DHAKA, Bangladesh — Every year on the first day of school, students across Bangladesh wait eagerly for their new textbooks. Many have few extravagances in their lives, and for them that day is as thrilling as Christmas morning in other countries. Distributing over 360 million textbooks for free, on time, to more than 42 million children is no small feat, and it was a signature achievement for the ruling Awami League this year.
But public appreciation was quickly overtaken by outrage over the quiet revisions that appeared in books for classes ranging from primary grades to high school.
The Bengali letter “o” used to stand for “ol,” a yam; now it stands for “orna,” a scarf worn by women for modesty. Texts by non-Muslim writers — including some revered as part of Bengali heritage, like the classical poet Gyandas or the contemporary novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay — have been removed. Also gone are a small excerpt from the Ramayana, a Hindu classic that Islamists reject as foreign to the Muslim canon, and songs of the Sufi icon Lalon Shah, whose syncretic faith is anathema to Muslim conservatives.
This is exactly what Islamists have long wished for, particularly Hefazat-e-Islam, a network of madrasa leaders who hope to introduce Shariah in Bangladesh. But why these changes now, and from a nominally secular government that seems to have tried, if unevenly, to clamp down on Islamists in other ways?
The ruling Awami League has been criticized for being apathetic and blaming the victim during a spate of attacks in 2015 and 2016 against liberal bloggers, academics and religious minorities, some claimed by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. It started cracking down hard after a massacre at a cafe in Dhaka last July. But even as the government tries to curb Islamist terrorism, in other respects it appears to waver between appeasing and containing nonviolent religious conservatives.
The Awami League seems to have agreed to the textbook revisions in exchange for bringing the state-sanctioned curriculum into private madrasas and subjecting the schools to some government scrutiny. This is a delicate maneuver, which cannot be executed by fiat, because Hefazat has a committed power base among its members and people who sympathize with its aspirations for Shariah.
Proponents of the revisions say the changes are a small price to pay for modernizing the madrasas’ curriculum. Yet government officials have demurred when asked about any bargain being struck — presumably they fear drawing criticism from the cultured classes or seeming weak to the wider populace. In any case, that the authorities are even entertaining the demands of Hefazat says a lot about where Bangladesh is today: on a path to creeping Islamism.
When Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971, secularism was one of the new country’s founding principles. It soon came under siege — first in the 1970s, under Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (B.N.P.), who rehabilitated the Jamaat-e-Islami, a party disgraced for collaborating with the Pakistani army; then in the 1980s, when the dictator Hussain Mohammed Ershad declared Islam as the state religion.
After democracy was restored in 1991, the two leading parties traded places running the country. Over time, the B.N.P. invoked religious sentiment to broaden its appeal with an increasingly conservative population, forcing the Awami League to play defense.
Things took a dire turn as B.N.P., upon its return to power in 2001, drew much closer to Islamist forces like Jamaat, allowing the rise of terrorist groups, which killed top Awami League leaders and scores of civilians. In turn, when the Awami League was in government again, it hit the opposition with a cascade of legal cases.
In 2009, it set up a special tribunal to prosecute crimes committed during the Liberation War of 1971. Since members of Jamaat had collaborated with the Pakistani Army back then, the court was destined to target the group’s leaders.
The B.N.P.-Jamaat alliance took to the streets, sometimes staging violent protests against the trials, especially ahead of the 2014 general election. It also supported the nonviolent mass marches and sit-ins that Hefazat staged in May 2013 as Hefazat called for turning Bangladesh into an Islamic state.
The Awami League authorities forcibly dispersed those crowds, killing at least 50 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. But the violence has been vastly exaggerated, and such accounts have become a touchstone in some Islamists’ imagination: Nonviolent Hefazat — nothing like Jamaat — has been cast as a martyr of state repression, and has emerged as a powerful mouthpiece for Islamic demands.
The battle for a secular Bangladesh is both political and cultural. Bangladeshis continually evaluate what they will or will not accept in the name of Islam. In universities, as many women seem to wear jeans as hijabs. Young people openly celebrate Valentine’s Day. But there has been a significant shift over the past few decades.
During my school years in the 1980s, religion was a matter of personal choice. No one batted an eyelid if you chose not to fast during Ramadan. Today, eat in public during the holiday and you may be chided by strangers. Thanks to shows on cable TV, social media and group meetings, Islamists have succeeded to an alarming degree in painting secularism as a threat to Islam.
And now schools. It’s true that non-Muslim writers still appear in the revised textbooks, while some Muslim authors have been dropped. But the exclusion of the great novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the Charles Dickens of Bengali literature, is a galling concession to the sectarian view that Hindu writers like him do not belong on a Muslim curriculum.
A dark political calculation may be lurking behind these changes. The Awami League, now in its second term after highly controversial elections in 2014, is widely perceived to be authoritarian. It would make sense for the party to pry Hefazat away from B.N.P.-Jamaat in order to reduce the impact of any future protests by its archrivals. A standard political gambit, one might call this, only it comes at a lasting cost to culture.
One of the casualties of the recent purge is the great poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who wrote achingly about his belated embrace of his native language, Bengali. In a poem I remember reading in school, he says of the Kapotakkha, a river in southern Bangladesh, “Many rivers I have seen in many countries/But none to quench the thirst of my longings.”
Most Bangladeshis see Bengali as the cradle of their national identity, and Islamists have long sought to replace language with religion in that role. To evict Dutt from our textbooks today is to strike at the heart of the cultural convictions that gave birth to our nation.
K. Anis Ahmed is a writer based in Bangladesh and publisher of the Dhaka Tribune.