to reverse the ideals of liberation could not deal a body blow to the country's secular and progressive forces.“We (secular and democratic liberals) went silent and underground. But they could not snuff out our ideals,“ says Alam. After the Awami League came to power in January 2009 for the second time, the liberals started asserting themselves.

The famous Shahbag movement that started in February 2013 (Shahbag is an area in central Dhaka and the movement was launched to protest what the liberals saw as the lenient sentence of life imprisonment awarded to 1971 war criminal Abdul Qader Mollah) was a dramatic assertion by the secular liberals. The movement spread to other parts of the country and even the opposition BNP was forced to support it, albeit cautiously.

“Shahbag is a turning point in Bangladesh's history . It marked the reclamation of space by progressive forces. The Jamaat organized counter-protests since most war criminals were their leaders, but their movement was not even a whimper compared to our thunderous roar that shook Bangladesh and marked the beginning of the process of rooting out the radicals,“ says Gonojagoron Moncho leader, Haider Karim Tuhin.

The moncho (forum) was born out of the Shahbag movement and has been at the forefront of various other movements demanding execution of war criminals and crackdown on the Jamaat and other radicals. The Shahbag movement, peopled mostly by young men and women, demonstrated that systematic efforts at Islamization of Bangladesh and distorting its history by the military regimes and the BNP-Jamaat combine did not succeed.

“The process of rooting out the radicals started in January 2009. We have identified more than 200 organisations that have links with or are run by the Jamaat and are closing them down. We're hunting for more. We are inking deals with countries like Australia where our citizens look for work.This will reduce the scope of radicalization of our workers in the Middle East. This is a tough battle against them, but we will win it,“ says Bangladesh information minister Hasanul Haq Inu.

Bangladesh today, say many in the country, is perhaps the only Muslimmajority country that is fighting and slowly winning the war against Islamist radicals. And that's good news for the world, especially India.

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