BANGLADESH:THE PRICE OF POLARIZATION

A marginal but ultra-conservative Deobandi party is on the ascent in Bangladesh, in response to the perceived secularization of Dhaka in the aftermath of the Shahbagh movement
Zeeshan Khan Dhaka 

Hefazat-i-Islam’s arrivalon the scene has deepened fissures between a liberal, secular Bangladesh and the religious right in a way that threatens to throw the country into an existentialist crisis not seen since the difficult days of East Pakistan.

Although the group insists it is not a political force, it is in fact anything but, and has managed to carve a space for itself that is large enough to prompt leading opposition parties like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-i-Islam to throw their not inconsiderable weight behind them. Even Hossein Muhammed Ershad, former president of Bangladesh and a member of the Awami League-led ruling alliance, has endorsed them, with Ershad going as far as seeking their ‘blessings’ a month ago, when he was still mulling the possibility of contesting the upcoming general election.

Their allure, of course, had everything to do with vote-bank politics, but with the BNP boycotting the elections and Jamaat-i-Islam being barred from running, it’s clear that they also represent something more potent, and can conceivably be used to further the ‘divide and rule’ policy being pursued by virtually every player in the country’s current political configuration.

It’s not yet clear whether Hefazat-i-Islam is itself a player or simply a pawn, as the standoff between the government and the opposition continues to spiral violently out of control. Over the last few months, an exponential increase in acts of terror and sabotage has resulted in several deaths and considerable damage to the country’s economy and communications networks, with an extremely hostile climate prevailing over the staging of the next elections.

The Awami League (AL) has gone to lengths to ensure it doesn’t lose the elections, using its two-third majority in parliament to make amendments to the Constitution to do away with an interim caretaker government, opting instead for a multi-party polls-time government, with itself, and its leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, at the helm – something that the BNP has rejected, causing the AL to subsequently boycott the elections. They have also passed laws that limit press freedom and shrink the space for discourse or dissent, leading to allegations that the government is deliberately dismantling a ‘level playing field’.

The AL has used the courts and the police to bully its opponents, raiding the office of the BNP and arresting its leaders on charges of terrorism, and have all but destroyed Jamaat-i-Islam as a mainstream political party.

But Jamaat has gone down swinging, and has played the religion card perfectly, successfully associating the conviction and execution of its leaders in war crimes trials with the persecution of innocent Muslims. It was particularly lucky when it was able to accuse a number of bloggers involved with the Shahbagh movement of atheism and blasphemy.

Enter Hefazat-e-Islam, almost on cue.

As the name suggests, Hefazat sprung into being a few years ago, in 2010, to ‘protect’ Islam, by protesting against a Bill that would make the education system more secular. It made a big show of force and did it again in 2011, when another Bill, giving women equal inheritance rights, flew in the face of its ultra-conservative values. The organisation, which grew out of a collection of Deobandi madrasas, exists to confront what it sees as the ‘corruption’ of Islamic mores and has a support base of tens of thousands of madrasa students and teachers. Deobandis and Wahabbis drink from the same well and Hefazat-e-Islam believes in establishing an Islamic state, not unlike the Taliban’s version of one in Afghanistan.

In April this year, following concerns about Shahbagh’s indiscriminate ‘atheist blogging’, Hefazat put out a 13-point demand to ‘cleanse’ Bangladesh of what it considers dangerous corrosives, like free speech and ‘free mixing’ and held a large but peaceful demonstration in the heart of the capital. It was a show of strength and of Islamic solidarity that ran completely contrary to the growing tide of militant nationalism, inspired by Shahbagh and encouraged by the government. A different camp, pan-Islamic, conservative, and in opposition to the government’s secularising agenda, had the ability to attract large numbers of ordinary people disturbed by the notion of Bangladesh becoming an ‘irreligious’ country. Naturally, Jamaat, BNP and Jatiya Party saw a perfect opportunity to capitalise on this development, if they didn’t in fact create it in the first place, and hitched their wagons to it. They supported Hefazat’s platform, flirted dangerously with Talibanisation, emboldened the Deobandis and lit the fuse of a situation that would result in a second mass rally by Hefazat-e-Islam in May, this time with a very different feel to it.

The May rally was politicised and more militant, and styled itself after a ‘siege,’ determined to obtain the 13 demands or bring down the government in the process. It was marked by high levels of violence, which Hefazat later denied having committed, alluding to the fact that it may have been infiltrated by Jamaat, BNP, or worse, Awami League activists themselves, determined to use the rally to their own advantage. It resulted in law enforcers employing extreme force to restore order and break Hefazat’s ‘siege,’ causing several deaths. It also allowed the religion card to be played again and this time with martyrs to boot.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014