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Bangladesh’s battle of principles: Awami League must not dilute its secular credentials

23 April 2013

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Blogs / The Times of India

by Rudroneel Ghosh

22 April 2013

Bangladesh today is in the throes of an internal churning. What started in February as a movement to press for justice for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971 has now metamorphosed into a greater battle over the founding principles of the Bangladeshi state. This has led to the crystallization of two forces – the secular-minded Bangladeshi intelligentsia, activists and the progressive Bangladeshi youth on the one hand, and the Islamist socio-political formations on the other. It was the former that had thronged to Dhaka’s Shahbag intersection in February. On that occasion, the secular gathering saw thousands of people from all walks of Bangladeshi society pledge their wholehearted support for the war crimes trial and proclaim a list of demands that included capital punishment for all convicted war criminals and a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami and its communal affiliates.

If the secular group revived the spirit of 1971, the Islamists weren’t willing to go away quietly. By branding the Shahbag protesters as atheists and anti-Islam, the latter cleverly diverted attention from the war crimes trial where practically the entire top leadership of the Jamaat stands accused of perpetrating the most heinous crimes against humanity. This devious strategy culminated in the recent Long March of the Hefazat-e-Islam – a Chittagong-based ideological clone of the Jamaat – that decreed a regressive 13-point charter calling for death to atheists and those seen to be insulting Islam, a blasphemy law and the establishment of a Sharia-compliant society where women would be treated as second-class citizens.

The Jamaat and its ilk have been resorting to continuous hartals and agitations to subvert the war crimes trail and destabilize the ruling Awami League-led dispensation. Hindu homes and temples have been attacked, online activists targeted, and crores worth of public property damaged in these violent demonstrations. With Bangladesh slated to go to polls at the end of the year (or early next year), the timing of these developments is interesting. It is clear that the Islamists are working to a carefully crafted strategy. While the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has been attacking the Awami on governance and the poll-time caretaker government issue, it has allowed its Islamist alliance partners such as the Jamaat to play the Islam-under-siege card. Together they represent an insidious attempt to Talibanise Bangladesh and reverse the secular, inclusive vision of its founding fathers.

But what is truly worrying is that the Awami appears to be falling for this trap. Eager to cover all bases ahead of the election, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not want to alienate the conservative vote. This is precisely why in the battle of ideologies the Awami has refrained from challenging the Islamists head on. A good example of this is Sheikh Hasina’s recent counter to the Hefazat’s 13-point agenda. Instead of flatly rejecting the Islamists’ contention that the country be run according to Sharia, Sheikh Hasina asserted that the country will be governed according to the Charter of Medina.

The charter was a social contract drafted by Prophet Muhammad around 622 AD to bring peace to the then conflict-ridden city state of Medina. It calls for resolution of all conflicts through dialogue, the creation of a harmonious society respecting all religions and ethnicities, and the establishment of a just community based on mutual respect and brotherhood.

There is no denying that the spirit of the charter is indeed noble and reflects the cherished values of secularism, peace and amity. But for Sheikh Hasina to cite the same as a defence to the Islamist onslaught is unfortunate. It undermines the fact that Bangladesh is a pluralistic society comprising people belonging to different ethnic and religious groups. The minority Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities in Bangladesh – an important vote base for the Awami – could only be aggrieved to hear their prime minister say that their country would be run as per an Islamic doctrine. For, Bangladesh’s minorities had laid down their lives along with their Muslim brothers for a secular, pluralistic Bangladesh. This is the ideal that the Mukti Bahini and the Awami League fought for in 1971, something that the current Sheikh Hasina-led regime would do well to remember.

Just as the noble concept of ‘Ram Rajya’ cannot be a substitute for a secular, democratic India, the counter to Sharia in Bangladesh cannot be soft Islamism. Whether it is to justify the war crimes trial or argue against the Hefazat’s 13-point demand, the Awami would do well to reaffirm the four fundamental pillars of Bangladesh’s Constitution – democracy, secularism, socialism and Bengali nationalism. Therein lies the Awami’s strength. Trying to appease or win over the Islamists through religious rhetoric and euphemisms will only project the Awami as a too-clever-by-half, hypocritical lot.


reproduced here from The Times of India for educational and non commercial use