Fighting fundamentalism

Print edition : March 03, 2001

The Opposition in Bangladesh mobilises religious fundamentalists to try and dislodge the Awami League government and the latter takes up the challenge with unprecedented determination.

POLITICS in Bangladesh took a turn for the worse in the first fortnight of February when fundamentalist forces took to the streets, encouraged by a frustrated Opposition, In the violence that was unleashed in the name of religion, a policeman was killed inside a mosque, another was shot at in the police headquarters, and private and public property was destroyed. The Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina cracked down on the fundamentalists. The streets became zones of battle between gun-toting Op position and ruling party activists.

The police block an anti-government procession in Dhaka during a general strike on February 14.-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

The immediate provocation for the fundamentalists was a High Court judgment that made the issue of fatwas a punishable offence. The landmark ruling from the country's highest court, which has been stayed on an appeal, would have gone a long way in protecting women, who have been targets of fatwas issued by mullahs, suppressing their legal and social rights. Fundamentalist forces called a rally in Dhaka's Paltan Maidan on February 2, under the banner of the Islami Ain Bastabayan Comm ittee (Committee for the implementation of Islamic Laws), avowedly to wage a jehad (holy war) against the court ruling and also to "wipe out" non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that opposed the regime of fatwas. The mood at the rally was defiant. The speakers tried to provoke the large number of participants, drawn mostly from madrassas (Islamic religious schools), into launching a jehad. They issued death threats against the two Judges (one of them a woman) who delivered the judgment. The Judges were described as murtads, an expletive reserved for secular intellectuals and NGO leaders opposed to fanaticism.

No wonder the rallyists, mobilised by clerics from all over the country, turned violent. With covert support from the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami, they clashed with the police. They also announced their intention s to foil a rally called by the Oikya Badha Nagorik Andolon, a combine of the secular intellectuals backed by NGOs, against thefatwa regime on February 3. Interestingly, Khaleda Zia's BNP and Gen. Ershad's Jatiya Party have not commented on the co urt ruling while the Jamaat-e-Islami spoke against it bitterly.

Concerned at the flare-up and suspecting the hand of the BNP-led alliance in it, the government hit back. This it did, despite the risks involved in attacking the influential mullahs. The central committee of the Awami League blamed the BNP for th e trouble and warned that any design to re-introduce the "Pakistani model of politics"" in Bangladesh would be foiled. The ruling party believes that the current trouble is the result of a plan drawn up by the "secret agency of a particular country".

The Sheikh Hasina government, which was elected to power in 1996, will complete its term this year and hand over the reins to a constitutionally approved caretaker administration that will hold general elections within a few months.

The BNP, which leads a four-party alliance that includes Islamic fundamentalists, kept away from the Jatiya Sangsad, the national parliament, for the past two years as part of a political strategy. Undeterred by criticism from within the country and abro ad, the alliance increasingly resorted to hartals, demonstrations, road blockades and so on in an attempt to bring down the government.

The barrage of allegations against the Hasina government relate to the "deteriorating law and order situation" (for which the Opposition holds some close relatives of the ruling party members responsible); its "pro-Indian policy", "politicisation" of the administration and "persecution" of Opposition leaders and workers by implicating them in false cases. Successive agitations, however, did not pay political dividends. Taking the fundamentalist line, it appears, was their last resort. The latest charge against the Hasina government is that it is "anti-Islamic" and that it is conspiring to close down mosques and madrassas in order to stop Islamic education.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.-SUSAN WALSH/AP

The Jamaat-e-Islami is among the forces that still dream of a united neo-Pakistan. The Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ), led by radical clerics, joined the BNP alliance. The alliance makes no secret of its plan in the event of a victory in the elections. It has announced that it would revive the "spirit of 1947" (that is, the period when the Two-Nation Theory became a reality), "restore Islamic values" and bring Bangladesh "out of Indian domination".

Independent analysts say that Khaleda Zia might have committed a blunder by openly aligning with and encouraging fundamentalism in her attempt to seek power. The shift from liberal democratic politics to religious fanaticism and communalism would alienat e the moderate, Bengali-speaking sections of Bangladeshi society. It might also lead to the consolidation of pro-liberation, democratic forces against the BNP. Much before the present flare-up, secular thinkers had issued repeated warnings about the impe nding danger of fundamentalism taking centrestage in national politics. The political parties, including the Awami League, the strongest secular power in the country, did not take them seriously.

Even within the BNP the moderates were unhappy about the party high command's decision to boycott Parliament and the induction of the Jamaat-e-Islami, (it had opposed Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan) into the alliance. But the hard line prevailed .

THE fundamentalist surge is not a sudden phenomenon. It is the culmination of a process that was set in motion in December 1971 when Bangladesh emerged as an independent country. The objective of the process was to avenge the historic defeat of Pakistan in 1971 by propping up fundamentalists in such a way that they would be strong enough to challenge the secular forces. The fundamentalists in Bangladesh love to call themselves the "Taliban".

Fundamentalism got a big boost after the bloody coup of 1975 in which Gen. Ziaur Rahman assumed office. He rehabilitated most of the anti-liberation elements in politics, repealed the law that specifically sought to prosecute the collaborators of the Pak istani occupation army, and inducted several pro-Pakistanis as Ministers.

Thousands of madrassas were built across the country over the past few decades, and many of them have turned into camps of religious extremists who want to capture political power. In these madrassas, religious-minded youth are indoctrinate d into believing that unless they capture political power their economic future is bleak.

That Bangladesh has already turned a safe haven for religious fanatics became clear when the police arrested key leaders of an armed Rohingya organisation, which has been working for an independent Arakan Muslim state that would include greater Chittago ng and several areas of Myanmar, including Arakan. Sophisticated weapons, documents and videotapes of the military operations of Afghanistan's Taliban militia were seized from their hideouts.

Rohingyas were refugees from Myanmar. During the rule of Ziaur Rahman and Khaleda Zia, nearly six lakh Rohingyas entered Bangladesh and settled in the Cox's Bazaar and Bandarban areas. There are large populations of Bihari Muslims and "stranded Pakistani s" living in Bangladesh. The latter number half a million and Pakistan is reluctant to take them back. Analysts believe that it was among these two sections that fundamentalism has taken root.

Significantly, this is the first time in the last 30 years that the Bangladeshi state has taken on fundamentalism directly.


Sheikh Hasina, who was the target of several assassination attempts by fundamentalists in the recent past, has made it clear that nothing would take place in Bangladesh in "Pakistani style". She appealed to Khaleda Zia to wait until the elections and cau tioned her against promoting fundamentalism. "The snakes you are playing with now may eventually bite you," she said.

The two leaders held meetings with foreign diplomats in this connection. Hasina told them that she wanted to free the mosques and madrassas from terrorists in order to protect their sanctity and also Islam. Khaleda told the envoys from Muslim coun tries that the Hasina government was trying to destroy Islam and Islamic education.

The fundamentalists, including Jamaat-e-Islami, do not have much popular following. When some fanatics were shot dead by the police during the recent street battles, there were few mourners from among the public. However, their armed cadres, foreign fund s and cheap religious slogans are cause for concern for secular-democratic Bangladesh.

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